Allison Page, bar, Bay Area theatre, community theatre, Danielle Doyle, directing, Freaks Tod Browning, independent theatre, indie theatre, Megan Cohen, Neil Higgins, playwright, playwrighting, Ray of Light Theatre, Rob Ready, Sam Bertken, San Francisco TheaterPub, San Francisco theatre, SFThtr, Stuart Bousel, theatre, Theatre is Dead, theatre is dying
“We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
– The Player, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
This past Monday I was standing in front of the bar of the Café Royale after completing that evening’s performance of Pint Sized Plays. I was conversing with friends and colleagues, as I often do, when I was approached by a young actor named Sam. You’d immediately know Sam if you saw him: despite being in his 20s, he looks like a 12-year-old clone of Jim Carrey and is just as frighteningly energetic. After introducing him to a friend of mine, a talented and lovely actress named Danielle, Sam was surprised to find that they’d met before, albeit under more formal circumstances. This lead Sam to recount how he’d met me. It was early this year after Pajanuary. As Sam described it: “I wanted to meet you because somebody told me you were one of Stuart’s friends who works with him a lot. So I went up to you real excited and said ‘Hi! I’m Sam!’ And you gave me this look that was like ‘Who is this frikkin’ weirdo?’”
“Can you blame me?” I asked.
“Not really” he confessed.
This is an all-too-common occurrence at the San Francisco Theater Pub. Whether you’d been planning to attend a show for the past few weeks or just popped in to wrap your head around what you just saw through the Royale’s windows, the odds are good that 10pm you’ll be chatting up a storm with some of the best independent theatre artists the Bay Area has to offer. You could show up in jeans, slacks, or your jammies; sneakers, heels, or Vibram FiveFingers; dickies, dress, or rainbow-coloured dashiki – all that mattered was that you came to have a nice time on a Monday night. And for the past 3 ½ years, it was very rare that people said they didn’t.
When I decided to write a blog entry on Theater Pub – in light of this past Tuesday being its final performance at the Royale – I wanted to avoid the usual trappings of such write-ups. I considered writing of the history of the Theater Pub “experiment” itself, as well as what the future might possibly hold for the Pub, but this was already covered in fine form by the Pub’s co-founded and driving force, Stuart Bousel. I considered recounting how I wound up getting roped into the whirlwind that is the Theater Pub universe, but I’ve already done that quite a few times already. Hell, I even thought of writing up a Theater Pub “eulogy” of sorts that would have mourned the end of the ‘Pub’s functioning on a regular basis (for the foreseeable future) that would have opened with Revelation 21:1 from the King James Bible. But would have just been… morbid. Instead I wanted to remember what Theater Pub has meant to me since I accepted Xanadu’s invitation to see her “anti-Valentine’s Day show set in a bar”.
There are a great many Theater Pub memories I’ve accumulated, lo these past 3+ years.
I remember during Pajanuary how Nick Trengove, cheeky bugger that he is, felt the need to rewrite the Harry Potter saga by adding the phrase “Eat a bag of dicks, Voldemort!”
I remember Leigh Shaw wanting me to pump up my entry for the Christmas show, Code Red. When performed, the final result – a none-too-pleasant story about a Christmas gone by – slightly traumatised everyone in the Royale to the point of pin-dropping silence. Fortunately, it was immediately followed by Sunil Patel’s much-beloved “Vishnu Claus”, so everyone was soon better again.
I recall how after the Code Red show, I was walking a local actress to her car (something I’m called on to do quite often, as the Royale is on the outer edge of The Tenderloin). I’m not one to get involved with fellow theatre folk very often, having heard too many horror stories about how such relationships wrong. And yet as soon as the actress and me got to her car, we were leaning against the passenger-side door making out like there was no tomorrow. This became a regular thing for us for the next five months or so.
I remember the closing performance of Measure for Measure, wherein Neil Higgins took what could have been a disastrous moment and – being a fellow of quick-thinking grace and professionalism – turned it into a moment that got him thunderous applause (which you can see here).
I know that I still keep the songbook from Devil of a Time in my bag. Just as I keep copies of monologues within easy reach, so too do I keep that book of Kai Morrison’s songs on the chance that I’ll audition for a musical (which I actually have, but the productions were specific about what songs they wanted prepared). I actually have used Eileen Tull’s Occupy Theater Pub monologue a number of times.
I recall how I’ve done work with a number of other companies. As such, people – knowing that I’m always likely to attend Theater Pub – will often confront me; mostly to ask why they haven’t heard back in regards to an audition (at which point I have to explain that I’m not a casting director).
I remember talking to Stuart in an early 2011 show to say that I’d gotten an e-mail from Karen Offereins asking if I was available for their Shakespeare show that summer. When that summer came along, I was indeed part of the (to date) final production of Atmos Theatre’s annual Theatre in the Woods production, Twelfth Night.
And I remember the drinks. So many drinks. I’m a director for this year’s Pint Sized and the piece I directed, Sang Kim’s The Apotheosis of Grandma Shimkin, contains a good natured jab at the Café Royale’s lack of hard liquor on the menu. I’ve personally sampled a great deal of the libation at their disposal: wine, sake, soju, cider, soda, and so much beer. I was quite fond of Stella Artois, which was available back in the old days. Thanks to Stuart, we’ve all become fond of Crispin’s cider; he even wrote a few lines about it into a recent script. Back in the day there was once a tub of sangria on the bar. These days I’ll usually have a bottle of Red Stripe whilst chatting with Megan Cohen and her can of ever-present PBR.
There’s been a great many wonderful (and weird) words exchanged over liquor before, during, and after a Theater Pub show. I’ve debated the supposed artistic merits of the film Showgirls. I’ve listened to Cody Rishell speak for one hour straight about his favourite fantasy-metal bands. I’ve chatted up with another actor/writer, who doesn’t drink, about a script collaboration that will probably never happen (not as a collaboration anyway). I’ve been the shoulder on which cry as friends poured out their relationship woes to me. I’ve been privy to the behind-the-curtain gossip and machinations of the Bay Area theatre community’s most reknowned companies and figures. I’ve listened to writers go on ad nauseum about their dream projects, always smiling on the inside when a few of them actually come to fruition (some at Theater Pub, no less). And I’ve given out an untold number of hugs and handshakes as I raced out the door down Leavenworth to catch the last BART before 1am.
If the Royale’s walls could talk, they’d probably look at me and ask “You’re here again? Don’t you have a home?”
And it wouldn’t be the only one: after that first show (first for me, second for the ‘Pub). I made it a point of attending as often as possible. As such, my frequent attendance has become a bit of a running joke amongst ‘Pub regulars. I might not have been at every performance, but I try my best to make it out to every show. Of the 43 shows (!) Theater Pub has produced, I’ve only missed four: Euripides’ Cyclops, the very first show from January 2010; Euripides’ Helen in February 2012; Vaclav Havel’s Memorandum in May 2012; and James Lock’s AIDS in the ‘80s in June 2012. Hell, the reason the aforementioned folks complained to me about casting is because they knew exactly where to find me.
And that’s just my attendance. After enjoying that first show and chatting up the folks who run it, I soon auditioned for them in the Spring of 2010. I was then cast in their June 2010 show, The Theban Chronicles, thus beginning the other half of the joke that is my Theater Pub ubiquity: everyone seems to think I’m always cast in shows. I will immediately argue that such a thing isn’t true; that if someone actually counted the names on each roster, surely someone else’s name would appear more than mine. Well… I did count. As much as I tried to argue that the ‘Pub hasn’t cast me all that much, I have to date appeared in 11 of the 43 productions:
1. The Theban Chronicles in June of 2010
2. Wilde Card, the Sept. 2010 tribute to Oscar Wilde;
3. Lovecraft Follies, the Oct. 2010 Hallowe’en show;
4. Code Red: How I found out Santa wasn’t real and that my Parents are Liars (a segment of which I wrote), the Dec. 2010 Christmas show;
5. Personal Politics in Feb. 2011;
6. Evgeny Schvarts’ The Dragon in March 2011;
7. Theater Pub’s first original musical and Hallowe’en show, Devil of a Time, in October of 2011;
8. Occupy Theater Pub (for which I also wrote a few intros) in Jan. 2012;
9. Odes of March in March 2012;
10. Jean Cocteau’s Orphée in April 2013;
11. And now the 4th annual Pint Sized Play Fest for July 2013.
That’s eleven shows. Roughly 25½ % of their work. The only others who came close to those numbers were Julia Heitner and Molly Benson with 8 shows apiece, followed by Matt Gunnison and Ashley Cowan with 7 apiece. I remember sitting in the audience of the 2011 X-mas show and running into Nirmala Nataraj, a frequent contributor to the ‘Pub. She’d seen me there so many times that she was surprised to see me as merely an audience member.
Occasionally, there would be negative reactions: the Bay Area theatre scene has gotten a bit cliquish of late and I can recall quite a few times when, after engaging in a pleasant conversation with someone else in theatre, I would mention that I’ve worked with Theater Pub. Their smile would evaporate into an expression of toxic disdain inevitably followed by the condescending query of “Oh… you’re one of them?” Usually this sentiment was expressed by someone who had never attended a single show. But the circle in which they regularly travelled had decided that Theater Pub and the folks involved with it were persona non grata. Had there been some legitimate reason behind the animosity, then I would at least be able to empathise.
I actually have a few theories as to what has brought about this animosity. But since I can’t go into too much detail in this entry without possibly digressing from the topic, I’ll just say that much of it is professional jealousy. We’ve spent 3 ½ years successfully activating the notorious “dark nights” of theatre, Monday and Tuesday. In listening to the complaints of the naysayers, I find that most of them are angry that they didn’t think of the idea first. Unless one of them can present a legitimate beef with the ‘Pub or any of its members (“Theater Pub murdered my pets and poured sugar in my gas tank. I shall be avenged!”), I personally no longer have any problem telling them where they can stick their opinions about us.
And yes, I said “us”. As I was not present for Theater Pub’s inception, I’ve often been reluctant to identify myself as a “member”. “Frequent collaborator”, maybe. “Loyal attendee”, definitely. But what right did I have to call myself an actual member? I think Allison asked this question better, but how does one call him/herself a member of Theater Pub? By Stuart’s count, there have been roughly 307 performers in Theater Pub history. Hell, with numbers like that, I’m just a drop in the ocean. Every actor who’s ever auditioned will tell you that there is nothing more frustrating than the long wait from the end of one production to the beginning of another. Even if you don’t count performing as your full-time living, the fact that you can get even the slightest fulfillment from practicing your craft makes a dry spell all the more unbearable.
When I came to my first Theater Pub show, I was just coming off such a dry spell, with castings occurring once in a blue moon. I didn’t know what my next role would be, if I had on at all. I had been unemployed for over a year-and-a-half at that point, had no college degree to boast about (incidentally, I’d planned on going to SF State, alma mater of many-a-‘Pub collaborator), and would frequently lament just how far down the local theatre totem pole I was.
Cut to 3½ years later… 3 ½ years in which I’ve worked almost non-stop from one production to another. Not just for Theater Pub, but with companies all over the Bay Area: PianoFight, Impact, New Conservatory, Wily West, and even the SF Opera – to name but a few. I’ve taken very few breaks – even during an infamous two-month bout of depression – and for a year-and-a-half had a good run wherein I’d begun rehearsing for my next show whilst still performing in the first. I’d like to say that it was all a result of dumb luck (that does play a role) or that I just kick-ass auditions (but we all know that’s not true), when in fact it’s the result of tenacity.
I bug the living hell out of people. I will ask them a million times what shows they’re working on, how many people the cast needs, and when auditions are. I make damn sure that people are familiar with my face, whether they’ve seen me act or not. Eventually, they get to a point of such exhaustion that they figure they might as well cast me in something in the hopes that I’ll back down. (Silly people. Don’t you know what happens when you give a mouse a cookie?)
And I’ve had no qualms about chatting them up during Theater Pub. I considered it my home turf. You laugh about me always being here, then I’ll nudge you about what I could do outside of there. I have no doubt at all that Theater Pub has played a vital role in my having such a prolific resume of late. It is my calling card – the only place where I can say that I’ve done the stories of both Orpheus and Oedipus; where I’ve performed musicals and a speech by Mandela; where I’ve played a roaring dragon and been eaten by a demon dog; where I’m a regular Spring cast member, but have never been cast in the X-mas musical (hint-hint, Kat and Stuart); the one and only place where I can say that I have acted, written, and directed for captive audiences. Yes, Theater Pub is a place I gladly call home.
The very first time I came to Theater Pub, I was stopped outside by a young couple in their 20s. They recognised me as the sheriff from the ALTarena Playhouse production of William Inge’s Bus Stop and wanted to say how much they enjoyed it. They didn’t even go inside for Theater Pub, they just happened to be walking the same street and saw me. That was the first time I’d ever been recognised for a role. That it was also my first night at the ‘Pub is something I now look upon as prescient.
Theater Pub’s annual Summer show is called the Pint Sized Play Fest, featuring a series of short plays that each run the length of time it takes to drink a single pint of beer. This year’s edition has been covered by a cloud of finality, but it also marks a number of ‘Pub firsts for me: though I’ve seen Pint Sized every year, this was my first time actively taking part in it (Again: HINT-HINT about the X-mas musical!), as I direct the aforementioned Apotheosis. It’s also the first time I’ve acted in a script by my good friend, the talented Megan Cohen (not counting my reading stage directions in last year’s Olympians Fest), as I star in her piece The Last Beer in the World.
It also sees the return of the festival’s popular recurring character: The Llama, an anthropomorphic talking (and spitting) desert animal who just appears to us humans as a regular wino in the form of PianoFight’s own Rob Ready.
I won’t give a long-winded story about how The Llama has become the de facto mascot of not only Pint Sized, but Theater Pub itself (Stuart covers that ground pretty thoroughly in the blog I’ve linked to above). I will say that the reason that as I’ve watched Rob simultaneously tickle our ribs and break our hearts with the Stuart-penned finale Llamalogue, I’ve begun pondering what would make us – yes, “us” being Theater Pub and all involved – proudly adopt an alcoholic anthropomorphic animal as our mascot? Yes, he’s apparently well-read, but he’s a fucking freak! He’s a slob, he’s obscene, he’s a got such a fucked up equilibrium that he probably sees the world upside-down, he’s the very sort of supernatural alcoholic smartass that would accidentally wind up in a bar on a Monday-fucking-night and actually expect to see a performance! He’s….
He’s us. Holy shit, he is us who call ourselves Theater Pub. He is all of our vices laid plain, yet untethered by most social mores that would keep our stronger opinions at bay. He is the guy everyone tries to ignore, but the one no one can forget. He’s the guy you at first refuse to touch – fearing you might catch something – but eventually just want to give a hug.
For some time now I’ve been privy to the details that have led to Theater Pub pulling up its stakes and finding a new. Yet, I haven’t lamented or mourned as others would because I know this isn’t the end. Sure Cheers came to an end, but as our very own Cody Rishell told me during one of our first encounters: “The best episode of Cheers was the entire run of Frasier!” No circus stays in one place forever. And rest assured, my friends: this circus will perform again. And if you just happen to know anyone who would like to see or perform with the best freak show in town, send them our way.
Because we accept you… one of us.