The director, playwright, producer and occasional actor Stuart Bousel realized that on the weekend of April 6-7, he will have three independent projects running simultaneously on the Exit Theatre’s three stages. He’s directing two shows running across the hall from each other: Left Coast Theatre Company’s production of “The Laramie Project” and Exit Theatre’s own “Exit the King” (which begins performances Friday, March 16). Down the hall, Custom Made Theatre Company will be workshopping a script by local writer Bridgette Dutta Portman as part of its Undiscovered Works program, which Bousel created and runs.
Bousel calls triple-booking the Exit a “career first.” Even so, it’s emblematic of this indie theater artist’s significant output, his drive and his range of passions. What it doesn’t quite suggest is his initiative, the number of times he’s built his own theatrical institutions. He co-founded San Francisco Theater Pub, which from 2009 to 2016 presented monthly theater ranging from beer-themed shorts to full-length Shakespeare in bars. He created San Francisco Olympians Festival, an annual reading series of mythology-themed plays. And he co-founded Saturday Write Fever, a monthly “instant festival” in which scripts created on the spot get performed by actors cast from the crowd.
In an interview in the Chinatown apartment he shares with his fiance, Cody Rishell — who often designs the promotional artwork for Bousel’s shows — Bousel, 39, says his drive comes from a combination of factors beyond his own independent spirit: a hardworking father who believed in him enough to let his son teach a whole class on the Loch Ness Monster; support and encouragement from, among others, Christina Augello, the Exit’s artistic director; and being denied opportunities at larger theatrical institutions.
His story, he says, is not the story aspiring artists usually want to hear. “I produced my own s— for a long time. I forced people to take me seriously by creating a body of work they could not ignore. And I happened to be lucky enough to be seen and liked by the right people who then either offered me jobs or promoted my work. But I had to put my own work out there.”
Bousel grew up one of three adopted children, all of different ethnicities, to an affluent Jewish father and a working-class Midwestern mother, spending his first 13 years in New York and New Jersey and then moving to Tucson. For a time in grade school, teachers “thought I was mentally challenged,” he recalls. “In second and third grade I was in remedial classes because I wasn’t good at connecting with other kids.”
Mythology changed everything. His fourth-grade teacher noticed he was reading Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” during recess; soon after that, he was taking anthropology, mythology and medieval history classes at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Around the same time, Bousel saw the original Broadway production of “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim’s reworking of classic fairy tales. The show struck him both because of his interest in myths and because it was the first time he deeply identified with a character.
He and his sister, who was sitting next to him, had the same thought at the same time. “At the end of the second act, when (Cinderella) says, ‘Sometimes I really enjoy cleaning,’ my sister was like, ‘That’s you!’”
Of all the arts, he says, “I think theater is most interesting to me because all that internal stuff is in front of you. … There’s something about the moment of looking at a character on stage and being like, ‘That’s me.’ I mean, it’s actually a teenage girl being played by a twentysomething Broadway actress, but it’s also me. I think that that isn’t something that is as easy to do, for me, with other mediums.”
Bousel, who moved to San Francisco in 2002, says that if he has an objective as an artist, it’s “to complicate your idea of the other person.” But he feels that notion is under threat right now, from both the left and the right. “I keep hearing people say, from all across the map, variations on ‘Stay in your lane,’ and that really freaks me out.”
Being an artist “involves a great deal of lane changing, and a great deal of exploration, and a great deal of getting it wrong — and a great deal of writing about stuff that scares you, and people that you don’t know and lives you haven’t lived. I totally understand the request to do that as respectfully and as responsibly as possible. I do not understand that request when it comes off as, ‘Don’t do it at all.’”
With “Exit the King,” Bousel is trying out a new lane, in directing a Eugène Ionesco play for the first time. With absurdism, “I really have to think outside of my normal bag of tricks,” he says, but “the subject matter is really in my wheelhouse.” The show stars Don Wood as a king who, piece by piece, sheds life and everything he loves, including his greatest love: Queen Marie, played by Mikka Bonel. “It’s so horrifying, everything that happens to him,” Bousel says. “And yet, it’s such a testament to all that we have. You couldn’t lose so much if you didn’t have so much.”
Exit the King: Written by Eugène Ionesco. Translated by Donald Watson. Directed by Stuart Bousel. March 16-April 7. $15-$30. www.theexit.org
The Laramie Project: Written by Moisés and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. April 6-21. $19.99-$29.99. http://lctc-sf.org
Both shows at Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., S.F.