An Interview with Megan Trout and James Mayagoitia of “The Seagull Project”

Dramaturg Marissa Skudlarek’s series of interviews with BOA writers concludes with a special dual interview of Megan Trout and James Mayagoitia, members of 11th Hour Ensemble and directors of “The Seagull Project.”

11th Hour Ensemble, a San Francisco theater company focusing on physical theater and devised work, appeared in BOA 2011 with the piece “Cloud Flower.” Their newest piece, “The Seagull Project,” which uses Chekhov’s classic play as a jumping-off point to explore what it means to be a young artist, is in this year’s BOA. All of the performers of the piece are credited as its creators, with the (non-performing) Megan Trout and James Mayagoitia as directors.

Marissa: “Devised work” is one of the hottest things in the American theater right now, but some of our readers may not know what that is – and also, the wonderful thing about devised work is that every troupe’s process is different. So, can you tell us a little about your process in creating “The Seagull Project”? What initially made you want to use Chekhov’s The Seagull as a jumping-off point for an exploration of what it means to be a young artist?

Megan: Our process, like all our processes, was rich with ritual and repetition. Every meeting begins with a silent period of time the actors use to strengthen their bodies and sharpen their focus.  We move on to an improvised exercise where the ensemble gets used to each other’s bodies, impulses, and style.  This is an important transition from the hustle and bustle of work or school to a mental state that is ready to create.

Initially, James and I were not sure through which lens we wanted to start exploring The Seagull.  We studied this play intensely in our senior year at San Francisco State University and were indelibly changed by it.  After a few brainstorming sessions, we boiled down our interests to just a few key themes: finding your voice as a young artist, what it means to achieve success, and unrequited love.  These are all pretty hefty ideas. For the sake of our 15 minute piece, James and I decided to focus most intently on finding one’s voice and the struggle to create good art.  We figured this was the most poignant, relatable way into the play.  We hope to expand this piece on to further iterations that will eventually grow into a full length production.

James: The warm-up period that Megan mentioned is just part of the first half of our rehearsals. After the improvisation exercise, we move on to a series of physical exercises that help us build a vocabulary, so that we can all communicate on the same wavelength, when it comes time to talking about and building the piece. These exercises are primarily derived from Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s Viewpoints, along with several exercises we learned while in drama school. These exercises help heighten the actor’s kinesthetic response, so that he or she is constantly aware of what is happening in time and space on the stage.

The second half of rehearsals, in the early stages at least, are spent doing table-work. Since we didn’t actually have a script for our own piece, the obvious choice was to read Chekhov’s play. After physical work, we would sit down and read the play. After each scene, we would discuss it, analyze it, and see what moments were related to our larger question: when do you find your voice as an artist? Our piece is very much a distillation and abstraction of many scenes that are in The Seagull as well as the moments between scenes, which Chekhov didn’t actually write. This is where our imagination as directors came into play.

Additionally, we also did a series of personal histories, in which Megan and I asked the actors personal questions about the actor’s actual lives, such as, “Have you ever done something artistically, or otherwise, to win over someone’s heart?” “Can you think of a moment when you were most disappointed with yourself?” Transcriptions from these personal histories are interwoven throughout the piece. Let’s see if all you Chekhov lovers out there can spot them!

Marissa: Chekhov’s plays are known for their understatement, subtext, and repressed, constrained characters. 11th Hour is a devised-work physical theater ensemble. What was it like to be inspired by a writer whose work would not seem to lend itself to physicality? Did that cause any difficulties during the process?

Megan: What’s so nice about physicalized theatre is that it gives those repressed, constrained characters an outlet for everything that’s boiling under the surface.  It delves into what is REALLY happening with these people on a subconscious, internal level.  It is certainly not traditional to tell this particular tale with more pictures than words.  These characters bring with them such extreme intentions and yearnings, however, that in a very strange way it feels more natural to depict their causes in this highly expressive manner.

James: It was a challenge to turn Chekhov into a physical piece, but an extremely fun and enjoyable challenge. What I find so fun and interesting about physical theatre is that you can bring all of Chekhov’s subtext and understatement to the surface in an expressive and stylized manner, in ways perhaps that you never thought possible before. Let’s say that instead of just playing a scene for “real,” where we see characters in their happiest emotional state, we turn the emotional state into a gestural composition or a dance. Or perhaps maybe instead of a character “realistically” giving a monologue, he “floats” a gestural composition on top of the monologue that express the character’s emotional arc. Trying to bring out what’s really happening on the inside of the characters in an expressive, physical manner.

The most challenging part of the process was the dramaturgy: keeping track of the story line and emotional arc. The piece was developed around a series of improvisations, so we didn’t always have a logical reason for where we placed each scene or why we chose the moments we did. We had make choices and refine what we felt each moment meant and how it fed into and related to the next scene.

Marissa: What has been the most wonderful discovery and most frustrating challenge in creating “The Seagull Project”?

Megan: The most wonderful discovery was seeing what our actors brought with them into the room.  They were all so beautifully committed and willing to share themselves with us. The piece reflects many discoveries that could only have happened with these specific people. The most frustrating challenge was finding rehearsal space :)

James: I agree with Megan: the most wonderful discovery of “The Seagull Project” was seeing what our actors brought to the table. The piece became so personal for them, that we found exciting answers and discoveries at each rehearsal. Sometimes, we as directors had moments where we felt confused, and the actors would give us a suggestion or an idea and we’d think “duh! Why didn’t we see that before?” It’s amazing how much your colleagues can teach you, and this to me is one of my favorite parts of the rehearsal process. And yes, the most difficult part of the rehearsal process was finding a rehearsal space.

Marissa: How is “The Seagull Project” similar to or different from previous 11th Hour projects?

Megan: “The Seagull Project” definitely feels different from 11th Hour’s previous projects.  Like any young theatre company, we are still learning what works best for us; where are strengths are best showcased.  This particular project stemmed from the passion we share for the story we are telling.  That has been the most important part of developing this piece.  The entire ensemble studied at SFSU and almost all of us studied The Seagull with Barbara Damashek there.  That shared history gives “The Seagull Project” a type of momentum we haven’t had before.  I believe this the first of many lives this piece will have.

James: This is the first time we developed a devised piece based on an existing, and extremely well-known, piece of dramatic literature. All of our other pieces were either based on another devised piece, or a story/idea. I feel this has been one of the most heavy subjects we have tackled. It has challenged us in so many ways, and I think it will give us a better idea of our range as theatre artists, and help push us in new directions.

Marissa: “The Seagull Project” explores the frustrations of being a young artist, struggling to create great work. What are some of your own personal strategies for dealing with creative blockages or feelings of inadequacy? Are there any quotes/mantras/works of art that you find particularly inspirational?

Megan: I have serious moments of crippling insecurity in just about every process I go through and I find it futile to attempt to prevent it or ward it off.  What I do find useful, is to remind myself that the inadequate sensation I am experiencing, while terrifying and painful, is probably a sign that I really care about what I’m doing.  It also helps to express myself creatively outside of rehearsal in a way that has nothing to do with the play I’m currently struggling with.  Helps to keep the creativity flowing despite certain blockages.I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids last year, and this passage has helped me pull myself up by my own bootstraps on several occasions:

I was both scattered and stymied, surrounded by unfinished songs and abandoned poems.  I would go as far as I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations.  And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple.  When you hit a wall, just kick it in.

James: I generally never really feel satisfied with my work. I always feel there is something I missed or didn’t realize until it was over. I just remind myself that it’s important to keep on working and growing because you are always bound to discover new and exciting things. Sometimes you just have to wait a little longer. I once received a Martha Graham quote from our acting class with Barbara Damashek that has always been very inspiring for me. I actually received it when we studied “The Seagull”:

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “The Seagull Project”?

Megan: I hope the audience will be surprised.  I hope they will not only relate to our main character’s struggle, but be reminded of their own triumphs or failures in overcoming adversity.  And what either outcome taught them.  I hope some of them go home and read the original play!  That would be great.  Mostly, I hope it gets them excited to create some art of their own.

James: I hope the audience will question what they see. I hope they get some sort of emotional response to the images they see. Like Megan, I hope they will be able to relate to our central character Konstantin and his struggle to finding his voice. I hope the audience will laugh and hopefully, provoke some thought. I, too, hope the audience will read Chekhov’s original play! It’s still so relevant and full of humanity.

Marissa: 11th Hour Ensemble has produced short pieces for BOA, as well as evening-length pieces of devised work. How does your process differ when creating a short piece as opposed to a longer one?

Megan: The processes themselves, ideally, don’t actually differ that much.  Like I mentioned earlier, we believe in ritual and repetition, whether the piece runs an hour or fifteen minutes long.  Each is built on a foundation formed and fortified by the trust and willingness of everyone in the room and created with a physical vocabulary developed through specific exercises.  The length of the piece doesn’t affect this process at all.

James: I would say the only difference may be the amount of time we spend on each project, although the process itself is not different. The so few moments in life when you can create a sacred and safe environment for everyone to work in. I think this goes along with what Megan was saying about ritual and repetition. Creating theatre for us, is a time to discipline and challenge ourselves, and to learn and grow. Our first major show, Alice, was developed over a period of 2 years, before it became a full-length feature. We have only been working on The Seagull since January.

Marissa: What’s up next for you and for 11th Hour Ensemble?

Megan: 11th Hour Ensemble has a few projects in our back pocket.  No definite dates yet, but please visit our website and we will keep you posted!

James: I think we all have a few ideas and projects we’d like to explore. Hopefully something very soon after BOA!

Marissa: Megan and James, thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your work. It’s interesting to discuss your artistic process like this — and then see how those same themes are reflected onstage, through physical theater, in ‘The Seagull Project.”

“The Seagull Project” appears in Program 1 of BOA 2012.

An Interview with Megan Cohen, Writer of “Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas”

Our series of playwright interviews continues as dramaturg Marissa Skudlarek interviews Megan Cohen about “Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas,” television, and more.

This is Megan Cohen’s third year consecutive year as a BOA playwright. Her play “The Great Double Check” appeared in BOA 2010, and “A Three Little Dumplings Adventure” was an audience favorite in BOA 2011. She’s back this year with a sequel featuring everybody’s favorite rambunctious, irrepressible sacks of deep-fried dough.

Marissa: So how did the idea for a sequel to “A Three Little Dumplings Adventure” come about?

Megan: I have no idea how the discussion got started; if anything, I was the last to know!  On the closing day of the 2011 festival, the Dumplings had their final Adventure, and the feeling was just like, “Oh, we don’t want to stop doing this, we want to keep doing this.”  Jessica Holt (the director) grabbed me in the doorway of Boxcar Theater after that last matinee, I was heading out, and said, “The whole cast wants to do another one, everyone’s already on board — can you write us a Return to Dumplings?”  Of course since Jessica is the Artistic Director of the festival, she can ask for anything she wants, and it was totally thrilling to be commissioned, and to know that she wanted my work!

“Bananas” takes place in the same universe, but from that first conversation we knew it would be a new free-standing and complete play, not just a Part Two for “Adventure.”  Anyone who wants to read the plays together can download the eBook from my website at

Marissa: Did you know right away what you wanted to have happen to the Dumplings in the sequel, or did it take some trial and error?

Megan: We had a couple evolutions as to what the story would be, but those were mostly about shifts in human resources! My first idea, which we had a few meetings about last summer, was to have Mommy circumnavigate the globe by herself, and the other actors would be like this mad corps de ballet playing all the different people and trees and stoplights she met on her journey.  Then, in the final scene, she’d arrive back on the doorstep of the home that she’d left, having gone all the way around the world in a full 360-degree journey, and after this incredible odyssey of change and discovery, she’d decide whether to step through the doorway of the house, and go back home.  The play would rock kind of like an Amelia-Earhart-Meets-Dante’s-Divine-Comedy-and-The-Wizard-of-Oz sort of vibe.

Then the BOA dates got set, and the actor we wanted for Mommy wasn’t available.  So, it was like “Okay, what do we do with this returning character?  Re-cast with another actor?  Turn her into a werewolf?  Put her in a coma?”  It was a very television-style problem — which is perfect for the Dumpling universe.  It also sent me back to the drawing board; without her presence to work with, I decided to use her absence as an organizing principle.

Also, at the last minute, we turned out to get this fabulous Assistant Director, Maggie Mason, hanging around, and Jessica was like, “Well, let’s give her something to do,” so I added the “posh announcer” voice-over role for her, and it turned out she could comment on the action and make some pretty good jokes.  Maggie played Iago for me when I directed Othello in college, and she’s kind of a star around town, so it was like “We can’t just have this pile of gold in the room and not spend it.”

Marissa: What was the rehearsal period for “Bananas” like? Did the script change at all during the rehearsal process?

Megan: Can you imagine cutting a play by 25% in the week before you start rehearsal?  ‘Cause that’s what I did!  We read a draft aloud for the BOA community at the all-festival reading, then I took a hatchet to it.  It was already probably my 4th full draft of the piece; we’d had table readings and discussions already.

I love being in the rehearsal room, but only when there’s something for me to do; I left as soon as we were sure the cuts felt right.  They called me in for a visit later in the process, and I showed up — the script didn’t change, but I ended up whipping out a needle and thread to mend a pair of costume pants that had ripped down the butt.  With a new play, you can’t always predict what’ll need fixing.

Marissa: Your nascent media empire is called Better Than Television, and you tweet as @WayBetterThanTV.  Television is also a leitmotif in the “Dumplings” plays – Daddy is always watching TV, the characters talk about the life lessons inherent in such classic sitcoms as Full House, and “Bananas” features a magical TV Guide. Clearly, you have a very complicated relationship with the boob tube. How has television influenced your writing and your worldview – for better or for worse?

Megan: Television is the dominant mode of fantasy in our lives, the externalized imagination that glows in our homes.   We all live in the constant presence of a machine that feeds us dreams; I don’t know how any writer can not be obsessed with it! Statistically, the average American has their TV playing for between 4 and 5 hours a day.  That’s a lot.   TV may be shrinking in importance, though, as more interactive narrative mediums emerge — I write game stories by day, and that industry is exploding — so, as a culture we are on the cusp of something “better than television.”  We are starving for that evolution, for a new leap forward in how we experience our daily stories.

If TV is on the way out, then I am really part of the Television Generation: the generation that’s watched more TV for more hours every day, for more of our lives, than any other group of people ever have, or ever will have, watched.  That’s our place in human history, and if I didn’t grapple with it in my work somehow, I’d feel dishonest.

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas”?

Megan: I hope they’ll be nice to each other afterwards.  Especially on the way out of the theater — no shoving, that’s so rude!

Marissa: What about “Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas,” in your opinion, makes it feel like a “Megan Cohen play?”

Megan: It’s breathless, shameless, and packed with ideas that can’t afford to wait their turn; I write, basically, like I’m screaming one last message out before being hit by a truck.

Marissa: You’re a prolific writer of short plays, but you’ve also written longer pieces. What do you like about the short-play, one-act form?

Megan: It gets me produced.  Short plays take less money to do, and audiences who come see a festival like this can say “It’s all new work, and at least the bad ones will be over quickly,” so it’s less of a risk for them. It’s like casual dating before the world is ready to commit to a relationship with you as a writer.  After you’re professionally established, a short play seems to be a kind of fling, a quick roll in the hay with some cute little idea while your spouse is out of town.  Again, the appeal is that it is not too important.

There’s sometimes a desire to deify or celebrate the form, to say “this is great for writers, because we can have riskier ideas in the short format,” but all of a good writer’s ideas are risky.  I think no playwright in the world will say, if given one chance for a production, “I would rather do a short play than a long one — I would rather an audience spent less time with me.”

Marissa: You’re the most frequently produced female playwright in the Bay Area – what’s up next for you, theatrically speaking?

Megan: By the time this answer gets published, it’ll already be out of date, so follow me on Twitter @WayBetterThanTV or follow my blog at

Next up, I’m shopping some work around, after a period of writing and hibernation.  Since August, I’ve drafted two new full length plays, a gritty neo-noir cop drama called Joe Ryan, and a bat-out-of-hell, deeply political surrealist comedy called Eat The Rich.  I haven’t really looked for a home for either of them yet — Joe Ryan had a reading at the SF Olympians festival, and was a semi-finalist for the Playwrights Foundation festival this year, but I haven’t really hit the pavement with it.  Eat the Rich is newer, weirder; I’m not sure where it belongs.

I’ve also this year written my first TV spec script, had my first commercial game released (for the iPad), and I’m wrapping up my first screenplay right now.  I’m working on a collaboration with director Amy Clare Tasker, it’s probably going to end up being some kind of transmedia project, with a mixture of live and online components.  Basically, there’s no way to make a living in theater, so I’m trying every storytelling medium on the planet to see if I can make a living as a writer in some way or another.

As soon as I have time, I know the next full length play I want to write.  It’s about a group of young people living on the edge of the ghetto, who stage a fake crime spree in order to halt gentrification and keep their rent low.  There’s a very 1980s John Hughes love story in amongst all the hijinks, too.  Anyway, that’s my unwritten play, it’s called Bad Neighborhood, and if anyone wants to give me five grand, I’ll drop everything else in my life and send them a finished script in two months.

Marissa: That sounds amazing — I hope someone takes you up on it! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with me about “Dumplings” and your other projects!

In the meantime, people have 2 more weeks to catch Program 1 of BOA and see the Three Little Dumplings in their latest breathless, shameless, and totally bananas adventure. This Thursday’s performance (May 3) will feature a talk-back with Megan Cohen, director Jessica Holt, and members of the cast!

An Interview with Ken Slattery, Writer of “Death to the Audience”

Our series of interviews with BOA playwrights continues as festival dramaturg Marissa Skudlarek talks to Ken Slattery about his play “Death to the Audience” and related matters.

Ken Slattery is a longtime member of PlayGround and of sketch comedy group Killing My Lobster, but this is his first time at BOA. “Death to the Audience,” despite its threatening title, is a comedy that imagines the god Mars setting out to wage war on his most vicious foe… the audience.

Marissa: Can you talk a little about the genesis of “Death to the Audience”? I know that it originated as a piece for PlayGround (which gives its writers a prompt each month and then asks them to write a short play). What was the prompt that inspired this piece?

Ken: The topic was “Son of Juno.”  I wrote it in March 2004, so I can’t remember exactly how I came to have the idea, but I’m sure I researched who Juno was, discovered Mars was her son, read that Mars was the God of War, and somehow progressed to writing a play where Roman characters onstage decide to declare war on the audience. PlayGround topics often work like that; they usually require a little research that inevitably opens up all sorts of ideas you wouldn’t have thought of having.

Marissa: So that’s what inspired you to use the Roman gods – Mars, Minerva, and Juno – as characters?

Ken: Yes, the topic definitely steered me in that direction. Most writers would not have taken the literal approach to the characters that I did; if I remember rightly, I was the only playwright who had these Gods in my play on the night of the reading. Writing about Gods suits me; they’re larger-than-life characters, a little childish too, definitely not adults, and that seems to suit me generally when it comes to writing comic characters and situations.

Marissa: As a longtime member of PlayGround, you’ve written dozens of short plays. What do you like about the short-play form?

Ken: The short form is deceptively easy; but it is very hard. I think what I like the most is I can sit down and actually complete a first draft of a short play in one night, if I work at it; and that gives me a sense I’ve actually achieved something. It’s good to sprint to the finish line rather than jog there sometimes.  I think audiences might appreciate short form plays for the same reason. I also think audiences like nights where there is a mix of short plays; there’s nearly always something for everyone.

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “Death to the Audience”? (Besides, um, death, of course.)

Ken: I hope they laugh in all the right places, and pause for a moment to consider the plight of the characters onstage too. We sit in the dark and watch characters/actors struggle, week in week out; I hope we can get a glimpse into their point of view for a change–what do they think of us, the audience? There’s a spear-carrier in particular with whom I hope people can sympathize.  Overall, I think it’s a pretty light play that shouldn’t tax anyone too much, and there’s probably a bunch of inside-theatre jokes that regular theatre-goers or anyone with knowledge of theatre will enjoy. I’m not sure anyone dies in the play; though I missed the last rehearsal so who knows what Graham and the actors have planned…

Marissa: Do you have any audience-member horror stories that you’re willing to share?

Ken: I wrote and produced a play in Dublin a long time ago, and we staged it in such a way that the audience entered behind the stage. One night, just as we started Act 2, and the lead actor was in the midst of an emotional monologue, one of the audience members–a  friend of his–came in late from the intermission and said hello to him onstage in a less than formal way, totally disrupting him. It was pretty traumatic at the time but years later, it makes me laugh. I always think it’s cool when audience members comment on the action or start talking to the characters onstage, even though that might be horrifying sometimes; it’s a sign they’re engaged, and that’s good.

Marissa: What about “Death to the Audience,” in your opinion, makes it feel like a “Ken Slattery play”?

Ken: It’s hopefully funny, and it’s hopefully a little dark. I think I write about childish people a lot of the time, even if the characters are supposed to be adults, or in this case, Gods. I think where I’m coming from with that is sometimes it seems most of us never grow up, or we get stuck somewhere in adolescence. That’s a sweeping generality of course but um, prove me wrong, everybody on Facebook :-). I think I also like to write about people who  are unhappy with their lot in life, and are struggling to change it, banish some demons, and gain some control over their destiny. In this play, the God of War fits that type of character, which tends to be the main character in most of my stuff, and is clearly an issue that I seem to have most of the time for some reason.

Marissa: How has the rehearsal process for “Death to the Audience” been? Has the script changed at all during the process?

Ken: Yes, the dialogue has changed quite a bit. I wrote the play back in 2004, when I was still more accustomed to writing for Irish audiences; as such, a lot of my expressions were very Irish-sounding or English-sounding; I changed them all to ones a US audience would find more comprehensible. Also in rehearsal, we trimmed a few lines or cut them and replaced them with action.

Marissa: You and your BOA director, M. Graham Smith, will be collaborating again this summer. Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on?

Ken: We’ll be doing Truffaldino Says No with Shotgun Players. It’s another play of mine that I initially wrote as a result of a PlayGround prompt (Arlecchino). PlayGround commissioned me to develop it into a full-length play back in 2009; Graham took it to Shotgun in 2010, and they agreed to do it this year. It’s about a stock commedia dell’arte character who wants to leave his life in the old world (Venice) behind, and moves to the new world (Venice Beach).  The play’s about what happens to him when he gets to the new world–which resembles the world of a sitcom–and also the effect his departure has on the old world, i.e. the people he’s left behind. He’s also in love with two women, which informs a lot of his decision-making :-). It runs at the Ashby Stage in July.

Marissa: Ken, thanks for taking the time to discuss “Death to the Audience” with me! Your play, with its jokes about actors and audience members, is the perfect curtain-raiser for Program 2 of the Bay One Acts.

And if you have a question you’d like to ask about “Death to the Audience,” come see BOA Program 2 on Thursday night (April 26) and stay for the Spotlight Series talk-back with Ken, Graham, and the cast!

An Interview with Christopher Chen, Writer of “A Game”

Marissa Skudlarek continues her series of interviews with BOA playwrights by discussing “A Game” with playwright Christopher Chen.

2012 is Christopher Chen’s first year participating in BOA. He is a San Francisco native whose work has been seen locally at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, as well as nationally and internationally. “A Game” is the story of a couple who start to play an ostensibly therapeutic game that leaves them questioning the nature of their relationship and more.

Marissa: The game played in “A Game” involves revealing your deepest fears and then pretending that they have come true. So, I think we’re all curious to know – has anyone ever tried to make you play a game like this, and if so, what was your reaction?  If not, where did the idea for this game come from?

Christopher: I am forced to confront my deepest fears every day in this game we call LIFE! Dun dun duuun. But no, I’ve never done anything quite like this, thankfully. I’d been kicking this idea around for a while, and it was kind of a mash-up of two different wants. I wanted to do an intimate, two-person drama with no fancy frills, just two actors and a director really digging into a text; and I also wanted to have some sort of shifting of reality that was totally self-generated and perpetuated by the characters. A weird therapy game proved a natural set-up. But then, after I already mapped the play out, I realized I might have been subconsciously influenced by two works I read many years ago: “The Hitchhiking Game” by Milan Kundera, and Harold Pinter’s “The Lover.” Sigh. There are no original ideas anymore. But honestly, mine is very different from these two and is concerned with different things. No, seriously.

Marissa: What made you decide to center this play on a lesbian relationship, rather than a heterosexual or gay couple?

Christopher: This was actually my director Paul Cello’s suggestion, and I really loved it. Initially I had them as a heterosexual couple, but then Paul suggested two females for several reasons. First, we need more juicy female roles onstage. Second, having two females would make the shifting power dynamics more interesting. Thirdly, it would just be great to have a play which contains a lesbian couple in which their sexual orientation wasn’t the subject. It is the story of a couple and this couple just happens to be a lesbian couple. And I am so glad he urged me in this direction. What I love about the play now is that by making them a same-sex couple, we ultimately get to zero in more, without the specter of male sexual power dynamics hovering in the background. It is a more neutral space in a way, where we can really focus in more on key subjects like trust and delusion (among others).

Marissa: What has it been like working with director Paul Cello? Has the script changed at all during the rehearsal period?

Christopher: It’s been amazing working with Paul Cello. As you can see from my previous answer, he was integral to the play’s conception. This was truly a collaborative process in every sense of the phrase. The great thing about working with Paul is that you get a dramaturg as well as a director. He suggested many little cuts and tweaks, but also talked candidly with me about the play’s ending, which had always vexed me. We went through about three cycles of my changing the ending and Paul challenging me with tough questions, before it finally grew into something that worked. (Ultimately, the script has changed considerably over the rehearsal period, so the play in the anthology for sale is not the one you will see onstage.)  As a director, Paul has a really keen sense of how to get at the nuances of characters and text, and he really knows how to unfold a play in terms of pacing and rhythm. The last play he directed for BOA, “The Pond,” was one of the most suspenseful and masterfully slow-burning works I had seen in a long time, so when I started working with him I pretty much went: “Do that with my play!” He’s really an ideal partner for a playwright working on a new play. I hope to work with him again in this exact way down the line, hopefully on a full-length.

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “A Game”?

Christopher: I hope they will be shaken, engaged, and leave questioning the nature of reality.

Marissa: What about “A Game,” in your opinion, makes it feel like a “Christopher Chen play?”

Christopher: What I aim to do in my plays is to take the audience down a rabbit hole, and to make this a meticulously choreographed journey. I like to first create a solid structure, then slowly pull this structure out from under the audience’s feet, so that they ultimately land in a place of real dislocation and ambiguity. For me, this mimics the process of confronting a work of art, then allowing the work to shift and change until it ultimately expands your mind and upends your emotional state. I aim to have my plays guide the audience through this “expanding” and “upending” process, and I hope that’s what happens in this play, albeit in a shorter time frame.

Marissa: I know you best as a writer of full-length plays, and this is your first time in BOA. What do you like about the short-play, one-act form?

Christopher: I really like how this short form allows me to really focus and singe things down to their essences. If I want to explore this precise mechanism of how these two characters handle this game, then that’s what I’m going to do, goddammit! Nothing else! Because of a different set of expectations that comes with a one-act, I don’t have to worry as much about more exhaustive things like comprehensive backstories or personal histories, things which would muddy up the basic thrust of the play.

Marissa: What’s up next for you, theatrically speaking?

Christopher: My (recently retitled) play Aulis: An Act of Nihilism in One Long Act will be at Cutting Ball’s Risk Is This festival June 8-9. (Fellow BOA writer Anthony Clarvoe’s piece Gizmo is also in this festival.) Also, my play The Hundred Flowers Project will be at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival this summer, then get its world premiere with Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation in late October at the Thick House.

Marissa: Toward the end of “A Game,” (or at least the version of the script that is in the anthology!) the characters agree to reveal their greatest hopes. So let me ask you: what is your greatest hope for BOA 2012?

Christopher: My greatest hope is to have as many people come to see both programs as possible!

Marissa: We hope the same thing, Christopher, and we’re glad to have you as a part of BOA!

“A Game” will be performed in Program 2 of BOA 2012.

An Interview with Sam Leichter, Writer of “In Bed”

Marissa Skudlarek, BOA dramaturg, interviews Sam Leichter about his play “In Bed” and his identity as a playwright, an actor, and a Philadelphian.

2012 marks Sam Leichter’s third consecutive year as a BOA playwright. In 2010, BOA produced his first short play, “The Philadelphian,” and in 2011, they produced “The Pond.” Sam also appeared as an actor in BOA 2009.

Marissa: “In Bed” is the final play of “The Donna DeSantos Trilogy,” three one-act plays about working-class Philadelphians, all of which have premiered at BOA. What draws you to write about this milieu?

Sam: In my writing, I’m always looking for potential explosions. While none of my plays have ever contained actual violence, the potential for violence is always critical. The men in my plays really scare the shit out of me. They are men that I’ve met in Philadelphia, who have a certain harshness, a hypermasculinity that is a perfect powder keg for the kind of intense stories I’m interested in telling. The city of Philadelphia is amazing, enormous, and I’m proud to call it my home. It’s also a city that, in many ways, can never seem to get out from behind the eight ball. The characters in my plays are often the same.

Marissa: Jenny, the main female character of “In Bed,” was mentioned in the first play of the trilogy (“The Philadelphian”) but never appeared onstage. What inspired you to write a play about what happens to Jenny after the events of “The Philadelphian,” and to take her story in this direction?

Sam: So few short plays or one-acts today actually have a story. They’re often “idea” plays. That sounds disparaging, and it’s not meant to be. However, I have little interest in writing a sketch, or in showing anyone how clever I can be. I like plays steeped in history and complications, regardless of how long they are. Allowing the audience and characters to realize connections within a single play, or seeing characters, events and themes show up in multiple plays, really creates an entire world where these stories unfold. After “The Philadelphian,” there was some clamoring for me to give the female characters who are referenced in the play but never seen — Jenny and Donna — some stage time. The idea appealed to me greatly. Originally, I planned on having Donna in the final play, and in the very, very beginnings of first drafts of the play, Donna was the female character. With Jenny it made a lot more sense, and the play really came to life.

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “In Bed”?

Sam: “In Bed” first started kicking around in my brain while I was on a Law & Order: SVU binge. The way that Max is treated in the play — and, we’re led to believe, in his life generally — was something that I really wanted to explore. Beyond that, I hope that there are themes and questions that the play will bring up for BOA audiences and resonate after the play is over: How can I really trust someone? How quickly do I form romantic attachments? When is it safe to let someone in?

Marissa: What about “In Bed,” in your opinion, makes it feel like a “Sam Leichter play”?

Sam: My plays tend to be a bit dark. (Perhaps more than a bit.) “In Bed” is the darkest. Gulp! Hope you enjoy the show!

Marissa: You’re currently in graduate school at Rutgers for an MFA in acting. How do you think that being an actor has influenced you as a playwright?

Sam: I’m an actor who writes. When I direct, I’m an actor who directs. And when I teach, I’m an actor who teaches. Everything I put down on paper comes from my experience as an actor. The way it has influenced me the most, I would say, is that I always, always, always strive to write characters that actors will want to play. I never want an actor to feel like they are being taken for granted, or that they don’t have something juicy to sink their teeth into. I may not always succeed in this, but I always try.

Marissa: Your fans in the Bay Area hope that, even though you’re getting a master’s in acting, you’ll continue to write plays. Have you written anything this year? Do your new friends and professors in New Jersey know that you’re a playwright?

Sam: It looks like there might be some opportunities to write and have some work put up — most likely in a very, very informal setting — this summer and maybe next year. And with classes coming to an end in a few weeks, I’ll have more time to devote to writing in general.

Marissa: As far as I know, all the plays you’ve written have been one-acts. What do you like most about the short-play form? Any plans to write a full-length?

Sam: Short plays are so wonderful! Being able to pack a big punch into a 20-50 minute piece can be really powerful. I would love to write a full-length, and I will. Someday.

Marissa: What’s up next for you, theatrically speaking?

Sam: I just closed my first show here a Rutgers, a beautiful new play by Josh Levine, one of our MFA playwrights. Right now, I’m just gearing up for the end of the semester and looking forward to summer!

Marissa: Sam, thanks for taking the time to do this email interview with me! I’m glad you’re having a good time in New Jersey — but also glad that Bay Area audiences can see a new play of yours this month!

“In Bed” appears in Program 1 of BOA 2012, directed by Rob Ready for Pianofight Productions.

An Interview with Erin Bregman, Writer of “I.S.O. Explosive Possibility”

Marissa Skudlarek, BOA Festival Dramaturg, interviews Erin Bregman about her play “I.S.O. Explosive Possibility” and related matters.

2012 is playwright Erin Bregman’s first year participating in BOA, but she’s a familiar presence on the Bay Area theater scene: her work has been seen at PlayGround, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and Just Theater. “I.S.O. Explosive Possibility” is a poetic and playful investigation of the cutting edge of scientific research.

Marissa: “I.S.O. Explosive Possibility” is a highly theatrical exploration of stem-cell research. Have you written other plays about science? What drew you to science as a topic for drama?

Erin: I haven’t written other plays about science, but I would love to. This play actually came out of a Magic Theatre/Sloan Foundation commission (they wanted to commission my college playwriting teacher, who didn’t have time, and asked if they wanted to commission shorts from her students instead), so that’s why it’s about stem cells. But I grew up with arts and science mashed up together at home — my dad is an astronomer, and my mom’s a painter — and always wanted to combine the two myself. And I hope I have another chance soon!

Marissa: Your dialogue in this play is very stylized and poetic – people who buy a copy of the BOA Anthology will see that your play is actually written in free verse. Do you have a background in poetry? Have other playwrights influenced the lyricism of your voice as a writer?

Erin: I don’t have a background in poetry, but when I was at UC Santa Barbara I read a lot of contemporary American plays, and started seeing the broken line convention form from a lot of writers. I remember in particular reading a Melissa James Gibson play, and having a moment of “aha! genius!” when I understood what she was doing rhythmically with her line breaks. After that, it seemed the only natural way to write.

Marissa: What’s the rehearsal process/working with director Claire Rice been like? Has the script changed at all during the rehearsal period?

Erin: Claire’s awesome. I re-wrote a lot before we went into rehearsal, but there were only really minor changes after we started rehearsing. I had cut a line where one of the actors says the word “obtuse,” and it turns out they were really into that word, so I put it back for her.

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “I.S.O. Explosive Possibility”?

Erin: If nothing else, the idea that science and art-making are much more closely related than they’d thought. And that stem cells are cool. And that you don’t have to be some special genius to be able to think scientifically, and get excited about big science-y ideas.

Marissa: What about “I.S.O. Explosive Possibility,” in your opinion, makes it feel like an “Erin Bregman play?”

Erin: Someone at a reading last night commented that a play I’m working on was “weirdly mesmerizing.”  I like that as a descriptor of my work, and hope it might fit for this one too.

Marissa: You’re a longtime member of PlayGround, so you’ve written many, many one-act plays. What do you like about the short-play form?

Erin: I like that they don’t need a lot of ideas, and can be just one simple exploration of one idea, and really hold together. It’s also just nice to not have to spend a year writing something before it’s finished.

Marissa: What’s up next for you, theatrically speaking?

Erin: I’m not sure. There aren’t any set plans for what’s next yet.

Marissa: The “explosive possibility” in the title of your play refers to the fact that stem cells have the potential to transform into every other kind of cell. Let’s say that you had a day that was full of “explosive possibility” — that is, a free day when you could do anything in the world you wanted to do. How would you spend it?

Erin: Ooooh. Sleeping in. Then going on an adventure that starts with a bike ride and ends in a tent. Good food. And chocolate would be involved in some way, shape, or form.

Marissa: Erin, thank you for taking the time to discuss “I.S.O. Explosive Possibility” with me. I’m looking forward to seeing your “weirdly mesmerizing” work in Program 2 of BOA 2012.

An Interview with Amy Sass, Writer/Director of “Maybe Baby”

Marissa Skudlarek, BOA festival dramaturg, interviews Amy Sass about her play “Maybe Baby” and her work as Artistic Director of Ragged Wing Ensemble.

2012 is Amy Sass’s and Ragged Wing Ensemble’s first appearance in BOA. “Maybe Baby,” part of Ragged Wing’s “Fortune Project,” is an ensemble piece about making the decision to bring a child into this world.

Marissa: I’d like to know about your process in creating “Maybe Baby.” You’re credited as the writer and director of the piece, but I know that Ragged Wing is also an ensemble “collaboratively creating new, interdisciplinary work.” How did you work with the ensemble to create this work?

Amy: “Maybe Baby” is the third installment in a season-long exploration entitled The Fortune Project. Back in December I facilitated a two-week creative development period whereby the ensemble members, board members and invited artists came together to play with the word “fortune.” We investigated everything from ancient oracles, divination, online horoscopes, gambling, and games of chance, to probability statistics and quantum physics. We were intentionally walking the line between kitsch and sacred ritual. At some point in there, I began interviewing people and recording the interviews. I learned a lot about stuff I didn’t know anything about, mainly related to math and the various quantum theories. Sometime in the new year, my own personal theme arose, leading me to interview women friends who were in the same place as me in terms of baby-making. I was curious about the similarities and differences in our conception process. I felt there was a rich connection between our exploration of Fortune and the process of getting pregnant.

Meanwhile our ensemble was engaging in two other projects related to our season theme: A Fool’s Errand, directed by David Stein, and Atomic Intuition, written and directed by Cecilia Palmtag. It’s important to note that all of our projects evolved out of the same cauldron. David’s project was devised, whereas Cecilia and I chose to hold the role of writer and practice that process. As a company it is our goal to create work that arises out of a common experience (the creative development period) but to make space for playwrights to fully own their own process as well.

Marissa: What has been the most wonderful discovery and most frustrating challenge in creating “Maybe Baby”?

Amy: In the past, I have written full-length epics. So keeping this very short was a major challenge for writing. But it was a good challenge, requiring me to seek out frequent feedback from ensemble members. This taught me a lot about the nature of feedback: what kind is helpful and at what stage of the process can I receive it? Who do I trust with the early formless drafts? Jessica, Kate, Addie and Anna took the time to give some really helpful feedback at various stages. Addie in particular spent hours in conversation with me — committing to learning the interior of my brain — and it was lovely developing that relationship with her. As a director, I love to make a mess. My work is usually involves lots of crazy design stuff and on-stage messiness. I had to be a little more user-friendly since our piece needed to work in concert with 4 other pieces. Again: streamlining.

Marissa: What inspired you and the ensemble to create a piece that deals with the themes of “Maybe Baby” – motherhood, the question of whether to start a family, etc.?

Amy: As a writer, I am interested in microcosm and macrocosm. How do personal struggles relate to the world globally? I am 37. I am at an age where conception and career feel like a paradox in my mind. The world already has over 7 billion people in it. How many people can this planet really hold? What are we doing? What am I doing? Folk tales are the blood and bones of my work. There are many folk tales that begin like so: “Once there was a couple who wanted to have a baby. They tried and they tried and they tried but a baby never came. Then one day…” At this point something really weird usually happens resulting in some kind of mysterious changeling child or gingerbread boy or some such. I began to wonder: what if nothing happens? What if there is no “Then one day…”? What does the psyche do when we are in a constant state of potential? How do we get our desires to manifest tangibly on the physical plane? What is the motivation?

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “Maybe Baby”?

Amy: Grappling with paradox is an archetypal journey. We all wonder at some point what magic buttons we can push to create change in our lives. Sometimes we try and nothing happens. Other times it works. Sometimes we feel we live in a chaotic system and all is random. Or perhaps there is a governing force that we do not always have the perspective to understand. How do we cope with all this possibility? I want to honor both the action-taking and the surrendering that is part of being human.

Marissa: “Maybe Baby” is a one-act play, but you and Ragged Wing have also created evening-length pieces of theater. How does your process differ when creating a short piece as opposed to a longer one?

Amy: Well, for this, I basically just had to haul ass and write my little patooty off in concert with continual conversations so that it was in workable shape by our first read-through. Usually, though, for the longer work, I like to do a three-phase process where we workshop central questions related to the theme through composition, music, art, dance etc. It’s a multi-disciplinary approach. Last year for our show OPEN., the cast and crew engaged in two 4-day development workshops and some very intense personal writing prompts. These images and stories inspired my writing process and created a company mythology to play with. That was a five month process from first workshop to first read through.

Marissa: I’m totally stealing this question from Adam Szymkowicz’s playwright interviews, but it feels appropriate to ask this of the author of “Maybe Baby”: Tell me a story from your childhood that helps explain who you are as a writer or as a person.

Amy: 1. As a kid, I was always outside looking for a ‘magical object’ that would transport me to another dimension where magical stuff happened all the time. I never found it, so I started making art.
2. My parents taught me 3 essential things: how to love, how to fight, how to heal. In that order. I’ve come to be very grateful for my training in these three things.
3. Since before I could walk, I was watching World Wide Wrestling and the Incredible Hulk with my dad. At night he would read Dr. Seuss. These left a lasting impression on my psyche.

Marissa: What’s up next for you and for Ragged Wing Ensemble, theatrically speaking?

Amy: On May 23-27 we will present Fortune: The Complete Works, which will show all the work that has evolved out of our theme. The Complete Works will include the following pieces: Excerpts from A Fool’s Errand, directed by David Stein; Atomic Intuition, written and directed by Cecilia Palmtag; Maybe Baby, written and directed by Amy Sass; a short film entitled No Outlet by Amy Sass and Matt Jacobs; plus some participatory art “experiences.”  More details at Next year’s season theme will be announced in June. Until then, we focus on the now.

Marissa: Amy, thank you for taking the time to discuss “Maybe Baby” with me. We are fortunate to have you and Ragged Wing as part of this year’s BOA festival!

“Maybe Baby” will appear in Program 2 of BOA 2012.

An Interview with Stuart Eugene Bousel, Writer of “Brainkill”

Marissa Skudlarek, BOA festival dramaturg, interviews Stuart Eugene Bousel about his play “Brainkill” and related matters.

Stuart Eugene Bousel has been represented in BOA with the plays “Housebroken,” from 2010, and “Speak Roughly,” from 2011. He returns for BOA 2012 with a fast-paced, wicked satire about greed, altruism, and omelets. Stuart also runs theater company No Nude Men, which is producing Erin Bregman’s play “I.S.O. Explosive Possibility” in BOA 2012.

Marissa: Megan Cohen (author of “Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas”) already did an interview with you about “Brainkill” for the San Francisco Theater Pub website, which covers a lot of the questions that I would have wanted to ask you, so I decided to get creative. There’s a scene in “Brainkill” where the character of Carmen is alone onstage and poses a series of questions to the audience. I thought it might be fun to ask you to answer some of Carmen’s questions. So, Carmen question #1: “What is the difference between ‘Society’ and ‘Our Friends’?”

Stuart: Well, fair warning: these questions are kind of supposed to melt your brain and be somewhat impossible to answer… I would say that in order to answer this question for yourself (and everyone will probably have a different answer) you would need to define Society and define Friends, both what those words mean to you and the generally accepted definitions. For me, the primary difference is that friends are accountable for their actions while Society is fundamentally unaccountable, as it only exists as a concept and it’s a concept that does not allow for individual accountability. Ironically, this makes Society easy to blame for a myriad of choices that we, as individuals, make.

Marissa: Carmen question #2: “Which bothers you more: not understanding, or having to think about it?”

Stuart: Not understanding. I get very frustrated when things are incomprehensible, especially if they’ve been made so deliberately. There’s always a fine line between code and nonsense and most people can’t walk that line, usually because they are lying– to themselves, other people, both. Society. My whole life I have been sort of obsessed with issues of integrity and authenticity. In addition to working in the theater, which is a communicative art, I’ve worked in both print and broadcast media, marketing and public relations, and how information is conveyed and the motivations behind it are now things I think about all the time because I have some inside knowledge of the industry, and I’ve seen firsthand how it can be used to manipulate both individuals and large groups of people. I also briefly dated a somewhat prominent politician who I occasionally refer to as “Richard III.” Sleeping with a genuinely evil person will basically make you suspicious of everything for the rest of your life. That said, sometimes something isn’t incomprehensible, it just requires a lot of thought, and generally I like things that require a lot of thought. I like puzzles and I like to pull things apart and analyze them. Obvious literature, art, opinions, people, are sort of a turn-off for me. But the problem comes when I mistakenly think that someone or something requires time and intellectual investment, when, in fact, it’s just a bucket of deceitful nonsense. When I discover that I’ve been wandering in a dead-end maze, I get very down on myself: “Why did you fall for it again, Stuart? Are you trusting, or just an idiot?” Hence, my answer to the question. But the truth is, it’s a bullshit question because it’s really a disguised statement saying, “Let’s be honest, none of us really want to think too hard about anything because of the risk that we’ll discover there is no point.”

Marissa: OK, geeky playwriting question. You specify that all of the characters in “Brainkill” can be played by either gender – meaning that you had to write this play without using any pronouns. This seems like the playwriting equivalent of writing a novel without using the letter “E” – and you make it look easy! How difficult was this? And what was the impulse behind writing a totally gender-neutral play?

Stuart: It was surprisingly not difficult at all. I wrote the first draft calling the characters A, B, C, D and E, and the names didn’t get decided on until I was done. In revision, I went back in and inserted the names but because I hadn’t used them initially, I hadn’t really had sexes in mind for the characters as I was creating their voices, and had thus avoided pronouns consciously. As a bit of a joke/wink at the audience, I added the line, “Put Darcy out of Darcy’s misery” as a very conscious way of pointing out this particular quirk of “Brainkill.”

Marissa: What about “Brainkill” do you feel makes it a “Stuart Bousel play”?

Stuart: This is a great question. If I had to pick, my trademarks (as I’ve come to see them) are crazy smart characters very precisely articulating their worldview in shockingly blunt ways, and morally ambiguous people falling in love with truly lovely people who could probably do better. “Brainkill” has both of these things. I also frequently write about certain themes, namely God and spirituality, sexual desire and sexual power, loyalty and forgiveness, intellectual and emotional integrity, and the modern obsession with materialism and social status. “Brainkill” is about all those things except God. Unless you perceive Carmen as being a stand-in for God. Which I’m not saying she is. But she might be. What do you think?

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “Brainkill”?

Stuart: I hope they laugh a lot at Alex. I hope they’re properly horrified by Alex. I hope they’re moved by Bobby. I hope they like Elliot and feel sorry for Darcy. I hope they get that Carmen’s questions are funny– and important ones we should be asking ourselves all the time. I hope they don’t feel like they have to “get the show” to get the show. Mostly I hope they talk about it afterwards. And that they want to talk to me about it. And that they recognize this discussion can be enlarged to talking about the world we’re living in and what it means to live in that world.

Marissa: You’ve had several full-length plays staged in San Francisco over the past few years, but this is also your third year as a writer in BOA. What do you like about the one-act form?

Stuart: I consider “Brainkill” and the majority of what goes on at BOA to be “short form” rather than “one-act” actually. Technically, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, and Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother are all one-acts and I can’t think of three more disparate plays — structurally, stylistically, thematically and running-time wise. To me, a “one-act” is over 45 minutes and essentially follows a three-act or even five-act structure, but without an intermission. A short, on the other hand, is less than half an hour and can really have any structure — it can be a fragment, it can be an epic, it can be a scene, etc. — and that’s the beauty of it. I feel at liberty to be more experimental in a short because if the experiment doesn’t succeed, it’s okay — you’re not spending an hour or more of your audience’s lives on it. Also, there are some things- some jokes, or situation, or stylistic choices — that can really only last for a short time. The rapid-fire dialogue of “Brainkill” for instance would be grating, I think, if it went on for 90 minutes. But at just under 20, it’s fun. And if you don’t find it fun, well, good news: it’ll be over soon.

Marissa: You always seem to be one of the busiest people on the San Francisco theater scene. What’s up next for you, theatrically speaking?

Stuart: I’ll be directing The Merchant of Venice for Custom Made, opening in July. After that, I’ll be premiering a new work at the Olympians Festival in December, along with 23 other new works by a diverse collection of San Francisco Bay Area writers. [Editor’s note: These writers include BOA 2012 participants Megan Cohen, Neil Higgins, Colin Johnson, Claire Rice, and Marissa Skudlarek, in addition to Stuart Bousel.] Last but not least, I’m trying to put together an online magazine profiling the life and times of various small theater companies and theater artists around the Bay. Anyone interested in submitting should contact me directly at

Marissa: A line that pops up repeatedly in “Brainkill” is “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” What’s your favorite filling for an omelet, and do you have any brunch recommendations in San Francisco?

Stuart: Goat cheese makes everything better, as does avocado, as does bacon. In fact, a goat cheese-avocado-bacon omelet sounds like the best breakfast ever. However, they don’t serve that at my favorite breakfast place in San Francisco because my boyfriend and I favor Le Zinc, which is a French bistro in Noe Valley. He’s an eggs Benedict person, I’m an eggs Aurore person. They make both excellently, and when my boyfriend tries to speak French to the staff, they reward him with almond cake.

Marissa: Stuart, thank you for taking the time to discuss “Brainkill” with me. I hope that this play does provoke lots of stimulating discussion afterwards. Preferably over a good omelet.

“Brainkill,” directed by Sara Staley for San Francisco Theater Pub, will be featured in Program 1 of BOA, opening April 22.

An Interview with Anthony Clarvoe, Writer of “Cello”

Marissa Skudlarek, BOA festival dramaturg, interviews Anthony Clarvoe about his play “Cello” and related matters.

Anthony Clarvoe is an award-winning playwright whose works have been performed in the Bay Area, across the country, and around the world. “Cello,” a drama about a man, a woman, a moonlit room and the memory of a cello, is his first play in BOA.

Marissa: “Cello” is an expansion of a play you had in the San Francisco One-Minute Play Festival in December 2011. What made you want to return to this moment and these characters, and explore them further?

Anthony: “2 Dreams,” the one-minute play, came out of a mysterious fragment from my journal. I literally do not remember anything about how it came to be there. When it was in the festival, some interesting people asked, “What is that taken from?” and I thought, how perfect that it’s taken from something that doesn’t exist yet. What could that be?  And who are these characters, anyway?

Marissa: This is perhaps an obvious question, but why a cello and not another musical instrument?

Anthony: The silly answer: when Paul Cello (BOA director) introduced me to Jessica Holt (BOA’s Artistic Director), I said that if anything came of it, I’d name our firstborn after him.  Now obviously, I wouldn’t have followed through on such a promise if his name were something nonsensical like Paul Crucible or Paul Speed-the-Plow.  But the combination of this odd little dream fragment and the name of that musical instrument gave me just enough distance and spark to triangulate a new live dramatic situation.
The serious answer: the ‘cello is the most grief-stricken instrument in the orchestra, except perhaps for the oboe, but the oboe can without a moment’s notice start sounding like a duck, which is not at all what I had in mind.  The ‘cello also sounds interesting when you do things like drum your fingers on it or damp the strings with your arm.

Marissa: Do you play any musical instruments yourself?  Have you written other plays that include music or sound as a key element?

Anthony: I spent many miserable hours in my childhood failing to learn to play the piano. I did pick up a smidgen of music theory. I play acoustic Delta blues guitar in conditions of absolute privacy. My first majorly produced play, Pick Up Ax, is the earliest recorded instance of a script that includes a scene scored for two air guitars. I almost always have music on when I write, and finding the particular writing soundtrack for a play is a major part of its discovery process.

Marissa: What’s the rehearsal process/working with director Jill MacLean been like? Has the script changed at all during the rehearsal period?

Anthony: That Jill is directing this is great, because we knew each other up to now as arts management types.  We’ve spent more time drinking at receptions than we have rehearsing. And now that it turns out we’re artists and stuff, I’ve seen enough of her to know she doesn’t waste a lot of time getting rattled. She’ll make it her business to figure out what she and the actors need, and translate my maunderings into something the rest of the artists can use. As to rewrites, I’d imagined a somewhat different figure playing the ‘cello, but everybody said, “The person you need is El Beh,” and they were absolutely right, so I happily tweaked the script to make the character a little more like her. That led to a new discovery or two.
I’ve been to one rehearsal so far.  I began by saying that I knew practically nothing helpful to say to answer all those necessary questions that actors and directors ask about what the hell is going on in the play. Then I interrupted their excellent work with cryptic remarks for hours on end. Everyone was very patient with me.

Marissa: What about “Cello” do you think makes it feel like an “Anthony Clarvoe play”?

Anthony: The fact that it says so right on the title page sometimes honestly feels like the best information I have to go by.
Also, somebody pointed out that just when you think the characters are going to talk at cross purposes and baffle each other until it’s time to go home, somebody achieves a moment of ambiguous grace.  “You know,” they said, “that thing you do.” “Oh,” I thought, “do I do that?” And in those moments you fast-forward headlong through your collected works, and go, “Yup. I guess I do that. Good to know.”

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “Cello”?

Anthony: The opportunity to be in the same room while three performers break their hearts a little and get them thinking in new ways a little and give them a chuckle or two of recognition.  A savory amuse-bouche before 11th Hour Ensemble, Megan Cohen, Stuart Bousel, and Sam Leichter knock them for a loop.

Marissa: People tend to know you best for your full-length plays, and this is your first time participating in BOA. What do you like about the short-play form?

Anthony: It’s a chance to play out a set of conventions that I wouldn’t want to try to sustain through a full evening. It’s nice to take a break from the epics and write a lyric poem for once. All that plus the practically instant gratification of writing something that people will be watching, fully produced, in a matter of weeks. This is not my world.

Marissa: What’s up next for you, theatrically speaking?

Anthony: Two full-length plays (big surprise!): Gizmo, in which six actors play humans and robots, will be in Cutting Ball’s Risk Is This Festival in June. Our Practical Heaven, in which six remarkable women play remarkable women, will have its world premiere at the Aurora Theatre next season.

Marissa: Anthony, thank you for taking the time to discuss “Cello” with me. I’m looking forward to seeing it as the “amuse-bouche” in Program 1 of BOA.

An Interview with Bennett Fisher, Writer of “The Bird Trap”

Marissa Skudlarek, Festival dramaturg for BOA 2012, is interviewing each of the BOA playwrights about their work. First up: Bennett Fisher, author of “The Bird Trap.”

Bennett Fisher has been represented in BOA with the plays “Exchange,” from 2009, “Query,” from 2010, and “Pure Baltic Avenue,” from 2011. He returns for BOA 2012 with a drama about two sisters in a cabin in the Northern California wilderness.

Marissa: What inspired the characters of Betty and Frances, the estranged sisters at the heart of “The Bird Trap”?

Bennett: Well, I have two younger sisters, Allegra and Ariane (yes, like my director). A lot of the dynamic of Betty and Frances’ relationship is inspired by things I’ve noticed about the way my sisters interact, although it would be a stretch to say the characters are based on them. You start from what you know, then it gathers its own momentum.

Marissa: According to the script, the setting of the play – a cabin in the “census-designated place” of Klamath, California – should function as the play’s third character. What led you to choose this setting?

Bennett: I really wanted to write a play informed by design. I had one of those great late-night conversations with these two awesome designers  I’ve worked with a lot at Campo Santo – Alejandro Acosta and Tanya Orellana – and we got to talking about how cool it would be for a design element to be really central to a play’s meaning. So often design feels like something layered in at tech, but I really wanted it to actively inform the tone of what was being said. Klamath has a kind of oppressive nothingness about it which intrigued me.

Marissa: What’s the rehearsal process/working with director Ariane Owens been like? Has the script changed at all during the rehearsal period?

Bennett: Originally, this play was a part of a piece I wrote with Megan Cohen – we intertwined two plays, borrowing one another’s dialogue as each progressed. I have had to disentangle it from that earlier play, but some of the lines (most of the funniest ones) are Megan’s. [Editor’s note: Megan Cohen is also a BOA 2012 playwright! She’s the author of “Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas.”] And the script changed early on, between when I submitted it and our first table read. Ariane has been terrific – I am so lucky to have her on this piece. As someone who is such a fine actor herself, she’s great at digging into the fundamentals of the characters’ relationship and the detail in the language. It’s rare and wonderful to have someone who is both willing to trust the play, but also makes me work to ensure that everything in the piece is pulling its weight.

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “The Bird Trap”?

Bennett: Mostly, I want to keep them engaged in the moment – I know that sounds glib, but that’s really what goes into a lot of my evaluative process when revising. I think you want a play to keep you guessing, and you want to think about the “ideas” of the play about an hour or so after it’s over. I feel the play touches on issues of family loyalty, the opposing needs to disconnect and stay connected, and the effect of isolation and the passage of time on close relationships. In many ways, a successful play is like a Rorschach test – it has to resonate differently with different audience members, and you, the writer, need to ensure that is malleable enough to allow that.

Marissa: What about “The Bird Trap,” in your opinion, makes it feel like a “Bennett Fisher play”?

Bennett: [BOA Artistic Director] Jessica Holt coined the term “comedy of Benace,” which is a kind of riff on Pinter’s “comedy of menace,” which I think would characterize a lot of my writing. It’s comic (I hope), but there’s also a sense of dread or unease. What else? Infantile behavior. Clipped dialogue. Oozing sarcasm. No finance or technology in this one, but I think like many of my other plays, it’s about the limits of empathy.

Marissa: You are an actor and director in addition to being a playwright – has this affected the way that you write plays or approach theater?

Bennett: Absolutely. I think it allows you to trust in the form a little more, to know that actors and directors will convey so much more than what is explicit in the language. It helps you appreciate that everything in a play needs to be rhetorical – to make it about action, about getting something you want from someone else. I also think it makes you eager for the collaborative process, which kind of gets back to the whole design conversation from the earlier question. I want the other artists to define the piece collectively with me.

Marissa: This is your fourth consecutive year with a short play in BOA – what do you like best about the short-play form?

Bennett: I think that short plays force you to be economic, if nothing else. It’s surprising how large a return you can get on something so brief. Beyond that, BOA has really allowed me an opportunity to experiment and explore – there are things that work well in ten minutes that would be unwatchable if expanded to two hours, and it’s cool to take those risks.

Marissa: You always seem to be one of the busiest people in the San Francisco theater scene. What’s up next for you?

Bennett: I have a play, Don’t Be Evil, that’s being workshopped as part of the Dragon Theater’s New Play Development Factory this month and am directing a reading of my favorite play of all time, Vaclav Havel’s Temptation, for Theater Pub in May. Beyond that, a lot of other writing projects in various stages for various organizations, and then a busy summer working on Cutting Ball’s Risk is THIS festival (I’m the Cutting Ball literary manager) and acting in Curse of the Starving Class at Stanford Summer Theater.

Marissa: You certainly are busy — thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to discuss “The Bird Trap”! I’m looking forward to seeing the latest comedy of Benace.

Bennett Fisher’s “The Bird Trap,” directed by Ariane Owens for Sleepwalkers Theatre, will appear in Program 2 of BOA. Tickets here.