“Someone once said ‘Don’t try to be a great man, just be a man and let history make its own judgment’.”
— Commander William Riker, Star Trek: First Contact
[This year I will be a featured playwright for the third annual San Francisco Olympians Festival, featuring original plays based on the legendary Greek Gods. I’ve been involved with the festival since its opening two years, primarily as an actor. This semi-regular column will focus on aspects of the script I’m writing, anecdotal stories of the festival, and various subjects related therein.]
There are few feelings as distinctly dispiriting as the feeling of inadequacy you get knowing that you’re a novice amongst seasoned professionals. I mean, imagine winning second place in your town’s chili cook-off one week, then being told you’re going to fly to Japan to appear on Iron Chef the very next weekend? Not only that, but you’re going up against none other than the reanimated figure of Julia Child for an unforgiving panel of judges that includes Anton Ego, Statler & Waldorf from The Muppet Show, and The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.
This is what it feels like to be an amateur playwright whose work will be featured alongside some of the prolific independent playwrights in the Bay Area.
It’s my own fault really: I knew what kind of pedigree these folks had when I foolishly threw my hat in the ring. I’d first encountered the motley crew behind the festival in February of 2010. I’d just begun what would become a seemingly-endless two-and-a-half year run of theatre work by having just appeared as The Sheriff in The ALTarena Playhouse’s production of William Inge’s Bus Stop. One of my co-stars, a beautiful and talented actress named Xanadu (no, really), invited all of us to her next show. “It’s kind of an anti-Valentine’s Day show,” she said – that’s a perfect selling point to a guy who’s single.
What was not as appealing was the thought of watching a show in a bar. I’d seen all manner of public performances in my time, and in my experience any performance outside of a traditional theatre (i.e. a designated performance space before rows of seats) tended to be (A) a pretentious public spectacle put on by attention-seekers or (B) the only logical arena of a rank amateur. My hopes were not high. They didn’t get any higher upon stepping into the bar to meet the judgmental gaze of the seated young man who passed out programmes and collected donations. Still, I stayed for the whole show.
Fast-forward two years and eight months later and I’ve become a regular at the San Francisco TheatrePub – not just as an audience member, but as a frequent actor and occasional writer. I’ve watched it grow from an intriguing idea of gathering folks together on a slow Monday night, to become a press-covered hub of some of the Bay Area’s best written, musical, and performance talent. I’ve not only performed in a great many of its shows, but have performed in full productions with its founders from Atmos Theatre and No Nude Men Productions. And I’ve done some drinkin’, lots and lots of drinkin’. You know that young man with the fierce gaze? He designs the posters and programmes. And once you’ve seen him smile with a glass of wine in his hand, your life will suddenly have new meaning.
In May of 2010, I took part in one of the ‘Pub’s first “big” productions when I acted in The Theban Chronicles, a multi-part/multi-night retelling of the classic Greek tale. This would be merely a taste of things to come: that July the founders would take on nothing short of the Gods of Olympus themselves with the San Francisco Olympians Festival. I saw nearly all of the original twelve staged readings, acting in two of them. It was a fun July that everyone hoped would be repeated next year.
“Repeat” isn’t the right word to describe Year 2. Believe me when I say that everything was bigger that year: the original twelve scripts and were succeeded by – wait for it – 32 new plays over four weekends. The stage was larger, the scope was wider, the presentations were more inventive (dancing, musicals, etc.), the advertising attracted more media attention, the artwork was more daring, and, yes, the audience boasted greater numbers. I once again took part, reading in seven plays (apparently more than any other actor that year) and sitting in the audience of the other twenty-five. When all was said and done, I was more than happy to submit as a writer for the next year’s festival.
So why am I occasionally freaking the hell out and counting the days until December? Well, let’s see…
Maybe it’s because festival alumni have included such prominent local writers as MR Fall, Evelyn Jean Pine, Dan Heath, and Ashley Cowan? Maybe it’s because three of the plays from that first year – Salty Towers, Hermes, and Juno en Victoria – went on to full productions? Maybe it’s because three more from Year 2 have productions in the works? Maybe it’s because the festival is now of such prominence that it has also spawned a book, an art show, and an iPhone app? Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because the festival attracts such active talent that even the frikkin’ box office managers are produced playwrights?!
Y’see, I foolishly tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter that most of the writers are so damned good that I frequently use their monologues during auditions; that my frequent socialising amongst them and having often leant an ear to their ambitions and insecurities means that they’re just as human as I. Then I remembered who I was dealing with. I stick out like a sore thumb.
If the shadow cast by critically-acclaimed alumni like Ben Fisher and Nirmala Nataraj weren’t enough, then the presence of returning heavyweights Claire Rice, Stuart Bousel, and Megan “Most Frequently-Produced Female Playwright in the San Francisco Bay Area” Cohen sure as hell did the trick. I’ve worked with Meg O’Connor and Amy Clare Tasker in theatrical projects before – they weren’t the writers, but have no doubt that their writing talents are just as formidable. I actually have acted out scripts by Jeremy Cole, Bridgette Portman, Pat Milton, Neil Higgins, Evan Winchester, and Christian Simonsen, so I know what all they’re capable of. I’ve never read any dramatic work by Lily Janiak or Larissa Archer, but I’ve read their articles, blogs, and reviews. And those former box office managers? Their names are Marissa Skudlarek and Barbara Jwanouskos and… their writing is really damned good. I could go on all day about any one of them, let alone the entire roster. Oh, and did I mention that it’s an active competition this year? Suddenly I feel like the guy who brought a knife to a gunfight.
Not all of us writing are as seasoned pros as the aforementioned superstars. I’ve spent many a recent post-show mixer keeping my ears open about who everyone thinks will crash and burn this year. It inevitably happens every year: there are one or two plays so indescribably horrible that they become talked about for all the wrong reasons. As high as the festival can go at its best, it’s often the debate of “Which play was the worst?” that will carry the longest after the final bow. As someone who’s seen the best and worst the festival can offer, let me tell you that the truly bad plays will stick with you like kidney stones. The thought of being one of the playwrights everyone laughs at behind his back is not a very pleasing prospect.
And yet, I’m comfortable with my odds. Recently, one of my fellow “newbies” confided in me that he was also intimidated by walking amongst the giants of the local scene; that it seemed like everyone was expecting him – or rather, us novices – to fail. To ease his anxiety, I shared with him a recent epiphany: “Dude, we’ve got the easiest job in the world. I mean, look at all the names of the writers this year – they’ve all got these reputations for being badass writers, right? Some are in the book, a lot of ‘em have had full shows, whatever. But that’s the thing: they have to live up to those reputations. They’ve all been built up so much that if one of their plays isn’t abso-frikkin’-lutely perfect, people are gonna say that they lost their touch. I mean, you and me? Yeah, everybody’s expectin’ us to fail because we’re nobodies; no one would notice in the long run. If one of them fails, everybody’s gonna notice and they will NEVER let them forget it.
“Y’see, they all have to make masterpieces; we just have to not suck.”
These are the things one tells him/herself in such situations. Sure we all have these moments of insecurity – such is human nature – but as Q would say to James Bond: “Never let them see you bleed.” I think the above pep talk did well to help my friend relax about his role as a writer; it certainly did with me. Now I look at my pages not so much worried that I won’t measure up to people who could do this in their sleep, but that I knowing (1) how bad a festival piece can be and (2) that I’m a much better writer than that.
And most of all, I’m comforted by the fact that I get to work alongside a fantastic talent pool full of friends who amuse me and artists who inspire me. I’ve seen how far this madcap little festival has come in a few short years and I’m happy to be part of it. I’ve seen relationships started, connections made, friendships (and rivalries) forged, and audiences on their feet cheering. Most of all, I’ve seen people enjoy themselves doing things they’d never expected. As I continue this column over the coming weeks and months, what I hope to share is why we who know the festival anticipate it every year the way a child anticipates waking up the next morning after putting a tooth under their pillow.
Once again, I find myself amongst an eclectic band of misfits defined by their fevered imaginations. If it’s anything like the other times, then I’m in good company.
POST-SCRIPT: For more information about any of the subjects mentioned in this entry, please click on any highlighted name to follow the link. To see previous TheaterPub performances over the past three years, including those mentioned here, please visit the official TheaterPub YouTube page.