A few hours before No Shame Theatre was set to begin, I was still uncommitted about submitting my short play.
I had bragged about writing a No Shame feature from a first-person point of view — as an active participant — but now my confidence was waning.
“I whipped something up,” I told Joe Johnston, a friend and the photographer I assigned to shoot No Shame. “But I don’t know. . . I don’t wanna make a fool of myself.”
No Shame, which takes place on the last Friday of every month at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, is an open mic-like event during which anyone can submit a 5-minute piece to be performed. Since I’ve written a fair amount of fiction over the years, I figured it might be cool to give it a shot. But when Joe read my piece, “Wish in One Hand,” his chilly, unimpressed reaction made me question the idea. Also, the piece had some subject matter that would make my mom blush.
But No Shame encourages risks: “DARE TO FAIL!,” the Little Theatre challenges submitters on its website.
Taking risks, after all, is what sparks innovative art. Which is the point of No Shame Theatre.
“It’s really all about original work,” said Kevin Harris, executive director of the Little Theatre.
When he was earning an MFA in directing at the University of Iowa, Harris ran the No Shame Theatre there — the very place No Shame was launched in 1986, when two guys sought an alternative venue to encourage artistic diversity. Since that time, No Shame has spread to 43 venues across the country, and the rules are always the same: All work must be original. All performances must be five minutes or less. And you can’t break stuff.
Other than that, anything goes. The first 15 people to bring something get to have it parlayed on stage. So if you have a script for a play, you can either read it yourself or have actors perform it. If you’ve written a song, you can sing it. If you have a poem, read away. The Little Theatre staff doesn’t review the material ahead of time. And salty language or — in theory — even nudity is allowed.
Which is why the free shows begin so late — 11:30 p.m. — well after the featured Friday performances have ended.
“We want to make sure everybody who does attend knows what they’re getting into,” Harris said.
That edginess hasn’t gone over well with some local theatre folks, who have written letters to the editor about No Shame’s potential for R-rated material. But Harris hopes programs like No Shame will encourage creativity while also luring in younger crowds that could become the next generation of ticket holders.
With edginess in mind, I was going to go with “Wish in One Hand” — sort of a Judd Apatow piece where two young men recall a hormone-fueled night on the town. But after Joe’s reaction, I chickened out and went with a safer piece.
“Suspects,” about two murder suspects sitting alone in the back of a police cruiser, was culled from a short story I had written years ago. Inspired by a trial I covered while on the court beat, it’s a dialogue-heavy piece in which the two dimwits don’t seem to have a grasp on what they did. And even though they suspect they are being secretly recorded, they blab about the crime anyway, sealing their fate.
Since there’s not much of a market for short stories, I never submitted it to anyone. So this would be its public unveiling.
If I submitted it. Because, as I walked up to the theatre, reporter pad and script in hand, the quarterback option was still on.
But then I did it. At 10:30, I walked up to the line and turned in my piece, hoping I wasn’t about to embarrass myself or my employer.
Wendy-Marie Foerster and Katie Mack-Montenegro, who helped establish No Shame with Harris, hooked me up with two actors, Aaron Anthony Bonilla and Lester Wilson, whom I interviewed before I “directed.”
Both have performed in community theatre, Bonilla graduating from the PCPA Theatrefest and Wilson from Cal Poly’s theatre program.
“When I heard about the opportunity to do something that’s completely uncensored, I could not pass up the opportunity,” Bonilla said of No Shame Theatre.
Bonilla, who writes and acts, likes to explore what he calls “queer theatre,” where characters are gay or transgender. But he also wants to dip into weighty topics, like incest.
“No one wants to talk about things that make people very uncomfortable,” he said. “These things happen more often than we think.”
Wilson, who teaches an improv class at the Little Theatre, agreed with Bonilla that the unpredictability of No Shame produces a raw energy, as he discovered in December when he and a friend performed during No Shame’s debut here.
“What we did here was completely different than what we rehearsed because of the energy of the room,” he said.
After our interview, the two actors ran through “Suspects,” and I offered a few suggestions here and there, based on how I envisioned the characters. Then they went off on their own to rehearse once more.
At 11:30, the show began, and immediately the variety was apparent: Joetta Hernandez performed a scene about a homeless woman at a bus stop. Redzuan Abdul Rahim performed a funny monologue about a Malaysian actor type-cast as a Chinese character. Neil Terry introduced his coffeehouse acoustic tune by declaring, “This is a bitter, broken-hearted breakup song.” And a play called “A Typical Day at the DMV” featured an Archie Bunker-like curmudgeon grousing about DMV patrons.
Even the No Shame organizers, Harris, Foerster and Mack-Montenegro, had pieces performed.
There was no nudity. And while there was some salty language here and there, it was nothing adults couldn’t handle.
But let’s not kid anyone. It was a little hard to focus on other performances when I had my own script.
As my two actors walked to the stage, I shrank in my conveniently darkened audience seat, hoping to remain unseen in the shadows. If this piece was going to sink like the Titanic, it was best that no one remembered its captain.
But then, 19 seconds into it, it happened:
The audience laughed.
And then they laughed several more times. Heck, I even laughed. Because while the actors portrayed the characters differently than I had envisioned, I liked their more boisterous, goofball interpretation.
Granted, I had pictured it as a comedic piece that led to a serious ending, making a statement about the absurdity of violence. But, frankly — whatever.
The audience liked it.
“Your piece rocked,” Foerster told me afterward.
That’s what mattered — that it rocked.
That I rocked. The writer of this play performed live for 70 people, who laughed and clapped.
I left feeling like Neil Simon, albeit without the Tonys, Emmys and Pulitzer. And I vowed that next time I would indeed dare to fail — I would bring “Wish in One Hand” and bravely submit it for public consumption.
Of course, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I don’t know.
I still don’t want to make a fool of myself.