Tell us a little bit about Sheherezade. Start with the spelling, why is it spelled that way?
There are actually about half a dozen different ways that it is commonly spelled with an English alphabet. 14 years ago this one was the one that was picked and the subsequent producers have respected it. We do get a lot of pressure to "fix" the spelling, though. Sheherezade is a short play festival that spotlights new work from Playwrights' Center of San Francisco (PCSF) playwrights. We use an ensemble cast, multiple directors, and fully produce the show. It's a tradition that started 14 years ago. It's changed quite a bit over the years from staged readings to full production and from year-in-review to no theme. The number of plays, directors, and actors also change from year to year.
This is your sixth Sheherezade production as producer/artistic director for the show, but you’ve been involved in one way or another since 2006. What keeps bringing you back to this particular project?
I love the tradition of it, working with PCSF and helping them showcase their members. It's always a fun project to work on and I might be showing a little bit of a bias, but I love short form writing, whether it's short stories or short plays. Although there are a lot of short play festivals, I feel like there is still a perception that short plays are somehow less than full-length or one-acts. We often miss that it takes a lot of work and craft to effectively distill entire relationships, emotional arcs, sense of place and time, and entire plot lines into less than 10 pages. It takes a different, but no less important, skill-set for actors and directors to realize those elements and have it be just as satisfying as, and sometimes more haunting, more emotionally impacting than a longer work. When I took over Sheherezade (2009) we had only just started doing it as a full production - off book, lights, sounds, and minimal set. My vision for it has always been to raise the bar every year, to get it to a main-stage experience for the audience, despite it being 8 or 9 completely different stories written by different playwrights. I want it to be as seamless an evening of theatre as possible that still gives variety. So we have an ensemble cast, only a couple of directors, we bring the cast together a few times to read-through and rehearse them all together, and this year we are focusing on the design elements that help pull it all into something that will feel like a unified universe, while still allowing the plays to occupy their own realities and worlds. Every year I put more demands on the playwrights and production team to continue to raise that bar. Last year was an amazing experience, this year is going to be even better.
Wily West decided to officially partner with PCSF to produce the show for them when we realized that the production team for Sheherezade was essentially the same as the Wily West team. PCSF isn't a production company, they are a development organization, so it was a strain on resources for both of us. But that's the logistical reasoning. There is a good alignment between PCSF and Wily West's missions to promote local playwrights and build a supportive community here in the Bay Area for emerging artists; one that provides an environment to work with more experienced artists. It also provides Wily West with an opportunity to pay back into the organization. Without PCSF most of us wouldn't be working together now, because it's how and where we met. For me personally, PCSF gave me opportunities to stretch my talents, try new things, and re-enter the theatre life after a long time away from theatre. Under Rod and Jennifer's leadership I have seen them continue to deliver on that for many many others. Put simply, I want to support them.
The call for submissions specifies that there is no theme, but you’ve mentioned that themes happen organically. What do you mean? What do you see happening thematically with these plays?
Sheherezade used to have the Year in Review theme, and while it was fun, it had a lot of challenges and started to feel stale. For one thing, it tended to encourage sketches more than fully realized plays. It also, placed time-constraints on us that were very difficult and stressful to navigate. We also realized that if the point was to showcase the membership's best work, then we were blocking off plays that the playwrights might have, but didn't fit the theme. So we eliminated the theme to see what we'd get. It was surprising to find that long after we'd selected the plays we could see little themes and topics emerge that crossed several plays. We also have a development process for the scripts after they are selected and the playwrights will hear something in someone else's play that they want to echo or incorporate into theirs. With Sheherezade 14, the theme I see really standing out even before revisions, is perception and reality and how those can change suddenly, how they are driven by human relationships, and what that shift does to us. I also see in several of the plays grief and letting go and how we navigate loss, sometimes dealt with in very humorous ways.
What is the most important thing to you for Sheherezade from a production standpoint?
That I've brought the right group of people together to make it all happen. It is very important to me that the people involved know what they need to do and are empowered to do it and that they enjoy themselves. The rest takes care of itself when that happens. Quinn and I practically have the logistics of this show down to a science, which leaves us the room to nurture the rest of the company and focus on the fun stuff.
What about artistically?
I have a few things that I'm looking for artistically and am really pleased that - knock on wood - we will be hitting them all this year. I wanted plays that could be anything on the surface (silly, farce, drama, absurd), but had to have something deeper for the characters and the story underneath. I wanted to move further away from the sketch/short feel and fully realize that short-form craft. As we went through the development process, I was grateful to hear and see that all of them have a great variety and range, as well as depth. Suze Allen returned to the show to offer some dramaturgy and every one of our playwrights, some of them new to production, have been great with being receptive and proactively working with their directors on revisions. Most of the revisions were minor, but sometimes the difference between a good moment and a great moment that lands can be as simple as a word change.
From a directing stand-point we've been really fortunate the last several years and it's one of the things that I am careful to protect and continue. I think that Wes' (Cayabyab) experience being in the show for so many years and seeing what he did with last year's Lawfully Wedded makes me particularly excited about what he'll bring to the show this year. Amy Crumpacker is new to Wily West, but after seeing her work with 24-Hour Fest and a reading of Bridgette Dutta Portman's La Fee Verte at PCSF last fall, I am thrilled to have her on the show. Both are thoughtful, respectful of the playwrights and actors, and have a strong vision for what they want, but are also great collaborators together and with the designers.
Unity of design and seamlessness is, as I've said, very important to me. Quinn and Ellen have taken all of my notes and worked closely with the directors and have come back with something I think will help the audience see continuity from play to play, but really appreciate and recognize place and time for each of these very different pieces. It will be a definite departure from the usual black box fare. I cannot wait to see this on stage. They both have such an amazing eye for detail and are genius at creative problem solving, which when working with a limited budget is a crucial skill in small theatre. We are also working with Antonia Lucas for the music design for the transitions, pre/post-show, and intermission music. Antonia has been producing and writing music for over twenty years, has built quite a name for herself and is a very passionate advocate for musician's and songwriter's rights. By working with her, we have the luxury of working with the recording artists to arrange specific pieces of the music and custom weave them into the production. Incorporating music into our shows is something that everyone at Wily West advocates. Morgan started with his first productions having live musicians play and I'm happy we are coming back to that this season.
We have also been very fortunate with our casts for the show, and this year they all have such an amazing chemistry together. We noticed it in the call-back auditions; it was undeniable that any combination of this powerful ensemble just crackled, the air was so electric. Each of the actors has an ease and confidence on stage that speaks volumes to their experience and talents. They are all truly just lovely people too.
This is the first show for the season, what else is happening and how does Sheherezade fit?
Morgan and I were talking recently about how Sheherezade is like our Nutcracker (his parents having been ballet dancers, teachers, producers we have a lot of dance references in our conversations). Sheherezade is definitely a big part of the season, but it's also something spotlighted and special that is tradition as well as something we just love doing. So we kick off the season with Sheherezade 14 and move right into rep with Superheroes a curated show of 11 short pieces, by 8 playwrights and interwoven together by a central theme and ensemble cast, which will be showing on an alternate schedule with Everybody Here Says Hello! by Stuart Bousel. Everybody Here Says Hello! takes an arch, clever, and yet sweet look at relationships and figuring out what we really want. In the fall we have another rep with Un-Hinged by Krista Knight about things unsaid and being on the outside looking in, which will perform on an alternate schedule with Drowning Kate by Morgan Ludlow. Drowning Kate is about a man who revives his wife after she falls into the lake, but did he break the bounds of science or awaken something darker. We may have another little treat in December, but we aren't ready to announce yet. Stay tuned and I can't wait to see you all at the theatre!