A Recap of the 2018 New Strands Festival

Thursday, May 24, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

Last weekend's third-annual New Strands Festival was four full days of exciting new works read aloud for the first time, festivalgoers mingling and moving to the sounds of female DJs, and audiences rising to their feet. The Strand Theater was packed with San Franciscans and theater-lovers ready to be wowed, and the artists behind the new plays rose to the challenge. From emotional coming-out stories such as Thao Nguyen's Bend with Me and Dipika Guha and Jeremy Cohen's Malicious Animal Magnetism to larger-than-life epics such as Ngozi Anyanwu's Nike, Or We Don't Need Another Hero, this year's festival was one to remember. Here are some of the highlights:

Justin Genna and Clinton Roane in rehearsal for Dipika Guha and Jeremy Cohen's Malicious Animal Magnetism.
 Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.

Festivalgoer @xle responds on Instagram. Photo courtesy @xle on Instagram.

Ngozi Anyanwu (Nike, Or We Don't Need Another Hero playwright), Kate Sullivan (Untitled Tegan and Sara Musical director), Emily Simoness (Executive Director of SPACE on Ryder Farm), and Emily Kaczmarek (Untitled Tegan and Sara Musical book writer). Photo courtesy @spaceonryderfarm on Instagram.
Festivalgoer @bunjeeventure responds on Instagram. Photo courtesy @bunjeeventure on Instagram.
The cast of Untitled Tegan and Sara Muscial take in their standing ovation.
Photo courtesy @spaceonryderfarm on Instagram.

Festivalgoer Kristy Lin Billuni. Photo courtesy @SexyGrammar on Twitter.
Festivalgoer Olivia Chavez-French with Untitled Tegan and Sara Musical actor Solea Pfeiffer.
Photo courtesy @livinaday on Instagram.

Festivalgoer Olivia Chavez-French responds on Instagram. Photo courtesy @livinaday on Instagram.
The cast and creative team behind Nike, Or We Don't Need Another Hero.
Photo courtesy of Tiffany Tenille on Facebook.
Festivalgoer Krystyna Finlayson responds on Facebook. Photo courtesy Krystyna Finlayson on Facebook.
See you next year! To learn more about the New Strands Festival, click here.

A Walk on the Moon Lands at A.C.T.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

For the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s world-premiere musical A Walk on the Moon, 30 Grant studios took a trip back in time to the summer of 1969. “This was a time when the world was moving,” said director Sheryl Kaller, addressing the room of Moon creatives and A.C.T. staff members. The musical tells the story of Jewish housewife Pearl Kantrowitz, who undergoes a personal transformation after meeting a free-spirited traveling salesman. With her newfound liberation, Pearl learns how to love freely, dance like no one’s watching, and defy society’s rigid gender roles. “Pearl was my mother. She has the look my mother had in her eyes,” said Kaller.

Vocal arranger AnnMarie Milazzo and director Sheryl Kaller at the first rehearsal
of A.C.T.'s 2018 production of A Walk on the Moon. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
Fueling the revolutionary spirit of the era, music director Greg Kenna and Tony Award–nominated vocal arranger AnnMarie Milazzo immediately got the cast on its feet to record the musical’s big Woodstock number. The aim was to record a huge soundscape for The Geary to create the illusion of 400,000 Woodstock attendees rocking out. Kenna instructed some of the actors to sing like fired-up activists and others to belt out lyrics as if they were inebriated festivalgoers. Book writer Pamela Gray—whose childhood experiences in the Catskills inspired the script—shared a scan of a Woodstock newspaper advertisement. Powerful lyrics such as “we call for love, we pray for peace” and “we’re the chosen generation” filled the air.

Book writer Pamela Gray looking at an advertisement for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair
at the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s 2018 production of A Walk on the Moon. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
One of the younger members of the Moon cast was particularly eager to be in the room. “It’s special to originate a role in a new musical,” said current twelfth-grader Nina Kissinger, who plays Myra in the show. “To know that a whole team of brilliant artists have faith in you to bring a character to life feels great. It starts feeling more real with each day.”

The cast of A.C.T.'s 2018 production of A Walk on the Moon. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
Though Moon is a big Broadway-style musical set in the ’60s, Kaller hopes that its political resonance will shine through for a 2018 San Franciscan audience. “This musical is so important today,” Kaller said, “in light of what’s happening in our country and the world.”

A Walk on the Moon begins at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater June 9. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about A.C.T.’s production of Moon? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Getting to the Deep Stuff: The Music of Father Comes Home

Friday, May 18, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

For playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, music isn’t just a medium she embraces in her art—it informs the very framework of her life. Growing up in a musical home, she and her siblings jitterbugged to their mother’s favorite jazz standards and belted out Puccini alongside their opera-loving father. These musical forms—along with the blues and show tunes, among others—have stayed with Parks and have influenced how she writes her plays. Embodying the playwright’s lyrical writing style, Father Comes Home from the Wars has a musicality that recalls the past while retaining emotional immediacy, making it intricately layered and deeply personal.

The Musician (Martin Luther McCoy) plays a song in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Photo by Joan Marcus.
A blues musician herself, Parks composed the music and wrote the lyrics for the songs in Father Comes Home. Music is a part of Parks’s makeup as an artist; whether it lives in the rhythm of the dialogue or the construction of the narrative, it seeps into most of her work. “All my writing is more like songs,” said Parks in an interview with theater scholar Shawn-Mari Garrett. “I try to sing to people.”

A key element of Parks’s aesthetic is a technique she calls Rep & Rev. According to Parks in her essay The Elements of Style, repetition and revision is a “concept integral to the Jazz esthetic in which the composer or performer will write or play a musical phrase once and again and again; etc.—with each revisit the phrase is slightly revised.” Parks lifts this concept out of music and applies it to her plays. In her works, characters repeat certain phrases and words that take on new meanings in different contexts as the narrative progresses—she does this to show that characters are “experiencing their situations anew” and by extension, the audience experiences them in a new way too.

Repetition and revision isn’t just an attribute of jazz, but, according to Parks, it’s also “an integral part of the African and African-American literary and oral traditions.” Rep & Rev’s reincorporation of what has been said gives it a call and response-like quality. Call and response is a performance technique that has a long history in churches, work songs, and African American music. “In its most elemental form, it consists of a musical statement given by a song leader that is immediately followed by a response from a chorus,” says UC Santa Barbara Black Studies professor Dr. Earl L. Stewart.” In Father Comes Home, the Chorus of Runaway Slaves performs call and response as they contemplate when they should make their getaway.

SECOND: Dark enough to jet.


Not yet

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By using call and response, Parks aligns herself with African American storytellers and musicians of the past, while building her own distinctly African American narrative. Just as jazz weaves several musical genres such as the blues, spirituals, and West African musical customs into a single composition, the music of Father Comes Home draws inspiration from a variety of sources, from the bluesy beats of singer-songwriter Robert Johnson to the Broadway sounds of musical theater writers Rodgers and Hammerstein. Parks excavates both her own personal history and the history of her ancestors to experience a musical catharsis. “My plays beg for feeling. They beg for the gut response,” says Parks. “Let the stomach-brain, let the heart-brain, inform your head-brain, and not always the other way around. Because then we’re getting to some deep stuff. And it’s frightening. But it’s also healing.”

Don't miss this Saturday's InterACT event, Playtime! Before this matinee performance, get hands-on with the theater artists who make it happen at this interactive workshop. In this special pre-show workshop, you will gain firsthand insight from the principal and understudy musicians who create the spirit of Suzan-Lori Parks’s mythic drama—don’t miss this opportunity to hear from beloved Bay Area musician/performers Martin Luther McCoy and David James—and their guitars! Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) ends this Sunday, May 20, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the music in the play? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
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