Category Archives: Performing

The Aristeia of Clarence Clemons @ 3:12 a.m., and a New Puzzle!

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Good Morning:

Did you know that Clarence Clemons’ legendary saxophone solo during “Jungleland” on the Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 album runs exactly two minutes, twenty-three seconds?

In simple English, I have taken part in another 24-hour “play in a day” festival and at 3:12 a.m., determining the exact length of The Solo was the most important thing I could do. The Playwrights Center of San Francisco runs two of these events each as fundraisers, and they conduct business by picking slips of paper from a hat. I was selected as a writer by a software version of the same, assigned my director by drawing his name from a hat, assigned the cast size by drawing a number from a hat (3), and assigned the specific actors by the same process.

Finally, the theme. “The Devil Made Me Do It.”

Assignment was the same as ever: write an entire play in 9 hours for a production the following night.

Usually, writing a short play under these circumstances proves surprisingly easy, but for some reason, the theme made this the most difficult 24-hour project I’ve undertaken in 15 years, since the night our theme was a Rene Magritte painting. Oddly, the final script is only 8 pages long, but the theme still made the project tough. However, I can proudly proclaim that I wrote the line “Niccolo Machiavelli. Dear Nicky–always in a class by himself,” and it actually makes sense in the context of the play.

In slightly over 14 hours, “The Latest Small Triumph of Levia Stand” receives its world premiere. I have never worked with the director or any of the actors before, but feel cautiously optimistic that they can wring something decent from what I dump upon their poor heads. If the show turns out well, I will publish the script here. If not, I shall do the right thing and spare you the agony.

Meanwhile, if you like anagrams, I have a fun new puzzle for you! “Levia Stand” is an anagram containing two names used for one of the great characters in all of literature, theater, and musical comedy. What are the two names?

Vonn Scott Bair

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The Genuine Show! Rehearsal, 12 March 2015.

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Good Evening:

Load-In Day. A phrase that frequently evokes terror in the theater world, Load-In Day refers to one of the physical events in theater, when the entire cast and crew combine to move all of their costumes, props, special equipment, cases of 8 oz. bottles of water, and other sundry heavy items into the theater they will call home during the show’s run. Fortunately, we have an excellent director in Wesley Cayabyab, whose organization worked so well we only needed an hour to get everything done.

So we had our first full run-through.

And all I can say is “Wow.”

The Cast of The Genuine Show! Listening to Instructions from Their Director

The Six Actors of The Genuine Show! Listening to Instructions from Their Director

“Wow” has become one of our inside jokes (from one of the plays, “Jack & John & Jackie & Joanie”), but here it means that I am ab-so-lute-ly THRILLED with the work the cast has done. They bring more than creativity to their acting; they always surprise me with interpretations that I would never imagine in a hundred years, yet whatever they do remains true to the script.

Incidentally, I took all of these shots with my iPhone 6 Plus, which has done surprisingly well in low-light conditions, requiring only a few adjustments in iPhoto.

Sarah Galarneau & Philip Goleman in "Yes Maybe No."

Sarah Galarneau & Philip Goleman in “Yes Maybe No.”

Playwrights become pretty darn useless at this point in the production; seriously, the best help we verbose critters can provide consists of silence. At the end of the run-through, I kept it simple: “I have just one word to add, no, two. Thank you.” OK, that’s eleven words, but still really, really reticent by playwright standards.

Rehearsing "Keeping You Man in Line on the 21-Hayes." Left to right: Sarah Leight, Jocelyn Truitt, Philip Goleman, Colin Hussey (standing), Sarah Galarneau, Richard Wenzel.

Rehearsing “Keeping You Man in Line on the 21-Hayes.” Left to right: Sarah Leight, Jocelyn Truitt, Philip Goleman, Colin Hussey (standing), Sarah Galarneau, Richard Wenzel.

Keeping You Man in Line of the 21-Hayes has two unique distinctions among the plays–the only one with no dialogue and the only one inspired by one of my own blog posts! Please see this post (one of my very earliest!) for the story.

Can’t wait for Opening Night on Thursday. No jitters, just good old-fashioned excitement. If you can’t wait, either, tickets are available at Brown Paper Tickets.

Vonn Scott Bair

Vanishing Venues in San Francisco (Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone, But Not Forgotten)

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Good Evening:

If San Francisco keeps losing the people, places and organizations that make the city so interesting, how long can San Francisco remain, well, you know, interesting?

Formerly the Cafe du Nord Music Venue, Market Street, San Francisco, CA

Formerly the Cafe du Nord Music Venue, Market Street, San Francisco, CA

The performing arts scene here probably cannot get more confusing at this juncture in the city’s existence; like a famous Dickens sentence, we live in the best of times, we live in the worst of times. The average two-bedroom apartment rents, which have now skyrocketed to about $3,500 (believe it or not, one American city is worse–Palo Alto, California), have driven out so many actors, writers, musicians, and other artists that currently I represent the only member of the Playwrights Center of San Francisco who lives in San Francisco.

Gone and Pretty Much Forgotten; Former Theater on Guerrero and 16th

Gone and Pretty Much Forgotten; Former Theater on Guerrero and 16th

That blank wall used to be the storefront of a 30-seat theater in the Mission, perfect for very young companies just starting out. Fifteen years ago, Bertolt Brecht was a thing in San Francisco until people realized that most of what he wrote doesn’t work (good thing Kurt Weill helped out; Master Puntila and His Chauffeur Matti is completely unwatchable without the music). I saw a performance of Fear and Misery of the Third Reich one night because a friend had a role in it. Before the show began, a homeless woman wandered in and accosted a few of the spectators. Just as I began to suspect that she might have been a member of the cast, the lights went down, she accosted me, and then began reciting the opening speech of the play. We became good friends and acted together in a few projects, but when television work dried up in the Bay Area, she moved to Los Angeles and we lost touch.

Formerly the Home of Theatre Rhinoceros, San Francisco, CA

Formerly the Home of Theatre Rhinoceros, San Francisco, CA

Market forces are driving out more than individuals. The demand for new housing has gone from insane to really really insane, and when leases expire, landlords kick out the tenants and then sell out to developers for more money than they thought they would see in a lifetime. If decades ago you bought a mixed living/retail building for $250K and someone offers you a few million to take it off your hands so you no longer even need to think about it, I can’t blame you for taking the cash. That’s how the system works–if how the system works means that it is not working, then that become a discussion about economics, at which point I would rather remain silent and be thought a fool.

Theatre Rhinoceros (“The Rhino”) occupies a special place in American theater as a home for world premieres of plays that “explore both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of our queer community. (from the mission statement)” Currently homeless, the next show will premiere in the Eureka Theatre on Jackson Street.

And speaking of the Eureka…

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…this isn’t the current home. This is the old home, where among things, actors like Danny Glover started building careers, and playwrights like Tony Kushner could premiere plays like Angels in America. Yes, that play got its start right there back in 1988 in that blue industrial building. Times have proven tough for artists in San Francisco, especially theater artists, and the Eureka Theatre Company is now a venue on Jackson Street that rents its space to local companies. Great space, too; I am proud that my one-act play Allegro Passionato led off the 2006 BOA (Bay One-Acts) Festival.

So the mood among theater and music artists in San Francisco remains gloomy. Venue after venue keeps closing. And yet, somehow, someway, we persist. The Rhino and Eureka lost their homes, but have kept going, somehow, someway. Another local company, PianoFight, has opened a restaurant-bar-theater venue in the building once occupied by Original Joe’s restaurant. A new theater company has approached me with an offer to produce one of my full-lengths.

One of my fellow playwrights has described theater and film people as “hard to kill as cockroaches, only worse, because cockroaches don’t make so much @#$% noise.” So we continue onwards, lurching from one funding crisis to the next. Saw this film crew today on my way to the Rainbow Grocery:

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The American Conservatory Theatre has already opened one new space on the 1100 block of Market, and will soon open a second theater on that same block, converting a building that used to house the Strand movie house (speaking of endangered arts spaces). So I should feel more optimistic than I do.

Best of times, worst of times; worst of times, best of times.

What continues to bother me is the attrition diminishing the numbers of theater artists in San Francisco. When I began in the late 1990s, I looked up to, admired, and sought to emulate a lot of men and women who seemed to me to have their stuff together, who could juggle the poorly paid waiter/clerk/bartender job with their true passion, earn a couple of extra hundred or perhaps a thousand dollars per year, and whom the arts establishment regarded as up-and-coming artists with bright futures.

Of all those people from back then, one still continues onward, however blindly.

Me.

That’s so bizarre. Talent, ability, artistry don’t seem to matter. Only pure dumb bull-headed wrong-headed too-stupid-to-know-when-to-quit stubbornness seems to matter. I don’t know if I’m any good, only persistent. The brilliant and imaginative director, subject of articles published in the national press, quit abruptly after a show in 1998 or 99. I wanted so badly to work for him, but who know what he’s doing now? A woman in that show still acts, but moved to LA a long time ago–just like a lot of other artists from the Bay Area.

For all the new companies, spaces and artists I see in San Francisco, it does not appear that they have popped up fast enough to replace all of the people who quit or moved on. Of course, this represents a perfect time to remind one and all that I am most emphatically NOT a professional journalist, so take extreme care before accepting my own personal experience as universal truth.

But if artists can’t afford to live here, then how can they pop up here fast enough to replace the ones who quit and/or left San Francisco entirely?

Vonn Scott Bair

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

I Don’t Mean to Brag–Well, Maybe Just a Tiny Little Bit…

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Good Evening:

“Madame de Vionnet,” writing for A Beast in a Jungle, another WordPress blog (!), has reviewed Sheherezade 14 and raved about the entire show. The entire production deserves it; I feel ridiculously fortunate to have become part of such a show. “Madame” has kind words in particular for “The Duck:”

My favorite play of the evening was The Duck, by Vonn Scott Bair, directed by Cayabyab. The premise is ”ripped from the headlines” with a twist. Mbele-Mbong plays Hope, an appropriate name for a character who does not give up. Her monologues are gut-wrenching as she describes what her life has become. The Duck is a well-crafted and beautifully acted short play, with Homan and Galloway delivering solid supporting performances.

What lies beyond “ridiculously fortunate?” Because that’s how I feel about director Wesley Cayabyab and actors Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Cameron Galloway, and Rick Homan. I frequently use the phrase “legal cheating,” as in “having a director and cast this good feels like legal cheating,” but that phrase has never so true before.

Anyway, we have two more weeks, Thursday through Saturday, ending on the 28th. Hope you can attend!

Vonn Scott Bair

The Stage Is All the Worlds (Weekly Photo Challenge: Room)

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Good Evening:

This is the sold-out house that greeted the world premiere of Sheherezade 14, the short play festival that includes my own world premiere, The Duck:

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Surprisingly decent shot for an iPhone 4, given the lighting. Set up for the first play, that stage had to serve as the backdrop for 8 different worlds, including 6 rooms. In order from beginning to end:

  1. Dissonance (playwright: Terry Anderson): an absurd Dadaist, Pirandellian landscape.
  2. Almost Like Being Alive (Steve Koppman): a coffee shop.
  3. The Interview (Madeline Puccioni): a bar.
  4. Photo Dynamic Therapy (Jennifer Lynne Roberts): a bedroom.
  5. Reframing Rockwell (Jim Norrena): Norman Rockwell’s studio.
  6. The Box (Madeleine Butler): a museum storage room.
  7. The Duck (yours truly): Hope Judith Hauser’s front yard.
  8. Brew, Drink, Repeat (Bridgette Dutta Portman): A coffee shop that exists outside the space/time continuum.

One stage, one room, eight worlds. I think Shakespeare had it backwards.

Anyway, we had a great opening night; full house, actors in top form. When it works, theater is quite the universe.

Vonn Scott Bair

The Duck World Premiere, June 7-28!

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Good Evening:

And good heavens…less than two weeks until my next world premiere, The Duck at the 14th annual Sheherezade festival of very short plays at the Exit Theatre in downtown San Francisco.

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My life has gotten rather a bit maddening this month of May. Between rehearsals and performances for Jinshin Jiko at the Fringe of Marin theater festival, plus meetings & correspondence for a film project in the first weekend of June (I’m the screenwriter), I haven’t had a chance to attend more than the first rehearsal of my own play The Duck (you can read the seven page script here and here).

Normally, I prefer to attend a few early rehearsals and a few late ones. The early ones so I can listen to my howlingly bad tone-deaf dialogue and fix the script, the later ones so I can marvel at how the cast and crew have salvaged the show. This time around, people keep saying the same two words, over and over. The second most common: “stunning.” The most common? “Beautiful.”

I feel most curious to see the first run-through of the entire show; apparently, I have something good.

Director Wesley Cayabyab selected an amazing cast that carries the play to whole new levels, and they have worked very hard on a challenging little play, even if only 7 pages long. Here are two of the actors, Rick Homan as an FBI agent, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong in the lead role as the amnesiac Hope Judith Hauser.

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The third member, Cameron Galloway, is one of San Francisco’s best comedic actors, but as the other FBI agent, she is tackling one of her most serious roles.

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I keep hearing that The Duck looks really good at this stage, but knowing almost nothing of the rehearsal process, it feels like I have a surprise present awaiting me in June.

Anyway, Wily West is a terrific small theater company based in San Francisco, which has produced a number of Sheherezade short play festivals, an annual event of the Playwrights Center of San Francisco. If you need just one more reason to visit my home town next month, Sheherezade 14 might prove the perfect “just one more reason” you need.

Vonn Scott Bair