An Interview with Director Casey Stangl

Monday, June 8, 2015

An Interview with Director Casey Stangl
By Beatrice Basso

Scenic designer Robert Brill’s rendering for A.C.T.’s 2015
production of Love and Information
Director Casey Stangl returns to A.C.T. after staging David Ives’s Venus in Fur last spring. Now, Love and Information, a play that offered her a blank creative canvas that she describes as simultaneously “exhilarating and terrifying.”
Stangl brings her talent for seamless transitions and precise pacing to Love and Information, a play that offered her a blank creative canvas that she describes as simultaneously “exhilarating and terrifying.”
    Stangl found her stride in directing new work and reimagining classics through a bold contemporary lens. Her movement background and interest in visual composition have helped her weave the complex fabric of Love and Information. At a new-play festival in Southern California a week before rehearsals began, Stangl was happy to talk about the themes and ideas that have piqued her imagination, what it’s been like to include the specific communities of San Francisco in Churchill’s scenes, and whether the gap between love and information is truly as wide as it may seem.

How did you react when A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff asked you to direct Love and Information?
I was thrilled. Carey described the play, which is made up of disparate scenes with no common characters. Then she talked about it being the first production at The Strand Theater, which is located in San Francisco at a kind of crossroads between various communities—from homeless people to tourists to tech workers to government workers to immigrant mom-and-pop store owners. She felt that Love and Information was the perfect play with which to open this new space.

What were your first impressions of the play?
Carey told me, “The play is wide open.” When you read the first scene, there are just lines and no character names. I remember thinking, “Wow, she wasn’t kidding, this is wide open.” When you have that amount of choice, you can do anything, but it also means you have to find a container and a way into the play. With most plays, the container is usually already built for you, so this is an interesting challenge.

You were already familiar with Caryl Churchill’s work, as you directed Top Girls for the Guthrie Theater over a decade ago.
Yes. They are very different plays, but they share some commonalities; for instance, Churchill’s ability to manipulate language, to write characters and scenes in which so much is happening below the words, is important in both works. Love and Information is so striking because these scenes range from a quarter of a page to three pages, but despite such a small amount of dialogue, you can pull back the curtain and imagine what’s happening between these characters. This illumination of a moment in someone’s life is thrilling to be able to evoke. Churchill has a very unflinching, unsentimental view of life, but there’s so much hope and humanity and joy in her perspective, as well.

Generally, directors are asked to guide an audience through a linear, narrative, realistic journey.
Absolutely. I would say there is almost always a story being told, even in plays that have a nonlinear structure, or that bounce around in time. But that’s not what we’re doing here. There’s not one specific story we’re telling; the play has a radical form in which several individual narratives add up to something larger that reveals how we live and what it means to be a human on this planet right now. Because there are so many different themes and ideas, they will resonate differently for different people.

What do you think makes this play relevant at this particular moment in time?
When somebody told me about the play originally, they said that it was about living in the Digital Age. So before I read it, I really thought that it was about dealing with the age of Facebook, and that sort of thing. There are certainly hints of that in the play, but it’s so much bigger and broader than that. Throughout history, there have been large technological leaps—such as the invention of the wheel or the Industrial Revolution—that have radically changed the way people live. With such changes, there have always been predictions that we’re going to lose our humanity. I remember when computers first became ubiquitous, people said, “Soon, no one will ever see each other, and we’ll never leave our homes, and robots will take over everything.” In fact, what happened was a proliferation of coffee shops so that people could actually come out and connect with each other. Churchill has tapped into the sense that, despite the constancy of dire predictions, humanity prevails. We just find different ways to continue to have this sense of connection.

For more about Love and Information, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to Love and Information visit act-sf.org/information.

A Fantasy of Fools: An Interview with Costume Designer Candice Donnelly

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Fantasy of Fools
An Interview with Costume Designer Candice Donnelly
By Shannon Stockwell

Costume designer Candice Donnelly's
rendering of a female member of the Liebeslieder
quintet for A.C.T.’s 2015 production
of A Little Night Music
“For the sheer beauty of all the satin and ruffles, costume designer Candice Donnelly should have bouquets delivered to her sewing room every night,” wrote Washington Post journalist Peter Marks in his review of Center Stage in Baltimore’s 2008 production of A Little Night Music. Seven years later, Donnelly revisits Sondheim’s classic for A.C.T.’s production, directed, as it was in Baltimore, by Mark Lamos.
    Donnelly’s vibrant costume designs were last seen on the Geary stage in Indian Ink, Tom Stoppard’s cross-cultural romance about the complex relationship between a poet and a painter, set against the backdrop of the struggle for Indian independence in the 1930s. Donnelly says she has an affinity for designing period pieces: “The research is very interesting to me. It’s a bit of a time travel experience.” A coproduction with New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company, Indian Ink was recently nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Costume Design. Since Indian Ink, Donnelly’s designs have been seen in the musical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a coproduction between the Guthrie Theater and the Acting Company.
     A Little Night Music is set at the turn of the twentieth century, and designing the costumes of any era other than our own involves careful research and a watchful eye. Donnelly was happy to share with us her process of designing costumes for this sensuous musical. 

Is your costume design at A.C.T. the same as it was for the Center Stage production?
There will be some tweaking, but it’s essentially the same. It’s a completely different cast, so that impacts things.

Do you design musicals much, or do you normally work with straight theater?
I do a little bit of everything. I’ve done several musicals and a few operas over the years. It’s actually the most fun to design a musical, because it is a bit more fantastical and very theatrical. It’s harder to design those types of costumes for film, and sometimes modern-dress plays end up being a little too similar to a filmed experience.

Compared to the costumes you might design for a straight play, what kind of practical elements do musical costumes require?
It depends on how much dancing the actors are doing and what the movement is like. The actors need to be miked, obviously, so you have to figure out a way to do that. Other than that, it’s not necessarily that different.

Does the dancing in A Little Night Music affect your design choice?
When we did the play at Center Stage, the dancing wasn’t so complicated that the actors needed special shoes. The shoes needed to be comfortable enough for them to move in, but they didn’t need to be dance shoes in particular.

How did you come up with the designs?
I did the same thing that I always do. I look at a lot of photographs and research, especially if it’s a period piece. A Little Night Music takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, which was a very feminine and extravagant era; the clothes, the fabrics, and the colors are very beautiful.
    This is a romantic piece, and Mark [Lamos] feels that it’s very sexual. It’s about love and romance and the foolishness of people when they fall in love. It’s also about the whole idea of the midnight sun and how it makes people giddy. I put all of those factors together and came up with frothy, lacy, summery designs.

What kind of resources did you use in your research?
I used a lot of period magazines, and I have books of old photographs. I also used a French website, associated with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It has old photographs from 1860 up to the present.

You said that the period itself was very feminine. Does that hold true for the men’s costumes, as well?
Their costumes are much more formal. At that time, there were a lot more people who really dressed up. They wore clothes that were appropriate to their station. The people in A Little Night Music are upper class, so they adhere to rigidity in social roles. People are so aware of that kind of style now because of Downton Abbey—people dressing in tuxedos, tails, and gloves for dinner, even when they’re at home. That is a wonderful fantasy world for us today. It’s nothing that we would ever experience except in a play or a movie.

What are the costumes for the Liebeslieder quintet like?
Mark wanted to make the quintet young and sexy, so they’re getting in and out of bed, and they’re in corsets and underwear. I had research from dancers and carnival-goers from 1900, and the quintet is almost reminiscent of Pierrot [a stock character from the Italian comic theater of the eighteenth century that may have been the origin of the sad clown; he was often seen in white face paint and flowing white clothing]. The men are in black tails, and the women are in patchwork silk-satin dresses; the outfits are very fun and playful.

How do you decide what color a particular garment should be?
Sometimes it has to do with what the set looks like, because you want the characters to stand out from or complement the set. In this case, at the end of the show, the women are all in paler, shimmery, nighttime, starry colors.

What sort of costume choices have you made for Desiree’s play-within-a-play?
I had a lot of pictures of actors from the turn of the century doing various period plays, and what I tried to do was a nineteenth-century version of an eighteenth-century costume. If you look at these picture, you’ll notice that the costumes are trying to look like they are from the eighteenth century, but they’re cut like nineteenth-century clothing. So that’s what I did.

That’s fascinating; it’s a twenty-first-century version of a nineteenth-century version of an eighteenth-century costume.
Right!

What excites you about A Little Night Music?
It’s a perfect musical. It’s just very pleasing. A Little Night Music allows me to do what I love: design beautiful clothes.

For more about A Little Night Music, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to A Little Night Music visit act-sf.org/music.

The Enduring Mystique of Caryl Churchill

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Enduring Mystique of Caryl Churchill
By Nirmala Nataraj

Caryl Churchill. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.
Caryl Churchill is perhaps the most acclaimed female playwright in the English-speaking world, and simultaneously the most elusive. Critic Charles Spencer has called her the “least predictable of contemporary playwrights.” Her work has been described as elliptical, provocative, shocking, confounding—and, over the years, it has become significantly more pared down, devoid of stage directions or notes, which only seems to contribute to her enduring mystique.

Although Churchill has been writing plays for over five decades, she stopped giving interviews many years ago. She rarely comments on critics’ analyses of her work, but her past interviews and the words of her close collaborators, of whom there are many, continue to spark the imaginations of those who recognize the multiple ways in which she has pushed dramatic boundaries over the course of her career.

Feminist and socialist politics are important facets of Churchill’s plays, as her work challenges the oppressions and repressions of gender, class, sex, and race—but her bold stylization is an equally prominent feature of her writing. The fact that her work ranges from epic Brechtian dramas to surreal “anti-plays” to disconnected slice-of-life episodes is part of what makes it difficult to define Churchill’s style. Flashbacks, twisted chronologies, overlapping dialogue, contradiction, repetition of word and gesture, and different actors playing the same character in different scenes are just some of the devices Churchill has employed in her plays.

Given the scope of Churchill’s experimentation (with form as well as process), many critics have noted that answering the question “What is a Caryl Churchill play?” leaves most people scratching their heads in puzzlement. Playwright April de Angelis says, “She has turned the idea of what a play should be over and over, revisioning it beyond the accepted imaginative boundaries, to produce plays that are always revolutionary.”

As eager as they are to be heard, according to Churchill’s publisher of over 40 years, Nick Hern, her characters themselves are often less “talky” (preferring to justify their existence not with long speeches but with activity) and less obviously categorizable as villains or protagonists than those of other playwrights. Actor Maxine Peake, who played the title role in Churchill’s The Skriker (about a malevolent fairy who manipulates two teenage mothers) in 2014 at London’s Royal Exchange Theatre, describes Churchill’s characters as “coming more from a physical impulse rather than a cerebral one.”

Churchill and her collaborators are often surprised by the plays that emerge from her imagination. Hern says, “The plays just turn up, without warning. I think she’s one of those shamanistic writers, in the way Harold Pinter was. A play isn’t planned or premeditated; it’s scratching an itch. They come to me and I sit down to read them, having absolutely no idea what the length or subject matter or form will be.” Much like Pinter, Churchill is also mordantly witty, whether she is training her eye on large-scale social ills or the quirky dynamics of an intimate relationship. A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff says, “Churchill’s plays are supremely alive because the scenes are endlessly active. They’re about transactions, power, competition, desire.”

Love and Information premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012, under the direction of Churchill’s frequent collaborator James Macdonald. De Angelis notes that this enigmatic play is an exploration of two of the most powerful human themes: needing to know and needing to love. Love and Information is a collection of 57 short, episodic vignettes that use a series of interactions between mostly unnamed characters to explore knowledge, meaning, and how we make sense of information in our lives. Each vignette is self-contained and characters are not repeated from one scene to the next, meaning that the dozen actors in our production are responsible for playing multiple roles. Some of the scenes last only five seconds, and none are longer than five minutes. Because Churchill does not include stage directions or character descriptions in Love and Information, the artistic team is tasked with filling in the blanks and creating the world of the play according to the production’s specific needs and intentions.

Overall, Love and Information presents an assortment of stories and perspectives that leave much to the viewer’s imagination. Indeed, a viewer’s process of making sense of the play may be the ultimate point that Churchill is attempting to make. As she has said, “I don’t set out to find a bizarre way of writing. I certainly don’t think that you have to force it. But, on the whole . . . I enjoy finding the form that seems to best fit what I’m thinking about.”

“Decision”
(a scene from Caryl Churchill’s script for Love and Information exactly as it appears on the page)

I’ve written down all the reasons to leave the country and all the reasons to stay.

So how does that work out?

There’s things on both sides.

How do you feel about it?

No, I’m trying to make a rational decision based on the facts.

Do you want me to decide for you?

Based on what? The facts don't add up.

I’d rather you stayed here. Does that help?

For more about Love and Information, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to Love and Information visit act-sf.org/information.
 
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