The Leftover Memories of Venue 222 (Weekly Photo Challenge: Container)

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Good Evening:

This ugly little dump contains some of my happiest memories in the theater.

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During the 1960s and 1970s, City College of San Francisco’s enrollment grew so much so quickly that the buildings could not hold all of the students, and the administration could not build new classrooms quickly enough. Therefore, the college threw up these pre-fab cabins for use as ad hoc temporary classrooms. However, ad hoc temporary solutions have a way of becoming ad hoc permanent solutions. Cabin 222, notwithstanding its leaky confines, lack of heating, and air conditioning, became the home of theater majors getting rained on or freezing or cooking in its confines depending upon the season.

A few decades ago, a drama professor named Ann Shay had a bright idea: double-purposing the cabin as both classroom and a 49-seat black box theater. She created her own company, the California Travel Troupe, so named because they usually travelled to Edinburgh, Scotland to participate in the grandfather of all fringe festivals. In between trips, she would produce shows in what was no longer cabin 222; it had become Venue 222.

I met Ann when one fine day, totally out of the blue, the at the time complete stranger emailed me and offered me a directing job for her next evening of one-act plays. My first directing job? No problem! I didn’t even ask her how she got my name. What I did not know was that everyone else she asked had declined the offer because everyone else–including the playwright!–thought the little ten minute script was garbage. So she offered me the leftovers. I didn’t know the play was garbage, numbskull that I am, but because I didn’t know how to evaluate scripts, took this opportunity seriously and to the surprise of Ann and the cast, and the shock of the playwright, directed a, well, um, pretty good play.

Ann Shay producing her last show, another evening of one acts, at about the time when her friends suspected, and she knew, that she would not win her final battle with cancer.

Ann Shay producing her last show, another evening of one acts, at about the time when her friends suspected, and she knew, that she would not win her final battle with cancer.

Ann felt grateful enough for my salvage job that when time came to produce another evening of one acts, she invited me to submit one of my own scripts. I had just finished a 20-pager called Starvation, an experiment in the horror genre to see if it was still possible to scare a theater audience in this day and age.

She accepted it into the show, which was great, not telling me that on paper she thought that Starvation looked like a piece of s— (one of her favorite words). She needed one more play to fill out the evening and would have accepted anything. Much to the surprise of the director and cast (and playwright), and much to the shock of Ann, the 20 page horror play that looked like a piece of s— on paper worked astoundingly well when performed, and was in fact the best play of the show. On the night of the world premiere, I snuck into the audience to gauge reactions. The play describes an encounter between two women, both monsters; Mrs. Essex is a sexual predator and Melody–nah, no spoilers here. I sat next to a young couple on a date. At the climax of the play, the young lady of the couple shrieked “Omigod, she’s a ____!” wrapped her arms around her date, and buried her face into her young man’s chest.

I think I made his night.

My leftover script turned out rather well.

The Former Dressing Room at Venue 222.

The Former Dressing Room at Venue 222.

In 2004, I had built up a curious acting resume; lead roles in a few feature films (none of which went anywhere), and zero leads in full-length stage plays. So when Ann emailed me out of the blue and offered me the title role in a masque production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, yes, of course I took it. Incidentally, for all of my gigs with the California Travel Troupe I received the combined grand total of $0 in payment. What Ann did not tell me at the time was that she couldn’t find anyone else for the job. Once again, the leftovers ended up on my plate.

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The show did very erratically in terms of attendance, alternating sellout crowds with near-empty houses. One performance had exactly one audience member, and the only reason we had that one person is that a woman in the cast was juggling two boyfriends at the time. Still, Hunchback remains one of my happiest memories; the above moment, from the final scene between Quasimodo and Esmeralda, generally elicited audible sniffles and crying from the people who did see the show. Ann herself told me after the last performance that she sometimes cried. This was right before she told me that she only picked me because she couldn’t find anyone else. Just another leftover.

Today, Venue 222 is every bit as decrepit as it looks, and when Ann died, the California Travel Troupe died with her. As I passed the cabin on my way to my date with destiny and a beer can in Almost, Maine, I took a few pictures with my iPhone.

And wondered how something so ugly could contain such beautiful memories.

Vonn Scott Bair

The Brief But Curious Theatrical History Contained Within a Can of Beer (Weekly Photo Challenge: Container)

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Good Evening:

A still life, inexpensive-American-beer-can-style:

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How this can and I came to make our acquaintance–therein lies a tale.

Once upon a time, a brewery filled this newly manufactured can with newly manufactured beer. Another human being purchased this can containing inexpensive American beer, emptied its contents (presumably in the usual fashion), cleaned it thoroughly with soap and water, and brought it to the Diego Rivera Theater on the campus of the City College of San Francisco for use as a prop in a production of John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, one of the most beloved new plays in American theater. Since I knew two of the actors in the cast and had heard a lot of good things about the play, I attended last Saturday night’s performance.

Shortly before the play began, a crew member filled the can with water. Halfway through the show, an actor grabbed this can containing San Francisco Public Utilities Commission tap water and a second one also containing water and carried them with him onstage.

Thus fate decreed that your correspondent and this can would become one.

For having finished drinking the two cans of “beer,” the actor crumpled both of them and then hurled the first can and the second can over the heads of the audience to the offstage area.

Well, that was the idea.

The first can flew directly into the audience.

Specifically, my left shoulder.

Of course I suffered no injury; modern beer cans are so lightweight that if I hadn’t watched it hit my shoulder I never would have felt it. But no way did I intend to part with this can. You and I have seen multiple cartoons and comedies where an audience will throw rotten tomatoes and other vegetables at the actors. I have never seen an actor throw anything at an audience. I have seen the cast booing the audience before the show even began (one of Monty Python’s Secret Policeman Balls) yet there I was, participating in theatrical history as the first audience recipient of an actor-thrown projectile in theatrical history.

So of course I kept the can that once contained beer, then contained water, and now contains theatrical history.

Please–try to contain your envy.

Vonn Scott Bair

The Girl in the Yellow Boa.

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Good Evening:

I didn’t take any pictures of her topless.

After 32 years in San Francisco, a topless young woman in Golden Gate Park on a Sunday afternoon listening to the Drumming Circle no longer holds any interest. It almost feels as if some rule exists decreeing that a young woman who wants to demonstrate that she’s a free spirit must take off her top in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on at least one Sunday afternoon per year. You know, a conformity thing.

However, when she donned her purple tee shirt and yellow boa, suddenly she became very interesting.

Especially since her yellow boa was this yellow boa:

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See what I mean? This is interesting. And not just to yours truly, either:

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Boa Constrictor Constrictor ranks among the more popular snakes in the exotic pet trade, even though they can reach 12 feet in length, possibly because they can be bred for unusual color patterns. This eight foot critter might even be an albino, but you will have to consult with a herpetologist for a definitive opinion. I once acted in a play with another woman who kept snakes. She insisted that boa constrictors are quite docile, which is a good thing, given that they have tremendous strength and could snap your neck in seconds. This one definitely seemed mild-mannered considering how its human kept adjusting it about herself.

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I do have to give credit to her boyfriend. Not too many guys will let a woman with a giant snake straddle them while another guy checks out her pet; given that this snake might have weighed 50-60 pounds, plus her own weight, he ain’t goin’ anywhere.

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Have a good Friday, all.

Vonn Scott Bair

Final Thoughts Misthought on the 2014 World Cup

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Good Evening:

Who am I kidding? I have like, maybe less than zero qualifications to comment on soccer: my predictions on the World Cup were so wrong that even my prediction that all of my predictions would be wrong turned out to be wrong. But once I’ve predicted Argentina to beat Brazil 2-1 in the final, I might as well keep on blundering.

Besides, I can’t help noticing all of the winners at the World Cup.

One of the best aspects of the World Cup consists of this: so many countries come home as winners. You already know about Germany, but after every Cup a bunch of nations go home happy, no matter how many of them lost their final game of the tournament. Here are some of the tournaments other winners.

  • Bosnia-Herzegovina reached their first Cup, put up a good fight in their fairly difficult group, and came away with a victory in their third and final game.
  • Algeria (one of my few correct predictions) reached their first Round of 16, and can say they put up a better fight versus Germany than Brazil. Those players will never have to pay for a restaurant meal in their hometowns ever again, and that’s saying something; Algerian cuisine is quite underrated.
  • Costa Rica: By far the biggest positive shock of the Cup, the team picked to lose all of their games in Group D (one of the two Groups of Death) won the group outright, reached the quarterfinals for the first time, and thanks to the schedule can claim they reached the “Final Five.”
  • France: Thanks in part to the management of Didier Deschampes, France made an impressive comeback from their 2010 disaster and reached the quarters.
  • Colombia reached the quarterfinals for the first time.
  • The United States–somehow–survived the other Group of Death and reached the Round of 16.
  • Belgium reached their first quarterfinals since 1986, darn it.
  • Greece: Round of 16. Not bad at all.
  • CONCACAF. Four teams qualified, America, Mexico and Costa Rica advanced, and all three teams truly earned their places in The Sixteen.
  • James Rodriguez, Colombia. Five games, six goals.
  • The 4-2-3-1 Formation. Still something of a novelty in 1998, a lot of teams resorted to this attacking formation in 2014, which might explain our next winner…
  • Offense. Perhaps we live in an era where the attackers in general are better than the defenders in general. Perhaps the weather wore down the defenders more the attackers during the second half and extra time (all three goals in Belgium-USA came after the 90th minute). Whatever the reason, overall 2014 ranks as one of the liveliest Cups in a long time.

Best of all, my list probably overlooks a bunch of other players and teams who went home happy.

Still, some teams could not go home happy. For example,

  • Every team in Group D that was not Costa Rica. Even Uruguay.
  • Brazilian White. Did anyone else feel surprised that Brazil wore white? I thought they had decided after 1950 that white was unlucky and they would wear yellow jerseys with green numbers, blue shorts, and green socks forever. Maybe white explains their collapse?
  • The English system of player development. This is the second straight Cup where the Three Lions performed worse than their former Colonists, and when even the English coach says (publicly!) that they could learn something from the American system…wow. The USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann doesn’t like the US system of sending soccer players to college, and we still fared better than England.
  • Spain got old. Can’t be helped. All they need to do is bring in the next generation and they’ll play better in 2018.
  • And perhaps a controversial choice: The United States. True, surviving a brutal Group of Death ranks among their greatest achievements. And no one can deny that all other nations must fear a team that becomes more dangerous as the game goes on, thanks to their amazing fitness and psychological fortitude. But aside from Tim Howard, the team looked hopelessly outclassed by Belgium. Also, consider this; they entered the tournament as the world’s 13th ranked team, so going out in the Round of 16 means that by one standard they only met expectations. How much longer can we feel satisfied when we finish +1, =1, -2? What will it take for America to reach the next level?

But that is a matter for the future. Today the United States can legitimately call itself one of many winners in a tournament designed to produce winners at all levels, in all shapes and sizes.

Vonn Scott Bair

The English Language: The Faux of Understanding

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Good Evening:

I could have sworn I heard my co-worker T. correctly when she spoke to E., another co-worker: “I’m going back to that new place to try some of their faux soup.”

I walked over to E.’s cubicle and asked T. what that was.

“Oh, you know, pho, that Vietnamese noodle soup.”

“Sorry, I thought you meant f-a-u-x soup.”

“No, this soup is fo’ real.”

E. piped up and said, “Better a lunch pho real than a faux lunch.”

Inspired, I chose to visit Mangosteen, a local Vietnamese restaurant and very popular with the Civic Center crowd, for a bowl of their Combination Beef noodle soup.

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Nothing faux here–this pho is fo’ real.

But think of how hard it must be to learn English as a second language. The previous paragraph contained only eight words–but from three languages. Therefore, if you try to learn English a second language, you also have to learn a third, a fourth, a fifth, sixth, seventh…

English is the foe of understanding.

Vonn Scott Bair

The Drumming Circle of Golden Gate Park (Weekly Photo Challenge: Relic)

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Good Evening:

Some of these guys have spent four decades of Sunday afternoons at this location.

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If you ask, no one quite knows when the drumming circle began, who began it, or who is the oldest remaining veteran of the old days, but even on World Cup Sunday, they come here and pound the percussion. This group was one of the tiniest I’ve seen; presumably, the others were still celebrating/despairing over the Germany-Argentina game. But only horrible weather will prevent the Sunday gathering of this living relic of San Francisco’s brief glory days as the center of the music universe. People have despaired of San Francisco’s musical decline for decades, more intensely than ever in recent years as our soaring rents keep driving out people.

And yet, the San Francisco music scene persists.

Somehow.

In the theater community (well, San Francisco’s theater community), we have one of the strangest compliments you might ever hear: we praise others and happily describe ourselves as “cockroaches.” Not a misprint. Cockroaches. It refers to the ability of some artists and theater companies to keep afloat, keep acting, keep creating theater no matter how bad the arts environment can get. Somehow or another, we sneak around and create art in the dark, as it were. The term might also have an application for San Francisco’s musicians. On the same Sunday I photographed the drumming circle, I wandered down Upper Haight and wandered past two soloists and a band, all performing on a single block. That guitar in the first picture was homemade from a wooden box and parts scrounged around the house, plus a leftover piece of a broken acoustic guitar.

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Haight Street hasn’t looked this um, uh, well–hasn’t looked this Haight Street in years.

Surely they know. Surely they know that the music scene in San Francisco hasn’t been this weak since before the Gold Rush. And yet the city’s musicians keep playing anyway, even if it means creating their own guitars in order to do so.

Vonn Scott Bair

World Cup Memories, 1998: The Aristeia of Lilian Thuram

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Good Evening:

Ah, yes–Aristeia, the word that makes you wonder, “The English language actually has a word for that?!” Aristeia has perhaps the most precise meaning of any word in English; it refers to, and only refers to, those passages in Homer’s The Iliad where one of the heroes suddenly becomes invincible and runs rampant over the enemy. For example, in one early passage, Diomedes suddenly becomes so freaking awesome he fights gods–and defeats Aphrodite (the goddess of love had no business wandering on a battlefield), wounds Ares, the Greek god of war, and fights Apollo to a draw.

Aristeia is an awesome word, and it deserves a place in modern usage.

Namely, sports in general and El Mundiale in particular.

San Francisco Civic Center during the 2014 World Cup Semifinal Game Between Argentine and the Netherlands. Note how well camouflaged the Dutch fans appear, cleverly donning the Alert Orange color of the San Francisco Giants.

San Francisco Civic Center during the 2014 World Cup Semifinal Game Between Argentine and the Netherlands. Note how well camouflaged the Dutch fans appear, cleverly donning the Alert Orange color of the San Francisco Giants. You would never know they were Dutch, would you?

During the 1998 World Cup, I temped at a retailer in downtown San Francisco which generously offered hour-long lunches to its temporary employees. So while I could not see the entire France-Croatia semifinal, I could choose to watch either the first or second half. I picked the second half and found a Pasta Pomodoro that broadcast the game.

Darn good choice. The second half, I mean.

In 1998, the nation of Croatia had reached the ripe young age of 7, the youngest nation ever to appear in the World Cup. Croatia had spent most of its seven years embroiled in a horrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia, yet somehow managed to field a team with flamboyant red-and-white jerseys and major attitude. Many of these players had endured seven years of war; did anyone seriously think they might fear 11 foreigners in funny shorts? The Croatians hit the World Cup like a tsunami playing with a combination of recklessness on offense with recklessness on defense, swarming the ball like rabid hornets that had just consumed two too many double espressos. Such a style of play left most of their opponents gasping in the dust, and after a stunning 3-0 upset of Germany in the quarterfinals, began to look like genuine contenders to reach the Finals and even perhaps win.

In their way stood France, the host team and an early advocate of the 4-2-3-1 formation which has become rather trendy in 2014. Les Bleus boasted one of the finest back fours in WC history, so they could throw an extra pair of attackers forward knowing that nothing would get past that quartet. The French offense tallied 15 goals total in the tournament with a type of logical aggression; disciplined, well-developed steady pressure to pry open defenses and gain shots on goal.

France had the cool, but Croatia had the emotions. In the Germany game, Vlaovic scored the second goal and was almost immediately pulled from the game. Why? He could no longer play because he could not stop crying. Not only had he put his country into the semis, not only had he survived the war, but he had also survived brain surgery. Pretty good excuses for crying. So I knew that France-Croatia could become a magnificent contrast and clash of styles, potentially one of the best games of the entire Cup.

The second half began as I sat down to lunch. The first half had ended 0-0, as Croatia’s frantic offense could not dent a French defense that had not yet allowed a goal in the run of play (only a penalty kick vs. Denmark), while the Croatian defense overwhelmed a confused French attack. But immediately after the resumption of play, Croatia won a corner, swarmed into the box, and finally overwhelmed the defense to score a goal (the last Frances would concede in 1998; only two goals allowed in seven games!).

For exactly one minute, it looked like the hornets would win.

Now began The Aristeia of Lilian Thuram, a man who can look you in the eye and say that for 23 minutes, he was the finest soccer player in history.

Thuram played in that famous back four, and in his entire international career had scored the grand total of 0 goals. He was a defender, after all. But he had spotted a weakness in the swarming Croatian defense; since everyone went after the player with the ball, they left open spaces for opponents to infiltrate. When France launched an attack on the Croatian left wing, all of the defenders responded leaving a huge gap in the middle of the box. In seemingly one second, Thuram ran three-quarters the length of the field, collected a pass from the wing, and scored the first goal of his international career one minute after the French had conceded the lead.

And then ran back to his spot, again seemingly in only one second.

I swear it appeared that over the next twenty-three minutes he ran twice as fast as teammates and opponents alike, flying here, there, everywhere, defending as he had never defended before, attacking for the first time in life. Croatia might have played like a swarm of hornets; Lilian Thuram was an entire swarm all by himself.

But Croatia never gave up; why should they? It was only a tie game at that point, and the French were still only eleven foreigners in funny shorts. France didn’t stop attacking either, but they overextended themselves on one offensive. One of the hornets intercepted the ball and fired a blistering pass hoping to find an open teammate who had snuck into a dangerous position.

The ball whistled past Thuram’s ear. He stopped it, and controlled it, with one foot.

Think about that for a moment.

Theoretically, normal human beings can’t do that.

But when your aristeia arrives, you become superhuman. You can stop a ball whistling past your ear with one foot, controlling it the entire time, and then dribble the ball upfield to start another French attack. A few minutes later, Les Bleus tried another attack on the Croatian left wing. As always, the hornets swarmed after the ball. Thuram seemed to teleport himself from the defensive half of the field to almost the exact same spot where he had scored his first goal, calmly collected another great pass, and scored the second goal of his international career.

And then Lilian Thuram’s 23-minute aristeia ended. He went back on defense, stayed there, ran no faster than anyone else, and played the game exactly as he played before his aristeia began. Don’t get me wrong, his normal level of play was outstanding; this was an excellent defender who enjoyed a long and distinguished career in Italy’s Serie A; it’s just that whatever happened to him during those 23 minutes when he was the greatest soccer player in history suddenly disappeared. In fact, in 142 games for France, those two goals were the only two goals he ever scored.

And that’s an aristeia; for one brief, shocking, moment somebody becomes the best in the world at what he or she does, and nothing can stop them.

France held on desperately during an equally desperate counterattack by the team from a 7-year-old country, and the tense, sometimes brilliant game ended with France staggering off the field with a 2-1 victory. Croatia would win the third-place game, stinging the Netherlands 2-1, whilst France would dominate Brazil 3-0 in the final. Thuram played to his usual very high standards in the final, but no better, a very ordinary sort of excellence with no trace of the aristeia that had possessed him for 23 minutes in the second half of a single game.

Did Lilian Thuram know what he was doing during those 23 minutes, or did he “wake up” after they ended and asked a teammate who scored those two goals?

Vonn Scott Bair