Clowning Around with Technology

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

by Projection Designer Erik Pearson

Bill Irwin and David Shiner
in Signature Theatre's Production
of Old Hats. Photo by Joan Marcus
I grew up in Santa Cruz and had the good fortune of seeing productions at A.C.T. as a kid. I became involved in the theater myself when I was very little and family visits to the city to see a play left a big impression on me. I live in Brooklyn now and work as a director and designer in New York and regional theaters around the country. This is my first time returning to the Bay Area for a project since moving east. Old Hats is just the sort of A.C.T. show that inspired me when I was young and I can’t imagine a more perfect project for my return.

I first became involved with Old Hats a couple of years ago at Signature Theatre in New York. Bill Irwin and David Shiner had started developing ideas for a new project that would be a follow up to their wildly successful Fool Moon. There was no show yet, really—no director, no title—but they had a lot of ideas. Many of these ideas involved the imaginative use of projections and video. I joined Broadway projection design legend Wendall K. Harrington in taking on this challenge and began collaborating with the clowns in a series of workshop rehearsals at Signature.

Tony Award-winner Bill Irwin in
Signature Theatre's production
of Old Hats at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater.
Photo by Kevin Berne
My work focused primarily on a new solo piece Bill was creating, called “Mr. Business.” He had an exciting idea for a new technology-obsessed character and his misbehaving tablet computer. Bill envisioned a complicated struggle between a man and his gadgets in which the tablet takes on a life of its own. We began developing ideas in a rehearsal room together, trying out gags and experimenting with surprising ways for Bill to interact with the tablet.

At the same time, I was working behind the scenes to figure out the technology necessary to support the performance. As far as I’ve been able to tell, no one had ever attempted anything like what we were doing, and this led to many unique challenges. To run the tablet computer for the New York production I created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of computers, wireless routers, off-the-shelf software, and an iPad, all connected together to bring the tablet to life. The completed system allowed us to wirelessly send video to the tablet in Bill’s hand as he performed. When it worked correctly, it was as if the image on the tablet interacted with and responded to Bill just as a live actor might. Unfortunately the system was not entirely reliable, and on some nights Bill’s electronic companion would misbehave. It was as though the other actor in the scene would sometimes forget his lines and Bill would have to improvise to keep the scene going. Bill and I shared many a laugh over the way life was imitating art; our efforts to get the technology behind the scenes to work properly mirrored the struggles of Bill’s character to control his tablet. Thankfully returning to the show for a second time at A.C.T. has given us an opportunity to fix some of the bugs we encountered in New York.

For this production we’re working on a new and improved version: “Mr. Business 2.0.” Before rehearsals even began, we shot all new video for the tablet on stage at the Geary, improving on our original ideas—going for new laughs and expanding the story. We also brought in a local programmer, Dave Orton, to work with us in creating a brand new piece of software to run the tablet. This new app makes it possible to run “Mr. Business” with a single computer and Android tablet—no more Frankenstein’s monster! Our hope is that this version will be much more reliable.

As with all of Bill and David’s work, the comedy in “Mr. Business” is inspired by the kind of human struggles we all encounter in our day-to-day life. While technology may continue to seduce us with its promise of making things easier, it often seems that for every problem solved another is created. In Old Hats, Mr. Business leaves the stage having triumphantly conquered his gadget dependency. Having faced and overcome our own technological demons, we’re thrilled to share “Mr. Business” with A.C.T. audiences!

Performances of Old Hats run through October 12! For tickets and information visit act-sf.org/hats.

A Heavy Dose of Liveness: An Interview with Director Tina Landau

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Heavy Dose of Liveness
An Interview with Director Tina Landau

Bill Irwin (left), Tina Landau (center), 
and David Shiner in rehearsal for 
Signature Theatre's 2013 production
of Old Hats, photo by Gregory Constanzo
“The Coolest Project Ever” was the subject line of the email Tina Landau received from her agent, asking her if she would be interested in working with Bill Irwin and David Shiner on their new project at Signature Theatre. Landau, who had seen Irwin and Shiner in Fool Moon about twenty years earlier and was a huge fan of their work, jumped at the opportunity.

Although Old Hats is unlike anything Landau had ever worked on before, she was particularly well-suited to direct this physical show, as she coauthored The Viewpoints Book with Anne Bogart. Viewpoints is a method of theatrical composition that heavily focuses on physicality, movement, and gesture. “I feel very comfortable in Bill and David’s world, because I always think of my theater work in a physical way,” Landau says. “It surpasses the verbal.”

What is it like directing two clowns?
Bill and David had never worked with an official director on one of their projects together. I agreed to a one-week workshop, and for the first three or four days, I went home thinking, “Wow. They’re amazing. I could be a fly on the wall forever watching them work, but they do not need me in the room.” But I also very intentionally didn’t go in thinking of “directing” the way I usually do. I just wanted to observe and see what their process was and see if I thought I could be helpful. Before I knew it, they started saying, “What do you think about that? What does that look like?” Very slowly, we realized that it was a wonderful match and I should continue with the project.

How would you describe a clown’s relationship to the audience, compared to that of a more traditional actor?
I think ultimately the goal is the same, which is to connect and to engender feeling, and thereby ask us to take a new look at our own lives or help us find a moment of solace. The goals of a clown are very similar to the goals of performers in general, but the means are different: a clown uses primarily laughter. Clowns are quite clear on the fact that people laugh at misfortune and failed attempts and mistakes, so they elicit what ends up being a very joyful evening through moments that are filled with human foible and error and sadness. There has to be some pain in the comedy. That’s what it is born out of.

David Shiner (left) and Bill Irwin in
Signature Theatre's 2013 production
of Old Hats, photo by Joan Marcus
What effect do the nonverbal elements of the show have on the audience?
When we hear words, a part of our brain engages that only allows us to hear what is being said, but not necessarily how it’s being said. We glom onto meaning, and the meaning is very prescribed by how we understand that word. A picture is worth a thousand words. It leaves the individual audience member open to access a part of the mind that is more associative than literal.

What was your favorite part of working on Old Hats?
Often as a director, at some point in previews, I start getting tired or bored or scared of my own work, and I often find an inability to see it afresh. I never for an instant feel that with these guys. I could watch them every night of a long run and know that something is actually happening in this theater tonight that did not happen last night and won’t happen again tomorrow. That’s the kind of theater experience I think we all long for: a real, strong, heavy dose of what I’d call “liveness.”

Landau’s directorial work includes several shows in New York, including Bells Are Ringing and Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts on Broadway. Landau is also a company member of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and has directed numerous shows there. Most recently at A.C.T., Landau directed The Time of Your Life, by William Saroyan, in 2004.

To read more of Tina Landau's experience and to learn more about A.C.T.'s production of Old Hats in our latest edition of Words on Plays click here.

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG – PART 6

Friday, June 27, 2014

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG – PART 6
ELEMENTS OF THE DRESS REHEARSAL

Sab Shimono, a great role model
and Asian Actor Pioneer,
on deck during tech.
Photo by BD WONG
By the end of Tuesday afternoon we indeed got through tech-ing the entire play, but there was no surplus time to rehearse anything additionally, let alone to run Le Whole Shebang before Tuesday’s dress rehearsal. This means that Tuesday night we will be running through the entire play for the first time. An invited audience will be present, which is good for finally gauging the response, but this of course means one’s adrenaline and stress are ratcheted up considerably due not only to the “unknown factor,” but to the dramatic placement of the process’s final puzzle piece—that long-awaited entrance of the actor’s cruel dominatrix: the audience and her judgment. It, of course, matters not whether the audience is made up of paying customers or your friends and family. The anticipation of judgment pretty much feels the same. There is a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” phenomenon that often happens when you spend four weeks acting in a show (or even months working on a movie): you almost always fall in love with your captor. Any shred of objectivity you had when you entered the process is now colored by your chemistry with your fellow actors, affection for the costumes, even your comfort with the weather of your surroundings or the theater’s provided housing! I don’t think that there is an actor who, in some way or other, doesn’t become so immersed in the process of a production that she easily convinces herself it is wonderful across the board (or, at the very least, desperately hopes so). You try to be self-critical, you try to be objective about things you’d do differently (if only you were the director). But to me, these things pale in comparison to your invariable affection for what you’re doing. It’s very sweet, actually. It is your job to do your best work, it is your job to support the production and your fellow actors, it is your job to believe in every aspect of it and to, in fact, love it. Trust me when I say that most of the time, none of this is a gigantic leap.

More often than I’d like to admit, it is at this point in the process—that first fateful “open dress rehearsal”—that the gorgeous castle you’ve ensconced yourself in, complete with its impenetrable moat and frolicking koi fish, vanishes cruelly, leaving only, to your shock and dismay, you, a handful of well-meaning actors who are also all “making a go of it,” and an audience who doesn’t find the jokes amusing, isn’t moved by the drama, or simply doesn’t get it.

Julyana Soelistyo on deck during
tech and our fearless director, Carey Perloff.
Photo by BD WONG
I believe, if I am an accurate polltaker, everyone in this acting company nervously feels the same way I do: that the play holds enormous potential, but that we need the audience to tell us what we’ve got (and what we don’t got). Some of us struggle with the language as I do; some of us aren’t sure if certain highly theatrical moments in the play that we are attempting to sell with great commitment will, in fact, be “bought.” But to our core, we do believe that we have an opportunity to co-create a rather special evening of theater, if we just keep trudging up the mountain of our process with our basket of humble, theatrical belongings fastened to our back, and don’t hesitate or drop the proverbial ball. The one person who I feel unflinchingly knows that it will all be great is director Carey Perloff. Of her many gifts, enthusiasm and fearlessness are two of her most amazing. She has impressive leadership qualities. She could sell you a bridge spanning two uninhabited pieces of land with no water underneath it, cars to drive across it, or people to drive said non-existent cars.

(No, I’m not likening A.C.T.’s production of The Orphan of Zhao, or my relationship with Carey Perloff, to a bad bridge investment.)

I am constantly pondering and processing all of the above, and feeling a fair amount of tension in my
body as a result. My neck and shoulders are always stiff, often extremely so, and this condition is exacerbated by certain physical tasks in the show, which of course must be repeated. I am overwhelmed by: the play’s emotional demands, my nervousness as we run out of time to refine things before an audience comes, my default desire to give my mom and family face time, and the many press and special appearances that have come with the job (headlining in a play and then turning down the press requests because you’re too tired from rehearsal gives you no leg to stand on if your production is under-attended, so I turn down none).

I remember feeling a different color of the same tension when I was in Washington, D.C. with M. Butterfly (as well as previewing on Broadway), and during the Broadway previews for Face Value (both plays by David Henry Hwang). In both of these projects I felt some version of a responsibility to “make the play work.” I don’t mean that the plays were less than dramaturgically sturdy on their own; what I mean is that in both of those plays, I felt the weight of being central to its ideas and aspirations, and I felt, in some way, I could or would mess things up if I was sub-par. I feel a similar burden in The Orphan of Zhao, playing a character that is spinning in its emotional core. There are also feelings that naturally come with being in plays alongside other Asian-American actors; our investment to excel and prove ourselves in an industry that often shuns us is palpable. To be one of the senior members in a play that features Asian-American performers, all who are hoping to disprove the intolerable notion that Asian-Americans are inherently devoid of commercial appeal, indeed comes with some stress. And it also happens that in the three projects mentioned above, I played some of the larger roles I’ve ever played.

Stan Egi and Carey Perloff solving the
Orphan's problems, one baby at a time.
Photo by BD WONG
As I described earlier, visits from donors and/or board members are a tradition at A.C.T., not only at the tech rehearsals once the show has loaded into the theater, but even earlier as well, such as in the exploratory process of the rehearsal room (or, as in our case, the rehearsals held at the scene shop on the set). I frankly find this extremely invasive, because for me the actors’ process is one that should be as private as possible—you’re so exposed and vulnerable because of anything from early failed attempts at comedy to emoting rather messily in order to try and find a character’s pain. You’re simply not ready to share what you’re working on with anyone. The whole point of rehearsals is to provide a safe place for actors to try and explore and fail.

Having said all that, the success and existence of a theater as an institution is made or broken by the enthusiasm, hard work, generosity and engagement of its donors and board members. They are the absolutely crucial entity that makes it happen. Their passion for the theater is also most often directly related to their affection for it as a “magic place”—and the rehearsal room is the most special place to experience that magic. So the rehearsal door is usually wide open at A.C.T. and we actors must embrace it, because it is a good thing. It is not easy to explain to people why it’s so uncomfortable, though! What’s the big deal, right? I guess I keep coming back to the idea that the acting process (like the theater itself) is made on elements of magic. And there ain’t a self-respecting magician who’s gonna let you into her little workshop and expose all her stuff! But again, somebody’s gotta pay for all of it.

The afternoon of the dress rehearsal, my inevitable, mounting tension crests in a meltdown of sorts. I realize in retrospect that, aside from the stress inherent in the process (and this process is tripping along without incident, thank goodness), I am also carrying around with me constant, dark, kind-of-awful feelings that are unique to playing this particular role. I have never experienced this before, the onstage feelings manifesting themselves in “real life.” But I actually find myself almost always upset or irritable and actually weepy. The worst thing is, I don’t even notice that this is abnormal! I just walk around most of the day feeling like going back to bed and starting the day over (not getting enough sleep isn’t helping, either).

One thing adding to my stress is a fear of being underprepared. I am confident we can do the play without much messing up tonight, but I personally don’t feel the performance is ready, that the layers of material have been fully mined. Some actors believe that this is okay, that you actually use that audience time to start mining those things, and I understand that. All I can say is that regarding this particular production, I was hoping to be much further along.

Marie-France Arcilla plays the princess
with great flair, as in a Chinese Opera
production of "Sunset Boulevard."
Photo by BD WONG
My three main sources of anxiety come from 1. The language of the play, which I have memorized but I can still feel my mind reaching for (that goes away after proper repetition, rehearsal, and performance); 2. Tracking the emotional path of the character I’m playing, knowing how the character is feeling from point A to point B and so on—this is something that really needs time, but again I wanted to have tracked it better by now; and 3. As the sound department continues do its work to set our mike levels and find the proper balances, I have a mistrustful anxiety that we might be “over-miked’ (over amplified). I have no proof that we are, I’m just worried we are. I think all of these things are actually related. Like all actors, I am on a quest for what I consider to be “the truth” of this play, and if these three things are not mastered, effortless, unnoticeable, and cared for properly, a sense of “untruth” can surface. When this is happening, I don’t realize that these things are all related to the same search for something real. It is only as I look back after the fact that it dawns on me.

The only thing I can think of is to use the dinner break, before the dress rehearsal, to walk through the whole play by myself on the set, quietly say all of the words, track my physical checklist in conjunction with my verbal, and give myself a little run-thru of my own. This is a normal thing for me. It appeals to my sense of logic and really can help a person iron out wrinkles. It’s also rather meditative. When one is not feeling in control, doing something deliberate such as this creates a semblance of it.

But as I start this simple process, I am ordered off the set by a crewmember who behaves brusquely. There is a rule that people can’t be on the set for insurance reasons, and of course my defensive point of view—that I’ve worked in X amount of theaters over X years and have never heard of such an absurd thing—means nothing to anyone (nor should it). I am also even more freaked out by her demeanor and the fact that she launches into kicking me out without an introductory explanation of who the hell she even is. My frustration escalates, and I actually succumb to what feels at the time like a perfectly natural state of being: sobbing. This is wildly entertaining to me now as I look back on it. I definitely still easily maintain that the gatekeeper was unnecessarily rude, but what amuses me now is how fragile I actually was.

Remembering that a huge contingent of drama students from Lincoln High School, my alma mater, and their teachers, and oh yes, my mother, are all coming to see the “invited dress” does not buoy me. I quickly realize that the dress rehearsal will just have to be what it is; there will be no heroic, miraculous opening night–style, transcendent performance. We will be happy if 1. We don’t have to stop in the middle; 2. We tell the story clearly and effectively; and 3. Nobody in the audience throws anything wet at us.

And that’s basically what happened. When a performance begins at this stage of the process, there is a scary, thrilling sense of danger fueled by the general human fear of the unknown, and the faith that you have indeed done most of the work necessary to avoid disastrous results. One does not normally dive off a rocky cliff in Acapulco without having learned how to do so properly (I hope), and even so, there has to be a first time. Will your lack of seasoned timing at this particular task cause you to plunge headlong into the lagoon when the tide is suddenly out? Will a sudden gust of wind blow your hapless body so close to the face of the terrain that it snags your thong, stripping you naked of your dignity?

No animals, actors, or divers were harmed during the dress rehearsal of The Orphan of Zhao. If there is one thing to be said about this company of actors, and the entire crew, both groups are extremely dependable. Everyone carried her or his weight. Everything went as smoothly as possible. I felt for the first time many small revelations about the continuity of the story as we stitched it all together as a team. At the end, as I greeted the Theater Kids and my mother (who clearly was very pleased with this show that she had been waiting to see with such motherly anticipation), I sheepishly felt we could’ve done so much better, but in fact we could not have, given the circumstances of where we are in the process. It was exactly what it was supposed to be. And we were all still safe, performing for our friends and family.

Before performing, the drama of acting can create surprising, disproportionate anxiety, but I often find it really easy to shake any nervousness I feel by remembering something rather simple; that what we are doing is not so monumentally important as to warrant such fear, and that furthermore and most importantly, “no one is going to die.”

In real life, anyway.

To learn more about A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zhao and to buy tickets visit act-sf.org/orphan.
 
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