A.C.T. Explores Shakespeare's Lost Play

Friday, April 29, 2016

By Cecilia Padilla

As a part of the 2016 Spring Performances, A.C.T.’s M.F.A. Program actors present what scholars believe is Shakespeare’s lost play. Cardenio, a romantic farce about star-crossed lovers who find each other in a play-within-a-play, has a unique creation story. Literary scholars have traced the play’s existence back to 1613, when The History of Cardenio was performed by Shakespeare’s theater company, the King’s Men. Later evidence found in 1653 indicates that the play was about to be published, and this time it was attributed specifically to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, one of Shakespeare’s known collaborators. 

Then, in 1728, Shakespeare scholar, editor, and playwright Lewis Theobald published a play called Double Falsehood. He claimed that this play was based on three different manuscripts of The History of Cardenio. Double Falsehood, Theobald said, was a mixture of Shakespeare’s, Fletcher’s, and his own writing. Theobald’s is the version of Cardenio read most widely today. Despite these mentions throughout history of a manuscript by Shakespeare himself, a copy of the original script has never been found.

The actual storyline of Cardenio comes from Miguel de Cervantes’s epic novel Don Quixote (1605). In the novel, Don Quixote comes across a man named Cardenio who has lost his betrothed to his best friend. As a result, Cardenio goes mad and runs away to the mountains. But in the end, all the misunderstandings are cleared up and the lovers reunite. Theobald loosely bases the plot of Double Falsehood on Cervantes’s character of Cardenio. We don’t know for sure if Shakespeare and Fletcher’s version follows this plot, because the original script has not been discovered. However, if Theobald claimed that he based his play on the one by Shakespeare and Fletcher, we can assume that the 1613 and 1653 versions followed similar storylines.

Inspired by these ever-evolving interpretations, playwright Charles Mee and English professor Stephen Greenblatt created the Cardenio Project  in 2008. This project encourages theater companies around the world to adapt Mee and Greenblatt’s contemporary version of the play to fit their own cultural circumstances. Their reasoning, Greenblatt explained, was their mutual interest in “what happened when a story generated within one set of assumptions, preoccupations, constraints, and conventions was transmuted for performance in a very different world.” The project invites a wide range of adaptations: from using Shakespearean English; performing in other languages; changing characters; or setting the play in a different country. A.C.T.’s M.F.A. Program actors, for example, will perform the piece in modern English and set the comedy in San Francisco.  

Running May 6–14 at the Strand Theater, Shakespeare’s lost play gets its Bay Area debut, directed by Delia MacDougall. Get your tickets here!

Lessons from The Lion—a Master Class with Benjamin Scheuer

Thursday, April 28, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

“Songwriting is a game of what you leave out,” says Benjamin Scheuer. “As Hemingway said, you write the 3 percent of the iceberg, but you’ve got to know the 97 percent that’s underwater.” Today singer-songwriter Scheuer took a break from his award-winning show The Lion (playing at The Strand Theater until May 1) to present a master class in songwriting at A.C.T.’s 30 Grant Avenue offices. Listening to the songs of five young performers—Danielle Frimer, Matt Herrero, Sydney Kistler, Andrew Fridae, and Lauren Hart—he offered technical advice ranging from melody to rhyme, structure to story.
Benjamin Scheuer working with Matt Herrero in an A.C.T. master class. Photo by Ken Savage.

“Danielle, tell us about this song,” Scheuer said after Frimer (a graduate from the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program) finished her poignant number, “The Guy Who Plays Guitar at Mission BART.” When she confessed that she thought the song was “on the sad side” and that she wanted to “get a few more colors in there,” he suggested that great art can sometimes come from a dark perspective. Then he leapt up to the piano to play a few bars from Oklahoma—“People Will Say We’re In Love”—to illustrate how lyrics can offset a jaunty tune.

Throughout the master class, Scheuer drew on a panoply of sources to illustrate his points. He used William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to show how to start a story in the middle. He cited Eminem for lyric construction and reusing words in different contexts. He drew from Paul Simon and Indigo Girls, Greek three-act structure and Bob Dylan.

Whether it was about the specificity of images, the importance of song titles, the use of rhyme, or the variation in verbs, Scheuer was full of insight and incisive suggestions. By way of introduction, he said he had learned from some great teachers and wanted to pass this on to others. If the full house in the rehearsal room today is anything to go by, dozens of Bay Area songwriters will be using those tips and techniques soon. Many thanks to everyone who showed up, and to Benjamin Scheuer for the class!

The Lion is playing at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater through May 1. Don’t miss this incredible one-man musical! Buy tickets here.

Revisiting Top Girls with A.C.T.'s Fellows

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

By Carey Perloff

In 1982, I was an intern in the casting office at the Public Theater in New York when Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls premiered in London. One of my first assignments during my internship was to set up general auditions for the American version of the play about to be held at the Public. So it was a surreal and wonderful experience, over 30 years later, to go to A.C.T.’s Costume Shop Theater to see our own A.C.T. fellows tackle the play for their annual self-produced project. 

The cast of Top Girls dressed as women in history. Photo by Shannon Stockwell. 

Clearly, the ferocity, wit, and despair of Churchill’s feminist tale still holds, and seems to speak directly to young theater artists. I have to admit that when I first encountered the play at age 22, I was fascinated by the imaginative first act, in which intrepid women of many eras (from Pope Joan to Lady Nijo) meet for a celebratory dinner in contemporary London, and less enamored of the second part of the play, a condemnation of Thatcherite Britain. 

All these years later, Top Girls seemed more complex than I had remembered it. Marlene, the paragon of commercial success in 1980’s London, seemed sadder and more lost, despite her professional success. The arguments between her and her working-class sister seemed more nuanced and harder to resolve. Is this because we are mired in our own inequality struggles in such a visceral way today? Is it because while women’s professional success is taken more seriously today than it was when I was in my twenties, personal satisfaction and collective respect seem to remain elusive?

A.C.T.’s fellows are a remarkable bunch—they come to us from every corner of the country, with a vast range of interests and levels of experience. Their project is a chance for them to take the reins and do it all themselves, from fundraising to marketing to directing to dramaturgy to stage management to performance. 

Despite the very sober subject matter of the play (the last word of the script is “frightening”), I came away from this Top Girls feeling inspired and more than a little proud. Our fellows had taken a hugely challenging play, an impossibly short rehearsal period, a series of setbacks from losing actors to weeks of sickness in the company, and created something authentic, intelligent, and beautiful. I knew it would thrill Caryl Churchill that, well into her seventies, she was still inspiring young artists to rigorously reimagine their world. That this group of twentysomethings met the challenge with such heart and craft, while simultaneously working full days at their respective jobs at A.C.T., gave me great hope. The future of the American theater is in good hands!
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