Playing Many Parts: The A.C.T. Fellowship Project 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

By Madelene Tetsch 

Artwork for Orlando, the 2017 Fellowship Project.
Created by Karen Loccisano.
In the final act of Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando, this year’s Fellowship Project running April 20–23 at A.C.T.’s Costume Shop, the titular character laments not having one true and definable identity. Orlando, who is at this point a woman, cannot find a way to unify all she has experienced within herself. How can someone who has lived hundreds of years, under the cultural confines of two genders, feel as though they are one whole and complete person? Orlando longs for a single self that will encompass all of the varied and sometimes conflicting experiences of life.

I identify with Orlando in this moment. While my life is certainly shorter and simpler than Orlando’s, I also have trouble reconciling all of my interests, circumstances, and choices so that they amount to one clear picture. This is true for my life in the theater, where I am still trying to figure out where I best fit and contribute. And so, it was a wonderful relief to be a part of the 2017 Fellowship Project—a theatrical production chosen, produced, and staged by members of A.C.T.’s Fellowship program—where assuming multiple roles was not only encouraged, but essential.

To make this project a success, it was imperative that each fellow involved take on numerous responsibilities. We each had official roles that correspond to our departments at A.C.T. However, those titles don’t show the group effort required to make this show a reality. Every fellow was a fundraiser, every fellow volunteered to work events, every fellow signed up to help with front of house, or load-in, or strike. The pressures of producing the show entirely on our own forced us to stretch ourselves and contribute in ways we might not have imagined at the onset.

A.C.T. Fellows Madelene Tetsch, Victoria Mortimer, and Jess Katz 
during a costume fitting for Orlando. Photo by Emilianne Lewis.
The same held true in the rehearsal room. Our dramaturg is our stage manager as well as our assistant director, and her comprehensive understanding of the play was immeasurably valuable. Each actor portrays more than one character, and it was a delight to see the full range of our cast’s talent and skill. There, fluidity and variety did not hinder or distract us, but helped us shape the show.

As Orlando wonders whether she has an identity at all, the Queen comforts her, saying “you are many things to many people.” In an age that seems to value specialization above all, this is a rare opportunity to take ownership of a project in many capacities. I am grateful to A.C.T. for not only providing the fellows training and experience in our own departments, but allowing us to explore the many possibilities available in theater. Hopefully, the audience will also come away from this show feeling less pressure to define themselves rigidly, and instead find joy in the many different ways they are themselves.

Orlando runs April 20–23 at The Costume Shop, 1117 Market Street. Email elewis@act-sf.org to reserve tickets. For more about A.C.T.’s Fellowship Program, click here.

Madelene Tetsch is the Development Fellow at A.C.T. 

Reinvention: Jean Cocteau in Needles and Opium

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell 

When Needles and Opium creator Robert Lepage was first introduced to French writer, film director, and visual artist Jean Cocteau in the 1970s, he immediately recognized a kindred spirit. Here was another artist whose interest in the relationship between form and content mirrored his own.

Olivier Normand in Needles and Opium. Photo by Tristram Kenton.
From a young age, Jean Cocteau was entranced by all forms of art: painting, drawing, sculpture, writing of every kind, dance, opera, theater, and music. In 1909, Cocteau met Sergei Diaghilev, the manager of the iconic Ballets Russes. When Cocteau expressed interest in working with the ballet, Diaghilev responded, “Etonne–moi.” (“Astonish me.”)

Astonish is precisely what Cocteau spent his entire life trying to do. Until his death in 1963, he was a whirlwind of artistic activity as he attempted to impress and amaze. Although today he is best known for his filmmaking—he made six films over the course of his life, the most famous being La belle et la bĂȘte (Beauty and the Beast) in 1946—he also produced four novels, seven plays, seven poetry collections, four autobiographical works, thousands of drawings, several essays, and a handful of sculptures.

Despite his extensive creative output and his friendship with many members of the Parisian avant-garde, he never quite achieved the same level of fame as other artists of his time. Because of his ability to participate in so many fields, many of his contemporary critics called him an “acrobat,” a show-off without the intellectual substance to back up his art.

“No doubt the sheer variety of his output contributes to his discredit by exposing him too much and emphasizing his about-faces,” says biographer Claude Arnaud. “But he was incapable of premeditation. . . . He didn’t know if what he did was excellent or insipid: he just did, the way blacksmiths forge or bees gather pollen.”

Needles and Opium runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Jean Cocteau and Robert Lepage? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

The Role of a Lifetime: Georgia Engel in Annie Baker's John

Saturday, April 15, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Imagine having your first lead role come your way at the age of 68. That is what happened to Georgia Engel (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) after she played a small role in an adaptation of Uncle Vanya by contemporary American playwright Annie Baker.

Georgia Engel (Mertis) in A.C.T.'s 2017 production
of John. Photo by Kevin Berne.
“On closing night, she came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘I’m gonna write a play for you,’” said Engel in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner. That play is John, which is currently running at The Strand Theater through April 23.

In John, Engel plays Mertis, the eccentric proprietor of a Gettysburg bed and breakfast who can best be described as a “cross between Betty White and Yoda.” Behind her sugary voice and love of tchotchkes lies an incredible intellectual curiosity. She loves H. P. Lovecraft and romantic comedies equally. She has memorized dozens of collective nouns for birds: a flock of ducks, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks.

“Annie has an incredible ear for humanity,” says Engel in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “The most profound part of what she does it give you a little nonjudgmental look at how funny we human beings are and how we struggle to find happiness.”

It is Baker’s ability to create such complex characters that has brought Engel back to this bed and breakfast again and again. Engel first played Mertis in John’s premiere at Signature Theatre Company in 2015. And after John’s run at A.C.T. ends in April, Engel is flying off to play the role again at London’s Royal National Theatre in 2018.

John runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Annie Baker and Mertis's eclectic interests? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.  
 
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