Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 in Books

On the first morning of 2016, having reread the first six Narnia books over Christmas, I read C.S. Lewis' distasteful, apocalyptic The Last Battle while suffering from an awful champagne hangover, and somehow I feel that set the wrong tone for the year.

On this the last evening of 2016, I read Harold Bloom's life-affirming, slightly nutty Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human while eating Eritrean food and a nice glass of red wine, so that I could end the year having finished a book that I started in April 2016, the month of the #Shakespeare400 celebrations.

And in the meantime? I read about 50 other works; here's the full rundown. As is my custom, I split my reading into 2 lists, one for plays/screenplays and one for everything else (primarily novels and nonfiction). I count plays only if they are published and available for general consumption. Works that were rereads for me this year are marked with an asterisk.

Non-Plays:
  1. *The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis
  2. The Magician’s Book, by Laura Miller
  3. Coldwater, by Mardi McConnochie – my thoughts
  4. Beautiful Chaos, by Carey Perloff 
  5. The Rule of Women in Early Modern Europe, anthology edited by Anne Cruz and Mihoko Suzuki
  6. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons 
  7. Personal Writings, by Ignatius of Loyola
  8. Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark
  9. A Writer’s Paris, by Eric Maisel
  10. Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm
  11. After Alice, by Gregory Maguire
  12. *Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
  13. Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter – I wrote a review of this for the Theater Pub blog
  14. Love & Friendship, by Whit Stillman
  15. *A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster
  16. *The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
  17. *Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
  18. *The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
  19. The Magician King, by Lev Grossman
  20. The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman
  21. The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill – my thoughts
  22. Lyric Poems, by John Keats
  23. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, by Sarah Ruhl
  24. English Melodrama, by Michael R. Booth
  25. Bellwether, by Connie Willis
  26. *Persuasion, by Jane Austen
  27. *The White Album, by Joan Didion – my post from when I first read this, in 2014
  28. *The Arkadians, by Lloyd Alexander
  29. *Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen – my post from when I first read this, in 2008
  30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
  31. *The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon – my post from when I first read this, in 2008
  32. Winter’s Tales, by Isak Dinesen 
  33. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
These books, by the numbers:
  • 16 American, 11 British, 2 Danish, 1 Australian, 1 Spanish, 1 Canadian, 1 anthology 
  • 17 books by 15 different men, 16 books by 14 different women
  • 22 new reads, 11 rereads 
  • 22 fiction, 10 nonfiction, 1 poetry
Plays & Screenplays
  1. Light Up the Sky, by Moss Hart
  2. Five Finger Exercise, by Peter Shaffer
  3. The Private Ear, by Peter Shaffer
  4. The Public Eye, by Peter Shaffer
  5. White Liars, by Peter Shaffer
  6. Black Comedy, by Peter Shaffer
  7. The Royal Hunt of the Sun, by Peter Shaffer
  8. Shrivings, by Peter Shaffer
  9. *Equus, by Peter Shaffer
  10. *Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer
  11. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by Jack Thorne – I wrote about this for American Theatre's website
  12. The Woman in Black, by Stephen Mallatratt – my thoughts
  13. Really, by Jackie Sibblies Drury
  14. *Blithe Spirit, by Noël Coward
  15. *Hay Fever, by Noël Coward 
  16. *The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde 
  17. *Private Lives, by Noël Coward 
  18. Design for Living, by Noël Coward – my thoughts
  19. Barcelona, by Whit Stillman 
  20. Metropolitan, by Whit Stillman 
These plays and screenplays, by the numbers:
  • 15 British, 4 American, 1 Irish 
  • 19 plays by 7 different men, 1 play by 1 different woman 
  • 14 new reads, 6 rereads 
(As always, I'm struck by how my "non-plays" reading is about 50/50 in terms of gender balance, and the plays I saw this year were about 60:40 male:female, but I always seem to end up reading way more plays by men than by women. My best guess is that this happens because I prefer seeing plays to reading them, and most "important" new scripts make it to the Bay Area within 5 or so years after they premiere. So the plays that I read tend to be classics that I've overlooked or never had the chance to see staged—and "classic" plays are disproportionately written by men.)

Previous Years in Reading lists: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007

Friday, December 30, 2016

Theatergoing 2016: The List

I neglected to do this in 2014 or 2015, but let's bring back my year-end tradition of the Theatergoing Report!

In 2016, I saw 41 fully staged* productions, listed here in chronological order:

*the dividing line between "full production" and "rough experiment" can get blurred in indie theater but my rough rule is "did the actors memorize it? if so, it's a production. if not, it's a staged reading."
  1. Of Serpents & Sea Spray, by Rachel Bublitz, at Custom Made Theatre
  2. The Morrissey Plays, by various authors, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  3. Satchmo at the Waldorf, by Terry Teachout, at American Conservatory Theatre
  4. Over the Rainbow, by Tonya Narvaez, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  5. Pas de Quatre, by Margery Fairchild, at Dark Porch Theater
  6. Sam and Dede, by Gino DiIorio, at Custom Made Theatre
  7. The Nether, by Jennifer Haley, at San Francisco Playhouse
  8. School of Rock, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Slater, and Julian Fellowes, presented by Oakland School of the Arts at the Curran Theatre (my piece for American Theatre on this)
  9. Dogeaters, by Jessica Hagedorn, at Magic Theatre
  10. Shortlived 2016, Round 3, by various authors (including me), at PianoFight
  11. Hotel Burlesque, by Red Velvet and Amanda Ortmayer, at DivaFest
  12. Chinese Whispers: Golden Gate, by Rene Yung, at the Southside Theater
  13. On the Spot 2016, by various authors, at Theater Pub
  14. Middletown, by Will Eno, at Custom Made
  15. American Psycho, by Duncan Sheik and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, on Broadway
  16. La ménagerie de verre, by Tennessee Williams, at Théâtre National de la Colline (Paris)
  17. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, at Shotgun Players
  18. Sticky Icky, by Colin Johnson, at Theater Pub
  19. Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare, at Custom Made
  20. Maggie's Riff, by Jon Lipsky, at FaultLine Theatre
  21. The Village Bike, by Penelope Skinner, at Shotgun Players
  22. Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti, at SF Playhouse
  23. Confessions of a Catholic Child,  by Elizabeth Appell, at EXIT Theatre
  24. Adventures in Tech, by Stuart Bousel, at PianoFight
  25. Portal: The Musical, by Kirk Shimano and Jonathan Coulton, at Theater Pub
  26. Hunting Love, by Susan-Jane Harrison, produced by Local Dystopia at the Flight Deck
  27. The Thrush and the Woodpecker, by Steve Yockey, at Custom Made
  28. Campo Maldito, by Bennett Fisher, produced by People of Interest
  29. The Awakening, adapted by Oren Stevens, at the Breadbox
  30. Pint-Sized Plays 2016, by various authors (including me), at Theater Pub
  31. Stupid Ghost, by Savannah Reich, at Theater Pub
  32. Caught, by Christopher Chen, at Shotgun Players
  33. Chess, by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson, and Björn Ulvaeus, at Custom Made Theater
  34. Gravedigger: The Musical, by Dylan Waite and Casey Robbins, at Theater Pub
  35. Casa Valentina, by Harvey Fierstein, at NCTC
  36. The Hard Problem, by Tom Stoppard, at American Conservatory Theatre
  37. Into the Beautiful North, by Karen Zacarias, at Central Works
  38. King Lear, by William Shakespeare, at Theater Pub
  39. Paradise Street, by Clive Barker, at EXIT Theatre (thoughts)
  40. Rapture Blister Burn, by Gina Gionfriddo, at Custom Made
  41. Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, at Marin Theatre Co.
If you tally the above list by playwright gender, 22 of the shows had male writers or all-male writing teams, 15 had female writers or all-female writing teams, and 4 were mixed-gender anthologies. So, a roughly 60:40 male:female ratio. Not perfect, but not awful, either, considering that the Counting Actors Project often posts numbers that show a male:female playwright ratio of more like 80:20. It's possible to admit there's room for improvement while also being thrilled at how easy it feels nowadays to see interesting plays by women, right?

I also attended the following staged readings, in which female playwrights were even better represented:
  1. An Ear for Voices by Alina Trowbridge, at Custom Made's Undiscovered Works program
  2. Cypress, Sin, and Care by Alandra Hileman, at the Breadbox
  3. The Princess and the Porn Star, by Kirk Shimano, at Custom Made's Undiscovered Works program
  4. You'll Not Feel the Drowning, by me, at Custom Made's Undiscovered Works program (3 separate readings, in May, September, and December)
  5. Oceanus, by Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song, at Custom Made's Undiscovered Works program
  6. Better than Television (4 nights), by Megan Cohen and various authors, at Theater Pub
  7. Queen of the Sword, by Alandra Hileman, at Loud and Unladylike
  8. Christine Emerges, by Tonya Narvaez, at Loud and Unladylike
  9. Juana, or The Greater Glory, by me, at Loud and Unladylike
  10. A Night of New Works, excerpts of plays by various authors (including me), at Playwrights Foundation
  11. Hades by Jason Wimbish and Hecate by Neil Higgins, at the Olympians Festival
  12. Styx by Christine Keating, Acheron by Patsy Fergusson, and Lethe by Alan Olejniczak, at the Olympians Festival
  13. Macaria, or The Good Life by me, Charon, or Ferryman by Bridgette Dutta Portman, and Ascalaphus, or Tattletale by Elizabeth Flanagan, at the Olympians Festival
  14. Thanatos by Barbara Jwanouskos and Julianne Jigour, Morpheus by Kirk Shimano, and Hypnos, or Cardenio by Alan Coyne, at the Olympians Festival
  15. Drumming With Anubis, by David Templeton, at the Olympians Festival
  16. Being Your Own Bunny by Veronica Tjioe & Tootsie's Jook Joint by Jovelyn Richards, at the Olympians Festival
  17. Cyrus by Tonya Narvaez and The People of the Shifting Sands by Nirmala Nataraj, at the Olympians Festival
  18. Demeter, or Ceres en Victoria by Stuart Bousel, at Cafe du Nord
Plus, I watched broadcasts of two shows at home from my laptop!
  1. Stegosaurus, or Three Cheers for Climate Change by Andrew Saito, produced by FaultLine Theatre, shown on HowlRound TV
  2. She Loves Me, by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joe Masteroff, shown on BroadwayHD
And I saw two operas at SF Opera:
  1. Don Carlo, by Verdi
  2. Don Pasquale, by Donizetti
My previous year-end Theatergoing reports: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The End of Theater Pub

A lot of things have ended in 2016, and San Francisco Theater Pub is among them.

I fell behind on cross-linking my Theater Pub columns here this year, and in 2017 I hope to collect links to all of my writing in one place, but, for now, here are the five final Theater Pub pieces I wrote.

"What I Did For Love" – following the September announcement that Theater Pub would end after its December show, I wrote about the factors that led to this decision and the reasons why no one should feel heartbroken at the news.

"Comma Comments" – "I’m a descriptivist when it comes to how I punctuate the dialogue of my plays, but I am a strict prescriptivist when it comes to expecting actors to respect that punctuation," and more thoughts on punctuation and playwriting.

"Pet Peeves in Arts Journalism" – after 4+ years of blogging for Theater Pub, I used one of my final columns to complain about phrases and ideas that bother me in other arts writing, including "The Bard," "the play's the thing," and either too much or too little knowledge of the past.

"If Only Angels Could Prevail" – I wrote this the night after the election and don't know how I did it. On facing the next four years, the possible role of artist and artists during that time, and how I survived Election Night by sneaking into a Sondheim rehearsal in the back room.

"They Can't Take That Away From Me" – there was no time for nostalgia the day after the election, but last week, I took some time to write a nostalgic look-back at seven years of Theater Pub and seven years of my twenties, titled after the song I sang at the final Theater Pub show.

Monday, December 19, 2016

I'll Always, Always Keep the Memory Of...




San Francisco Theater Pub, the scrappy little theater-in-a-bar that has done so much for me since it started in January 2010, is having its last-ever show tonight. And before it goes away for good, it's giving me the chance to fulfill one more dream: to stand on a cabaret stage in a vintage dress and sing a wistful ballad from the Great American Songbook.

Summing up everything that Theater Pub has meant to me would normally take thousands of words... but fortunately, the Gershwins wrote "They Can't Take That Away From Me" to say everything that needs to be said on occasions like this.

Tonight's show, including my contribution, will be a singalong of musical theater favorites. As always, admission is free and we'll pass a hat for donations; this time, though, we'll be donating all proceeds to the ACLU. ("My constitutional rights, no, no, they can't take that away from me?" Don't worry, I will be singing the original lyrics.)

The bittersweet fun starts at 8 PM at PianoFight (144 Taylor St, San Francisco).

Banner art by Cody Rishell.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Discontented Bohemians: the darkness of "Design for Living"

Happy birthday, Noël Coward! "The Master" was born 117 years ago today. In his honor, here are some thoughts on his play Design for Living, which I read for the first time last month.

Alfred Lunt, Noël Coward, and Lynn Fontanne in the 1930s world premiere of Design for Living. SCANDALOUS.
I had heard that Design for Living was a scandalous-in-its-time comedy about bisexual polyamory, so I expected it to be a naughty and frothy romp. But I found it a much sadder, angrier play than I anticipated. The characters’ unconventional sexual mores don’t seem to make them happy; they think free love will liberate them but it mostly seems to lead to discontentment and anguish.

The two men in the play’s poly-triad – painter Otto and playwright Leo – are not very distinctly characterized, but the woman, Gilda, is an enormously powerful role. Gilda is full of a frustrated, neurotic, self-loathing energy. She’s a liberated woman by 1930s standards, but she still can’t seem to imagine herself without a man, and she is keenly conscious that the world sees her as a mere dilettante (she is an interior decorator) while lauding Otto and Leo as “real” artists. The driving force of the plot is Gilda’s dissatisfaction and inability to be happy with what she has.

I wasn’t expecting it, but this play reminded me a lot of Jules and Jim, another story in which the close relationship between two bohemian men is upended by the arrival of an alluring, unstable woman. Granted, Design for Living ends more happily than Jules and Jim – in the last act, Leo, Otto, and Gilda’s free-spirited ways are contrasted with the stuffiness of conventional society, and the play finally starts to feel like a comedy. But Acts One and Two, despite the glamorous pajamas-and-cocktails trappings, are a surprisingly dark story about, in Noël Coward’s own words, “glib, over-articulate and amoral creatures […] [who] are like moths in a pool of light, unable to tolerate the lonely outer darkness, and equally unable to share the light without colliding constantly and bruising one another’s wings.”

View all my Goodreads reviews

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"You'll Not Feel the Drowning": Upcoming Reading & Workshop

My play You'll Not Feel the Drowning, about how to go on living when there's a persistent sense of doom hanging over you, had developmental readings in May and September of this year as part of Custom Made Theatre's new-works program. I am honored to announce that Custom Made has been pleased with the script's progress and has chosen it for further development, including a workshop production!

First, though, another developmental reading of Drowning is happening tonight at 7 PM at the Gallery Cafe on Nob Hill. (the arts editors of the SF Chronicle named this as one of today's critic's picks!) See the Facebook invite for more details.

Then, I'll think about the feedback from tonight's audience, do another round of focused rewriting, and in mid-April of 2017, Drowning will have a 6-performance workshop production at the EXIT Theatre. It will be directed by Gabriel Ross, and Allie Moss will be the dramaturg.

More information about the April workshop forthcoming as I have it (and yes, I will make an effort to post event info with more than an hour to spare before it happens).

Friday, December 9, 2016

Merseyside Miracle: "Paradise Street" at EXIT Theatre

The Queen and her courtiers. Christina Augello as Elizabeth, Phil Wong as Mulrooney,
Luke Brady as Essex. Photo by Jay Yamada.
Maybe a year and a half ago, my friend Stuart Bousel invited me and several other actors to his lair in the hills to read through a rarely-produced, genre-bending Christmas play about sex, violence, monkeys, miracles, Anglo-Irish relations, urban renewal, and a midnight visitation from Queen Elizabeth I.

I didn’t quite know then what to make of Clive Barker's Paradise Street—I still don’t quite know—but I know that the cast and crew* that Stuart has assembled to give this show its American premiere at the EXIT Theatre this month are killing it on all levels.

Cat Luetdke has expertly coached them on five different British Isles accents. They’ve removed a row of seats in the auditorium to accommodate Queen Elizabeth’s farthingale (designed by the amazing Brooke Jennings). Phil Wong gives a beautifully detailed performance as Mulrooney, the homeless Irish prophet. And Kyle McReddie, Jeunée Simon, Nicole Odell, Luetdke and more are great as the ordinary Liverpudlians witnessing a most unusual Christmas miracle.

More and more, when people ask me for general advice on playwriting, the only thing I can say is “Don’t be afraid to GO THERE. Don’t be afraid to BE WEIRD.”

(“Don’t be afraid.” The first words of the angel to the shepherds of Bethlehem.)

The team behind Paradise Street has certainly Gone There, and they’ve brought back tidings of both sorrow and joy. An off-kilter Christmas play for the end of an off-kilter year.

The EXIT Theatre production of Paradise Street plays through December 17 in San Francisco.

*Disclosure of bias: I am friends with many of the people involved in this production but had no involvement myself beyond that initial living-room reading. I attended the Saturday 12/3 performance and paid for my ticket.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

pink wigs & acting gigs

This quiz went around my circle of Facebook friends last week; it seems designed for people who act and audition more frequently than I do, but it also made me realize I've done more stuff onstage than I thought I had.

Last show added to your resume: As an actor, Hecate; as a writer, Macaria (both in Olympians Festival 2016)

Last show you auditioned for but didn't get cast: The Importance of Being Earnest, at Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, just last month. (I got a callback though!)

Favorite musical: today my heart is saying Sunday in the Park with George

Favorite play: Arcadia

Favorite role you've played: Prof. Renelle Fouche in the reading of Christian Teen Dolphin Sex Beach Party 

Favorite costume: Lucinda in Into the Woods; I had a lavender chiffon gown and a cotton-candy-pink wig!

"Beautiful of [dress], but vile and black of heart" as Lucinda.

Favorite superstition: I try not to say "Macbeth" or "good luck."

What was your very first show? The Mystery of the Royal Slippers, a kids' adaptation of "The 12 Dancing Princesses." I was 6; I played the Queen. And thus began my long history of always playing the mom and never playing the ingenue.

Have you ever had a dance solo? Nope

Have you ever had a singing solo? Yes, though it's tended to be solo lines/verses of a song rather than, like, the 11-o'clock-number.

Have you ever been the last person to take a bow? Not as an actor, but I have at opening nights of shows I've produced ("Pint-Sized Plays") or written (Pleiades).

Have you been to New York? Yes

Have you been to L.A.? Yes, though I didn't see any theater while I was there

What's the scariest part of an audition? When they make you do wacky physical or improv stuff.

What's the best part of an audition? When you can sing a song you love.

Name a show you could do for years: It might be lovely to do A Little Night Music for years, it's so beautiful and romantic. And maybe after a year I'd finally have "The Miller's Son" word-perfect!

What are you auditioning for next? Who knows?

Do you keep in touch with past cast members? Yes, but I could be better at it.

Something embarrassing or unexpected that happened to you while you were onstage? Nothing really comes to mind.

Ever been naked onstage? No

Been killed onstage? No

Been drunk onstage? I had to play drunk as Caesar in Our Country's Good. I was 14 and had no idea what I was doing.

Ever played someone half your age? Don't think so

Played someone twice your age? Lots of times

Cried onstage? I fake-cried in the first Theater Pub Christmas show, for comedy purposes, but I've never cried real, serious tears.

Fired a gun onstage? No

Been drenched? No

Been kissed? Yes, as Elsa in The Desk Set. Though you should know that I was the one doing the kissing.

First show you saw on Broadway? Cats.

Monday, October 31, 2016

On Broomsticks

"The Old Hall, Fairies by Moonlight; Spectres & Shades, Brownies and Banshees,"
by John Anster Fitzgerald
"Here were the young women of the highest intelligence, and the most daring and ingenious of them, coming out of the chiaroscuro of a thousand years, blinking at the sun and wild with desire to try their wings. I believe that some of them put on the armor and the halo of St. Joan of Arc, who was herself an emancipated virgin, and became like white-hot angels. But most women, when they feel free to experiment with life, will go straight to the witches' Sabbath. I myself respect them for it, and do not think that I could ever really love a woman who had not, at some time or other, been up on a broomstick."

--Isak Dinesen, from "The Old Chevalier" (Seven Gothic Tales)

Happy feminist Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Women in Black: the novella & the playscript

When I pitched American Theatre my idea to write about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as 19th-century melodrama, my editor asked if The Woman in Black would figure into my thinking. After all, it's another commercially successful British stage play with connections to popular fiction and vintage melodrama. (Not to mention a Harry Potter connection, since Daniel Radcliffe starred in the film version.)

I wasn't familiar with Susan Hill's novella or Stephen Mallatratt's stage adaptation of it, so I checked them both out of the library and read them eagerly. I'm such a Ravenclaw -- I love it when people suggest books to me and make me feel like I'm in school again.

Ultimately, my article ended up going in a different direction and I didn't have room to mention The Woman in Black, but I'm still glad to have read it. And, because I have a tradition of blogging about spooky literature during the month of October, I thought I'd post my reviews of the novella and the playscript today.

 The Woman in Black - A Ghost StoryThe Woman in Black - A Ghost Story by Susan Hill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m a little surprised that Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black has become something of a horror classic, adapted into a long-running stage play and multiple films, because I didn’t find it to be all that remarkable. While it is smoothly written and has some effectively suspenseful scenes, it never truly creeped me out or got under my skin.

The premise is fairly standard for an old-fashioned ghost story: a young London lawyer, Arthur Kipps, is sent to a small village to look after the papers of an eccentric old woman who has recently died. There, he discovers suspicious townsfolk, eerie noises, and, finally, a vengeful ghost. The old woman's isolated mansion, on the edge of lonely marshes and accessible only by a causeway that floods twice a day, is an effective horror-story setting, but it isn't all that original. (For a much creepier story that also takes place in a seaside mansion that periodically gets cut off from the mainland — and was also written about 35 years ago by a British woman — try the title story of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber.)

The book’s novella length may also work against it. At half the length, the story would hurtle to its frightening conclusion; at twice the length, Hill could flesh out her characters and add more terrifying events. But as it is, the story just kind of ambles along.

I also got distracted trying to figure out what time period this is supposed to take place in. As other Goodreads reviewers have noted, it starts off feeling like a Victorian ghost story, but then the narrator refers to cars and electric lights as though they are common and unremarkable. I satisfied myself by deciding that it could be the 1920s (because it has to be an era when cars were common in cities, but people in rural areas still used pony carts). Still, I wish that Susan Hill had given a clear indication of the era early on — or, even better, I wish she’d written a story that was so gripping that it shut off my rational, questioning brain and overwhelmed me with horror.

The Woman in Black: A Ghost PlayThe Woman in Black: A Ghost Play by Stephen Mallatratt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn’t too impressed with the novella The Woman in Black (I gave it only two stars) but I honestly think that this play adaptation is a more effective version of the story.

First, the play uses the tools of theater to add another layer to the narrative. Its premise is that Arthur Kipps, a middle-aged lawyer, wants to tell his family about a terrifying encounter he once had with a ghost, and has hired a young actor to coach him in public speaking. However, the actor encourages Kipps to be more ambitious, and soon the two men are acting out the story, in kind of a primitive form of drama-therapy.

Then, the play eliminates the less-effective aspects of the novella. Sometimes it seems like playwright Stephen Mallattrat is slyly critiquing his source material! For instance, the novella begins with Kipps describing his country house, his second wife, and his stepchildren – all of which are irrelevant to the main story. In the play, when Kipps begins describing these things, the young actor tells him to stop rambling and cut to the chase!

I also think it might be more frightening to see the ghost stalking the theater, than it was to read about the ghost in the novella.

The Woman in Black is easy for small theaters to produce, relying on two actors, basic props, and recorded sound. And it improves on its source material, being more complex, faster-paced, and scarier. Companies seeking Halloween plays ought to consider it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

for American Theatre: "School of Rock" & School of Wizardry

Two months left in 2016 and, as the holiday where we celebrate the undead and otherworldly approaches, I am attempting to raise this old blog from the dead (and catch up on posts that I meant to write this year).

Perhaps my biggest news is that I have started to contribute on a freelance basis to American Theatre's website!

In April, I reported on the first-ever youth production of School of Rock: The Musical, presented by Oakland School of the Arts at the historic Curran Theatre in San Francisco.

And, in September, I wrote a "Critic's Notebook" piece on the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, analyzing its affinity to nineteenth-century melodrama.

(I am convinced that being paid money to write about Harry Potter is a Millennial-writer rite of passage.)

Bonus link: the relationship between Oakland School of the Arts and the Curran is still going strong, as evidenced by this recent Curran-produced video of the OSA students singing their a cappella arrangement of "Ring of Keys" (which I briefly mentioned in my American Theatre article).

Monday, May 9, 2016

As a Stranger, Give It Welcome

Last Friday night at Shotgun Players, as I stood on the front steps drinking champagne and waiting for the house to open, a middle-aged woman walked by, glanced at the building, and asked me if this was a theater. I told her that it was.

"I pass by here all the time but I've never gone in."

She had obviously just come back from a trip to the corner store. She was carrying a big jug of Arizona Iced Tea.

"How much do tickets cost?" she asked.

"I'm a subscriber," I said. "I honestly can't remember what I paid." As I said that, I realized it's a cop-out; I realized I'm embarrassed about theater ticket prices and have a whole lot of complicated feelings about money and class.

Nonetheless, she continued to look intrigued. Tentatively, she went up the front steps. I heard her ask another woman "What do tickets cost?"

"I think they start at thirty-seven fifty, and they're all sold out for the run," said the other woman, who looked exactly like you'd picture a late-middle-aged Berkeley theater-going matron to be. "But I have an extra one that I've been trying to give away. My friend isn't coming."

"For free?"

"For free."

And just like that, the woman with the jug of iced tea got to see an experimental production of Hamlet, for free, on a whim. The whole exchange made me even giddier than the champagne did and restored my faith in humanity. I hope she enjoyed the show. I hope this was a magical Friday night for her and the first of many theater adventures to come. I thought about her a few times as I watched the play, especially during the following exchange:

"This is wondrous strange!" says Horatio, upon seeing the ghost.

Hamlet replies: "And therefore, as a stranger, give it welcome."

Saturday, April 30, 2016

#Eurojetsetters

My friend Stuart Bousel has been writing observational short stories as Facebook status updates, based on people he sees and conversations he overhears in airports or restaurants.

I have been sitting around Heathrow airport for the last two hours waiting to learn whether I'll get a seat or not on the overbooked flight back to SF; to distract myself from my anxieties, I did as Stuart would, and observed my neighbors, and wrote this.

 #Eurojetsetters

They ask if the seats near me – the bucket-shaped orange tweed chair, the squashy black leather couch – are taken. I say “No,” and “No problem,” knowing I sound like a slightly vulgar American whenever I say that, and cringing internally at how my speech betrays me.

They are a party of three, presumably a family, but an unusual one: three Eurojetsetters. The daughter has long, lush, rich-girl brown hair, and a lush pouting mouth, and lush olive skin, and wears a black miniskirt and black tights that probably cost forty euros. The mother is very bon chic bon genre: bottle blonde, grey cashmere sweater, navy blue knit jacket with big gold buttons, skinny cropped beige pants, and Prada wedge sneakers. The father has wavy gray hair that all must call “distinguished,” and a fine light-blue shirt that’s unbuttoned slightly too much, and designer jeans, and black loafers.

They have Longchamp bags and snakeskin bags and pebbled-leather bags.

They all have untraceable accents.

The man takes the chair; the women sink into the squashy couch.

I think of being friendly and offering them my free chocolate. The coffee shop gave me three free morsels of gianduja because my voucher was for five pounds’ worth of food and by golly, they were going to give me my money’s worth.

I am held back from the fear that my gianduja is of insufficient quality for such sophisticates. They seem like people who have strong opinions on gianduja.

Mother and daughter hold their phones two-handed in front of their faces, click through Instagram photos, chatter softly in their untraceable murmuring voices, compare notes on what they see.

“That’s what childhood should be like. Free,” says the woman. “It makes my heart hurt.”

She strokes her daughter’s long, lush, rich-girl hair.

The father reads Den of Thieves, pen in hand. He furrows his brow and pushes back his distinguished hair from his forehead, a studied gesture.

“They take the nicest photos, don’t they? This is a beautiful picture of the chateau. I want to go there; I want to be a child there. If that school was an English school in the country, a boarding school, would you go there?”

They offer their phones to Daddy so he can look at the photos. He strokes his chin with his left hand, and I notice he doesn’t wear a wedding ring, but the woman does. I try to puzzle out whether or not they’re married.

“Looks lovely, ja? The French way of life. I would like to go.”

The woman strokes the girl’s hair again. One primate grooming another. They would like to groom her for a good marriage, in the Milan cathedral I think, and a honeymoon in Tahiti.

“Stef, have you canceled with your brother? Because I think they think that we’re coming over on Monday.”

He furrows his brow and strokes his upper lip with his thumb as he texts his brother. They don’t have a good relationship. There is resentment and ill-feeling on both sides: my distinguished friend here thinks that his brother, who lives an average middle-class life in some suburb, is boring and basic; the brother regards this Eurojetsetter with a mix of schadenfreude and envy. He’s probably glad to know that their flight has been delayed and none of their money or style or sophisticated unplaceable accents can help them now.

“Next weekend, what do we do?”

“Toulouse.”

The mother continues to groom the daughter’s hair, the family’s pride and joy. Oh, all the Prada sneakers in the world cannot compare with the glory of that hair, which cannot be bought or sold, which grows entirely free!

The father still strokes his lip, finishes the onerous duty of texting his brother, then returns to his book with a still more furrowed brow.

Mother is trying to get set up on Instagram; she peppers the girl with soft, barely audible questions and opinions. “I’m just going to post interior pictures. Just let me post interior pictures, gardens, sunsets, pretty ones. Who am I now following? Three people. Nobody’s following me back; oh that’s marvelous. Will you follow me back, so I have one follower?”

“Stop asking me these questions,” says the girl. Even when she is irritated with her mother, she talks in a voice that I have to strain my ears to hear. The clicking of my computer keys almost drowns out the dialogue.

“Shall we go and eat something?”

“What time is it?”

“Twelve-twenty.”

“We go now. By the time we’re there… By the time we’re served…”

They do not move.

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” says the mother, still on Instagram.

The women scroll on their phones, the man strokes his forehead as though he were performing an auto-phrenological examination.

“Look, look! She was invited to the palace! Their Royal Highnesses request the pleasure of Madame M— at the reception for the launch of Pledge on Thursday. I don’t know what that is,” says the mother, still on Instagram.

“Oh, there you are. We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars,” she says, dreamily, still on Instagram.

“I’m a very bad dresser,” she says, two minutes later. I don’t know how much irony is intended by that statement but I do think that wedge sneakers are an abomination.

Another two minutes go by. “You know the girl who I’m staying with, the guy has the coolest house in Notting Hill. Blenheim Crescent, so cool.”

“How d’you know it’s cool?”

“Because it was up on the Internet, the house and garden.”

The girl lightly taps the man on the knee with her phone.

“We’re going?”

“Yeah. Don’t forget your charger.”

“Let’s go to Carluccio’s.”

“Thank you,” they say to me, gathering their pebbled-leather bags.

“No problem,” I say again, and hope that my eyes do not betray me as a spy, a gawker, an envious observer even more to be feared and hated than that bothersome brother, because the ties of familial love do not bind me to these people, and I have a laptop computer and two hours to kill in the airport.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Coldwater" and Charlotte Brontë's 200th Birthday

Earlier this year, I read an unusual novel, Coldwater, which re-imagined the Brontë sisters' lives in a different context -- one more sign of the hold they still have on the imaginations of modern-day bookish women. Posting my review of Coldwater today in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth (April 21, 1816).

 ColdwaterColdwater by Mardi McConnochie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with a premise quite like that of Coldwater, a book that takes real-life historical figures and reimagines them in a different setting. (I know there’s such a thing as “alternate-universe fan fiction,” which is basically what this is, but I’ve never seen that done in a serious literary novel.) The intriguing idea behind Mardi McConnochie’s book is: what if Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, daughters of a Yorkshire clergyman in the mid-1800s, were instead Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Wolf, daughters of the governor of a penal colony on a remote Australian island in the mid-1800s?

McConnochie’s Wolf sisters are even more isolated and alone than the Brontë sisters, who at least got to study in Brussels. Their widowed father derives his sense of self-worth from the strict control he keeps over his family and the prisoners in his charge. But when Emily (of course) falls in love with a sexy Irish prisoner (of course), the girls begin to taste freedom and the father starts to lose control.

Coldwater is told from the perspectives of all three sisters and their father, alternately. Charlotte serves as the main narrator: she is practical and straightforward, but has a tendency to believe she’s the only person on the island with any common sense. (In her self-righteousness, she is more like her father than she realizes.) Emily’s sections are written in breathless prose that sometimes recalls Emily Dickinson more than Emily Brontë: “Yet it is impossible that we could have known each other—except in a Dream—Yet his Visage is imprinted on my Soul—” Anne’s story is told in third-person, perhaps because she is the least famous of the three Brontë sisters and therefore feels the most “distant.” At first Anne just seems like a confidante for Emily, but in the second half of Coldwater she comes into her own, to satisfying effect.

It’s impossible to read Coldwater without comparing it to the Brontës' novels, which doesn’t always work to its advantage; it is shorter and less richly textured than Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Maybe that’s understandable, because the Brontës wrote about things that were rooted in their own experiences of nineteenth-century Northern England, while McConnochie is writing about a time and place not her own. She's able to imagine and describe her characters’ emotional states quite well, but is less convincing when describing events. The climax of Coldwater is very busy (there’s a prison riot and a few competing escape attempts) but I didn’t quite buy it; it didn’t feel vivid enough.

I often find it hard to enjoy movie adaptations of my favorite novels (even if they're well-done), because I am constantly evaluating the filmmakers’ choices in comparison to the novel and thus cannot fully sink into the story. That’s kind of how I feel about Coldwater: I enjoyed parts of it as a guilty pleasure, and parts of it because I found it interesting to contemplate the choices that McConnochie made when reimagining the Brontës, but it never escapes from the shadows of the stories that inspired it.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 18, 2016

Things You Find on the Upper East Side That You Don't Find in San Francisco

  • Tulips
  • Men who hold the door for you 
  • Twenty-something guys who wear loafers and tucked-in polo shirts
  • Preppy nicknames (I went to brunch yesterday with a Scottie and a Wooley, among others)
  • Hipster-looking men who make the sign of the cross in public
  • Conversations about having to take Latin in school
  • Drugstores where everything except the (exorbitant) prices seems to have been frozen in time in the 1980s or earlier
  • Lots of off-leash, purebred dogs
  • Park benches that you can lie down on
  • Women in black pencil skirts and stilettos, smoking cigarettes as they stride down the sidewalk
  • A man in a double-breasted blazer, carrying a bowler hat and a trench coat and a little white lapdog in a dog carrier, who stops by your brunch table and informs you that the dog is named "Ellie" after a prep-school classmate of his daughter's, who also happens to be at your brunch table (this is probably the most surreally UES thing to happen to me yesterday, especially as I was jetlagged)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Things You Should Do in SF This April, Because I Can't

Here's a first-world problem for you: living in a vibrant city and being reluctant to take a vacation to visit other vibrant cities, because there are so many fun artsy events in your home city that you'll miss out on when you go away.

I'm going to be on vacation the last 2 weeks of April (3 days in NYC, 7 days in Paris, 3 days in Oxford), and I'm really excited about it, but that doesn't prevent me from wishing that I could somehow also experience all of these other things that are happening in San Francisco while I'm gone.

1. Independent Bookstore Day -- This started in California two years ago and has expanded nationwide: 400+ indie bookstores host special community events and sell exclusive merchandise. Last year, I went to my local indie bookstore, Green Apple Books on the Park, and bought some tea towels with a quote from San Francisco's own Lemony Snicket: "It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read." (Truth.) A hopeful, optimistic, literary-themed event, Independent Bookstore Day makes me feel a little better about my community and about the world. Happening this year on Saturday, April 30.

2. 826 + KML = BFFs -- This is another thing I did last year and would repeat if I were in town. Sketch-comedy troupe Killing My Lobster (KML) teams up with the kids'-literacy organization 826 Valencia, teaches some adorable children how to write sketches, and then stages their work. The kids' sketches are absurd, hilarious, bizarre, and proof that comedy doesn't require sex, cursing, or antisocial behavior to be funny. I saw this show last year with my friend Sam Bertken, who loved it so much that he's acting in it this year, and I wish I could see that, because it promises to be delightful. Happening at Pianofight, April 28, 29, and 30.

3. Love & Friendship -- Whit Stillman's new film, a Jane Austen adaptation, is the opening-night attraction at the SF International Film Festival on April 21. I'll be seeing it when it's released in mid-May, of course, but how cool would it be to see it at the Castro Theater with an audience of film buffs, in the presence of Stillman and his leading lady Kate Beckinsale? If you go and mingle with the stars, be sure to tell me so that I can be jealous.

4. t. gondii presents the lovesickness circus -- For the first time in 5+ years, I have to miss a Theater Pub show! This is a world premiere by Katharine Sherman, starring Soren Shane Santos as a rat who takes a cat (Marlene Yarosh) to a circus hosted by a parasite (Jeunee Simon). It sounds like one of the more off-kilter things Theater Pub has ever done and I wish I could spend a night at the Lovesickness Circus for myself! Happening at PianoFight, April 18, 19, 25, and 26. $10 suggested donation.

5. Colossal -- I have heard nothing but good things about San Francisco Playhouse's latest show, a 60-minute, hybrid dance/theater piece about football, fathers and sons, and toxic masculinity. Yeah, there's a part of me that thinks "This is so short, I could still find time to see it in the next few days," but I'm so busy running around town preparing for my trip that I don't think I can make that happen. But it runs through April 30, so you still have time to get tickets and see it!

6. The bunnies at Civic Center -- This is another thing that's already around, but I probably will not have time to experience before I leave. A new public art installation, at Civic Center Plaza through April 25, consists of giant inflatable white rabbits. Pagan symbols of springtime fertility? Postmodern kitsch geared toward Instagram selfies? An allusion to the song "White Rabbit" by classic S.F. band Jefferson Airplane? I wish I could see and decide for myself.

7. ShortLived Championship Round -- A play of mine competed in Round 3 of ShortLived but narrowly lost to "Goodsell, Good Life" by Tommy Lazer and Suzil Von -- now the 6 winning plays of the last 6 weeks will compete against one another for the $5000 grand prize. I'm kind of rooting for Tommy and Suzil, because there is more dignity and prestige in losing to a play that goes on to win the grand prize, right? Another event that I probably won't be able to squeeze in before I go, this is happening at PianoFight on April 14, 15, and 16, and I hear tickets are going fast.

8. What Rhymes With America -- The Bay Area premiere of this Melissa James Gibson play, directed by my friend and fellow Theater Pub writer Robert Estes, is playing in Berkeley through April 24. I am way overdue to see Robert's work as a director and feel bad that, once more, I must decline his invitation! As a "painfully funny portrayal of everyday people working through what it means to be human in America today," it sounds like it might make a good companion piece for Will Eno's Middletown, which I DID manage to catch last week, and is at the Custom Made Theatre through April 30.

9. The Lion -- Why you gotta play me like this, ACT? You open a new theater in 2015, you emphasize that all the shows there will have longer runs (2-3 months) than the typical ACT show, and just when we all get used to that idea, you book a show there for only two weeks? I want to see The Lion as part of my burgeoning fascination with the genre that my friend Stuart has dubbed "the hipster musical," and also because the pull-quote they're using, "Only the hardest-hearted could resist!" makes me feel like I must go if I don't want to be considered an unfeeling Scrooge. Unfortunately, it closes May 1.

10. Home Invasion -- The first production by 6NewPlays, a collective of playwright-producers, is by the prolific local writer Christopher Chen, and it sounds very cool: a Hitchcock-inspired surreal murder mystery play that is being staged in living rooms around the Bay Area. Check out the interview my friend Barbara did with Chris Chen for the Theater Pub blog. Most of the performances are sold out, so I really hope they might choose to revive it at a later date! For more: 6NewPlays.com.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Frida Kahlo, Disney Princesses, & Toxic Love

Warning: rant ahead contra a certain strain of modern feminism.


I saw this meme on Facebook today, and it really pissed me off. I understand the desire for female role models who aren't Disney Princesses, but goddamn it, whoever slapped this together seems mind-bogglingly unaware that Frida Kahlo was all about Toxic Love. To a much greater extent, I would argue, than Snow White or Belle or Cinderella.

This is not to belittle Kahlo or attempt to devalue her as an artist. On the contrary, I think her value comes from how powerfully she was able to transform her suffering, romantic and otherwise, into art. But she and Diego Rivera had an extraordinarily tempestuous relationship that pretty much epitomizes Toxic Love, and this attempt to portray Kahlo as a Strong Female Artist Who Don't Need No Man does no one any favors. 

Truth be told, it is easier for me to relate to Kahlo knowing that she loved not wisely but too well,  that she was incredibly strong in many ways and yet incredibly vulnerable at the same time -- that she was a complex human being, in other words, not an invincible and perfect superwoman.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

My Projects for 2016

For convenient reference, and by way of explaining why I don't have lots of time anymore for random blogging, I'm posting a list of the projects that I have coming up in 2016.

Major Projects

Juana, or the Greater Glory in the Loud & Unladylike Festival: This festival, which honors lesser-known historical women, has commissioned me to write a full-length play about Princess Juana: Spanish princess, member of the powerful Hapsburg family, and the only woman ever to become a Jesuit. I'm working hard on the initial draft and will be going on a writers' retreat with the other L&U folks this weekend. Once the script is in better shape, I also hope to write some blog posts geeking out about my historical research -- Spanish royal history is completely fascinating and not nearly well-known enough in this country. Besides, do you expect me to spend six weeks reading the writings of Ignatius of Loyola and just keep my thoughts to myself? Juana will have a public staged reading in mid-July, directed by Claire Rice: date TBD, but either July 14, 15, or 16.

You'll Not Feel the Drowning in Custom Made Theatre's Undiscovered Works program: San Francisco's Custom Made Theatre Co. has started a new-works development program and my script You'll Not Feel the Drowning (originally written for the 2015 Olympians Festival) was one of four plays selected for it! I was not expecting this to happen -- the draft that I submitted is a really odd length, 35 minutes, and more than with any play I've ever written, my feelings about this script shift from day to day. Still, I look forward to developing this piece in a focused, systematic way, until it becomes something that I truly love and no longer feel uncertain about. Drowning will have two developmental readings at the Gallery Café on Nob Hill, on May 14 and September 13, both directed by Gabe Ross.

Macaria in the SF Olympians Festival: For the sixth year in a row, I'll be writing a Greek-myth-inspired play for the Olympians Festival, which is happening in October this year. The theme of the 2016 festival is the Underworld (including, intriguingly, a week devoted to Egyptian mythology) and my subject is Macaria, Hades and Persephone's daughter, the Princess of the Underworld. You can read more about her, and my play, here. It will have a staged reading on October 14, along with readings of plays by Bridgette Dutta Portman and Elizabeth Flanagan.

It's a fun coincidence that I'm writing Juana and Macaria in the same year: both Juana and Macaria are rebellious teenage princesses of rich but death-haunted kingdoms, who dress in black and have fateful encounters with their possibly-crazy grandmothers. I can tell that these two scripts will influence one another in fruitful ways!

Other Projects

"The Dryad of Suburbia" in ShortLived 2016: This happened last weekend, and after four performances and a hard-fought battle, my play came in second -- 1908 points to 1969. And the winning play, "Goodsell, Good Life," by writer-performers Tommy Lazer and Suzil Von, featured funky dance moves and a fog machine -- I mean how could I be expected to win against that?

Pint-Sized Plays 2016 at SF Theater Pub: For the second year in a row, I am Tsarina (producer) of the Pint-Sized Plays, though this year I'm bringing on a Tsarevich (deputy producer) in the form of Alejandro Torres. Bay Area playwrights, the Pint-Sized script submission call should be posted on the Theater Pub blog next week. The performances for this will be August 22, 23, 29, and 30, in the PianoFight bar.

Arts journalism: I've been writing a column for the Theater Pub blog every two weeks for almost four years, and... well, it might be time for me to transition into a different role over there. Still, I credit this columnist gig with making me a much better writer, more comfortable with both personal essays and interviews/journalistic pieces, and in 2016 it looks like I will be doing some freelance arts journalism for higher-profile venues. Yes, I'm being vague on purpose, but All Will Be Revealed soon.

The Weekend Without a Summer: 2016 is a great year for British-literature nerds. Besides being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, it's the 200th anniversary of the "Year Without a Summer," during which Mary Shelley got the idea for Frankenstein and the Romantic poets got up to some of their most characteristic shenanigans. Huge nerds that we are, my friend Stuart Bousel and I are planning a five-day celebration of the Romantic movement over Labor Day Weekend. It will be Gothic, it will be sublime, it will be mad & bad & dangerous to know.

Travel: With this busy year ahead of me, I'd assumed I wouldn't have time to take a vacation and would have to white-knuckle it till November, which was a depressing thought. (I spent much of February feeling lethargic and overwhelmed.) Then I reviewed my calendar, realized that if I played my cards right I could go away for two weeks in late April, and, with a much sunnier spirit, got to planning a vacation. NYC, Paris, and Oxford, here I come!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"Dryad of Suburbia" in Shortlived 2016 next weekend

"Dryad of Suburbia" poster by Cody Rishell.
I'm pleased to announce that my 10-minute play "The Dryad of Suburbia," originally commissioned by the San Francisco Olympians Festival in 2014, will receive a full production as part of PianoFight's Shortlived competition next weekend!
What should loving but stressed-out modern parents Tom and Heidi do when their young daughter starts claiming that she has a mystical connection to the oak tree in the yard? It's not easy to be a tree spirit in a suburban neighborhood that's blighted by both conformity and drought.
The world premiere of "The Dryad of Suburbia" is directed by James Nelson, featuring actors Leah Shesky and Raymond Hobbs. We had a dynamite first rehearsal last Monday (Leah and Ray even started improvising in character) and I look forward to seeing the finished product on Thursday, March 17.

Shortlived is the nation's largest audience-judged theater festival. As a newbie playwright in S.F., I attended nearly every round of the 2010 edition of Shortlived, met several great people who are still in my life today, and finally developed an intuitive sense of what makes for a good short play. (I have thoroughly romanticized this period of my life and wrote about it for the Theater Pub blog last year.) So I am excited to finally have a script of my own in the festival and a shot at the prize! I'm also glad that "The Dryad of Suburbia" isn't just sitting in a drawer anymore. It caused me a lot of stress while I was writing it -- I had to scrap my original idea for a dryad-themed play and write this one at the last minute -- but it got a great reception at the staged reading in 2014 and now it will have a future life.

There are 4 performances of "The Dryad of Suburbia," March 17 through 19 at 8 PM, plus March 19 at 5. Tickets here. Facebook event here. Come one, come all -- and vote early and vote often for "Dryad"!

Monday, February 29, 2016

February 2016 on the Theater Pub blog

If my writing output is an accurate barometer of my mood/mental health/ability to handle life at the moment, you can guess what it means that I only felt capable of writing one "real" piece for the Theater Pub blog this month, instead of my usual two.

Early in the month the only thing I felt up to doing was a straightforward news roundup of Theater Pub-related info and press, so that's what I did. Well, it feels good to have all that news in one place, as opposed to dispersed in a handful of ephemeral links and tweets.

My "real" piece this month is about the value of getting your friends together and reading a play aloud, which provides the same emotional release that singing karaoke can. Sometimes you need to sing, to embody a piece of music, rather than merely listening to it... the same is true for theater.

Speaking of which, anyone have any suggestions for plays to read when you're in your late twenties and feeling scattered and overwhelmed? I could use that – and the attendant emotional release – right about now.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Super Bowl City" (With Apologies to David Bowie)


This beautiful Mid-Century Modern office building in downtown S.F. has been temporarily defaced with an image of the Super Bowl Trophy.

Buses in downtown San Francisco are being rerouted, huge tacky signs are everywhere, millions of taxpayer dollars are being funneled toward corporate interests and the celebration of a dangerous sport, and pretty much everyone I know is pissed off. This Newsweek article gives a good overview of the many reasons why San Franciscans are so annoyed about the "Super Bowl City" events going on in our town, despite the fact that the actual Bowl is being played fifty miles to the south of us, in Santa Clara.

Meanwhile, I've dealt with my frustration in the only way I know how: writing a song parody.

"Super Bowl City" (To the tune of "Suffragette City")

Hey man
Why am I making a fuss? You know
Hey man
Well, they re-routed my bus, I'm gonna--
Hey man
No I'm not gonna calm down
'Bout Super Bowl City taking over my town

Hey man
Five million misspent!
Hey man
Won't repay a cent
Hey man
Well, this is total flimflam
They said it would bring tourists, but it, and then it--

Aw, Ed Lee is the man we can blame because he rigged it
We got Super Bowl City
Ed Lee is the man and I know where he can stick it
You know this Super Bowl City
Is full of graft
We got the shaft

Hey man
They're building big ugly signs, go 'way
Hey man
And giving homeless guys fines, no way
Hey man
They're saying, don't crash here
There's only room for tourists
Here they come, here they come

Aw, Ed Lee is the man we can blame because he rigged it
We got Super Bowl City
Ed Lee is the man and I know where he can stick it
You know this Super Bowl City
Is full of graft
We got the shaft

A Super Bowl City, a Super Bowl City
I'm talkin' Super Bowl City
I'm talkin' Super Bowl City
Super Bowl City
Super Bowl...

Wham, bam, what a scam!

Super Bowl City...
Super Bowl City...


Monday, February 1, 2016

"I must help the dolphins, and their tender hearts"

My performance as an intense French marine biologist talking about dolphin sex in a staged reading last November has been preserved for posterity:



Watch it, if not for my French accent and confessions to carnal acts with a cetacean, then for Nora Doane's spot-on and hilarious Miley Cyrus impression.

Credits:
Christian Teen Dolphin-Sex Beach Party by Anthony R. Miller
Staged reading on November 18, 2015 as part of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, directed by Colin Johnson
Actors: Jeremy Cole (Pastor Jeremiah Hannah), Nora Doane (Miley Cyrus), Jacque Frankle (Mabel Johnson), Colin Hussey (Doctor/Reporter), Eden Neuendorf (Tish/Stage Directions), Nickolas Rice (Ronnie Santini), Marissa Skudlarek (Professor Renelle Fouché), Kitty Torres (Judy Johnson)
Videography by Paul Anderson

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Four By Euripides

Considering my years-long involvement with a Greek-mythology theater festival and my years-long obsession with Donna Tartt's The Secret History, it's shameful to admit that I didn't read Bacchae till last July. And additionally a bit strange to write a review of these plays six months after reading them. Ah well...

 Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, RhesusEuripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus by Euripides
Bacchae and Cyclops translated by William Arrowsmith
Iphigenia in Aulis translated by Charles R. Walker
Rhesus translated by Richmond Lattimore
edited by David Grene, Richmond Lattimore, Mark Griffith & Glen W. Most

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting mix of plays, displaying variety even while working within the limits and conventions of Greek drama. Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis are two of the last plays Euripides wrote—Bacchae has strong horror elements to it, while Iphigenia in Aulis is more of a traditional tragedy in which noble figures face agonizing choices. Cyclops is the only extant Greek satyr play, a burlesque of the episode in The Odyssey where Odysseus must save his men from a man-eating cyclops. And Rhesus is a wartime tragedy set in Troy, which may or may not have actually been written by Euripides.

I found Iphigenia in Aulis the most well-plotted, psychologically penetrating, and downright tragic of these plays, as the characters go back and forth on whether to sacrifice Iphigenia. Bacchae is also great, especially its choral hymns in praise of Dionysus' mountainside cult and wild rites. Euripides makes clear why so many people are drawn to Dionysus, as well as the terrible costs of denying his energies.

Rhesus did not hold my attention nearly so well, perhaps because its stakes are lower. It's the story of a noble prince of Thrace, who comes to aid the Trojans, but is ambushed and killed by Greek spies before he can do anything. Sure, that's not a happy story, but it's not nearly so tragic as tearing your son limb from limb while under the influence of religious mania (Bacchae) or being forced to kill your daughter in order to ensure a favorable wind to sail to Troy (Iphigenia in Aulis).

As this was my first time reading all of these plays, I cannot comment much on the translations, though I did find the Rhesus translation a bit awkward—it refers several times to a soldiers' "bivouac," and that word took me right out of the play.

View all my reviews

Sunday, January 24, 2016

2015 Ends, 2016 Begins on the Theater Pub Blog

I sang in the Theater Pub holiday musical this year, too! This is Stuart Bousel and me as the Specialist and his Assistant in "Go To The Mirror," from Tommy. Photo by Paul Anderson.
Time for another round-up of my contributions to the San Francisco Theater Pub blog over the past few months.

In early December, my fellow Theater Pub blogger Ashley Cowan and I teamed up for a special two-part piece looking at the ups and downs of being a tall actress. (I'm 5'8", Ashley is 5'9".) We interviewed other tall ladies and shared some of our own stories about typecasting and insecurities, triumphs and inspirations. Ashley's Part One; my Part Two.

Theater Pub's year-end tradition is to ask each blogger to contribute a Top 5 list. This time around, I chose to write about five delightfully surprising performances that I saw onstage in 2015, from Bay Area actors Madeline H.D. Brown, Adam Magill, Heather Orth, Thomas Gorrebeeck, and Siobhan Marie Doherty.

For the second year in a row (see my acceptance speech from last year), my friend Stuart Bousel cited me in his annual "Stuey Awards" honoring Excellence in Bay Area Theater. My 2015 Stuey is shared with everyone who worked on the Olympians Festival staged reading of Tethys and Oceanus -- which I was nervous as hell about, but came off really beautifully. I don't quite agree with Stuart's conclusion that Tethys "feels like it could be lifted and fully produced as-is," but I'm flattered that he thinks so, and the success of the reading has definitely made me excited to continue working on this script. Stuart also gave a brief nod to our rock-music duet in Tommy -- ha!

I began 2016 by writing about one of the best books I read in 2015: the memoir How To Be a Heroine, by my friend, the playwright Samantha Ellis. In particular, I was drawn to the sections of Samantha's book where she describes the tensions between being a people-pleasing good girl and being a self-actualized artist. I recommend it to any female artist who's working through those types of issues.

This week, because Theater Pub is currently producing short plays inspired by the indie-rock musician Morrissey (two performances left! See it Monday or Tuesday evening), I decided to look at the flip side of that. That is, I highlighted four indie-rock songs inspired by theater, by the Decemberists, the Magnetic Fields, St. Vincent, and the Weakerthans.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Mustang" and the cinema of sisterhood

I admit I have a kind of reflexive habit to root for France when they are nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. I’m a Francophile, France tends to make good movies, they haven’t won Best Foreign Film in over twenty years, so why not root for them?

This year, though, I’ll be rooting for France out of something more than habit. Yesterday I went to see their nominated film, Mustang, and found it a lovely and accomplished piece of cinema. Moreover, it feels like an important film: an unabashedly feminine and feminist work, and one of the only female-directed films to score any Oscar nominations this year. (The only other nominations for female-helmed films are are three Documentary Shorts, one Documentary Feature, and a Best Song nod for Fifty Shades of Grey.) I am impressed with France for choosing a Turkish-language, Turkish-set film by a first-time director for their Oscar submission, and impressed that the Academy nominated it.

Mustang is the story of five sisters, ranging in age from maybe 11 to 17. Their parents are dead and they live with their grandmother and uncle in a small town on the Black Sea. (An incidental pleasure of Mustang was learning how beautiful this part of the world is, with rugged wooded mountains above smooth blue waters.) After the girls are caught horsing around with boys at the beach, their relatives lock them in the house, remove anything that might “corrupt” them, and set about trying to marry them off. But the girls fight back and sneak out and engage in many acts of overt and covert defiance. Their willpower and love and loyalty and lust for life cannot be contained.

So yes, there’s more than a hint of “what if The Virgin Suicides, but Turkish,” about this set-up. But then again, despite its female director, The Virgin Suicides is really a study of the male gaze, the fascination that the neighborhood boys have for the beautiful but inaccessible Lisbon sisters. Whereas Mustang is a wonderful example of the female gaze in cinema. It’s narrated by Lale, the youngest sister. Moreover, as a woman, Deniz Gamze Ergüven is able to film these teenage girls in a way that honors their beauty and their power but never feels the least bit prurient or exploitative. And, while the situation of the Mustang sisters is much worse than that of the Virgin Suicides girls (no one ever threatened to marry the Lisbon sisters off against their will) they fight back more fiercely, they do not succumb to despair.

It’s a simple, fable-like story, but very well told. The climax is super tense and there were gasps in the movie theater at several moments when the girls were in danger. There’s also some interesting commentary on how older women often keenly enforce patriarchal values but on occasion will support the girls’ rebellion.

And, okay, since I self-produced a play in the summer of 2014 about beautiful long-haired young sisters struggling against patriarchal expectations (in fact my play’s poster has some similarities to the Mustang poster), this movie hits a particular soft spot of mine, but I can’t remember the last time I saw such a powerful depiction of sisterhood in cinema.