In Memoriam: Harold Pinter

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

posted by Lesley Gibson, A.C.T. Blog Editor

On December 24, Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter died in London at the age of 78. A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff—a longtime friend and collaborator of the playwright—reflected on the life and work of a man who revolutionized modern theater in yesterday’s issue of the San Francisco Chronicle.

A.C.T. deeply mourns the passing of this great artist. Our best to all of you in the New Year.

Separation Anxiety

Monday, December 22, 2008

posted by Josh Roberts, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program Class of 2011

I have always seen a lot of myself in the title characters of comic strip classic Calvin & Hobbes, but I admit it’s been a long time since I had Calvin’s allergy to school. Trapped by cartoon magic perpetually in first grade, Calvin would agonize over every last second before the bell’s ring released him from his Sisyphean misery. Not me. I am much more Susie Derkins, Calvin’s nerdy nemesis: always cut short mid-thought by the same bell, reading during recess, arriving early, and staying late. It’s an illness.

It is because I am sick that I find myself, as I write this from Morning Due Café on Church Street, a little shell-shocked to be at the end of my first semester as an M.F.A. student at A.C.T.

What am I supposed to do for three weeks? I am having separation anxiety.

I am sure this would not have happened if our immersion in this training were not so complete. If the atmosphere in the building were not so warm and cozy. If my class was not so tightly knit. If the faculty were meaner and more cruel. But, no.

Case in point: we had our first evaluation meetings on Tuesday. Evaluation at A.C.T. is a different animal than it is in most graduate fields, I expect. It’s a question I get a lot from family and friends when I talk to them about the work we do: So . . . what do you get graded on? How can you even grade art/creativity/expression anyway?

The feedback we get is actually more important than the grades, and it happens like this: You are invited for a 20-minute meeting in a room alone with all of the teachers who have been working with you over the course of the semester—in acting, voice, Alexander technique, movement, speech, our research and play analysis courses, and whatever else—and given the opportunity to listen to them summarize the progress they’ve seen you make, the walls they see you hitting, and the growth they want to see from you. They take turns.

It’s the kind of scenario that sounds like a nightmare, but while I understand from second- and third-years that we will probably always walk into the room with some anxiety, the atmosphere could not have been less hostile. When I took my seat and took stock of the air in the room, I couldn’t help joking, “This doesn’t feel like a firing squad . . .”

It was, I admit, an emotional experience. (I am sure it always will be.) But it was emotional because, rather than confronting a room full of razor blades, as I’ve had other schools’ evaluations described to me, it was like this:

You walk in, you sit down, and you listen to a group of people you really had no idea were paying such close attention to you (because after all there are 11 other people in your class) describe exactly how deeply and clearly they see you—which is way more deeply and clearly than you can see yourself. The discovery that you really had no idea at all how well they have considered you as an artist and how well they know you as a person is a stunning one, since your previous idea of how well they know you, based on 12 weeks of being amazed by their acuity, was already pretty impressive.

This is what transparency feels like, wrapped in a blanket of care and support. And then you’re . . . what? Done? There ought to be some kind of program to help manage the withdrawal from this kind of environment.

To cope, I have already read and reread Life under Water and Almost, Maine, the two one-act plays we’ll be working on in January. I’ve attended rehearsal for Rich and Famous. I have seen the workshop presentation of Factory Girls, a new musical by two graduate musical theater writers from NYU and a joint venture between the young conservatory and the M.F.A. Program. I went to the A.C.T. holiday party. Today I will stop by the conservatory library to check out some plays to read over Christmas. I will see A Christmas Carol again. And again, probably. And then visit more rehearsals, and then . . . we’ll be back. Sooner rather than later, I hope.

The Yule Blog: A Christmas Caroler’s Holiday Ruminations

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

posted by Nicholas Pelczar, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program Class of 2009

Monday, the day off from the show, the theater is dark and we don’t have class. Phew. It’s a day to recover from a nine-show opening week that ended with four shows in two days. It’s also our last day off until Christmas Day. We’re about to embark on a nine-day, thirteen-show stretch that has us all secretly wondering if our bodies can hold up. It’s hard to embody the Christmas spirit so many times in so few days! Also, I don’t think any of us M.F.A. students has ever had such a concentrated stretch of shows. For the first two years in the M.F.A. Program, our projects usually got about four final performances. In our third-year Zeum shows we get about five shows a week for three weeks. So moving up to eight or nine shows a week with A Christmas Carol is quite an adjustment, and we’re all learning what it takes to keep our performances consistent and alive.

Thankfully, it is a Christmas show and it’s hard not to get at least a little excited that you’re part of a timeless Christmas classic. Just thinking about the top hats, hoop dresses, fingerless gloves, and funky facial hair puts a smile on my face. The dressing room antics are also a blast and help keep things fresh. Because there are so many people in the show, all the M.F.A. guys share a dressing room on the fourth floor of the theater. Having spent two years changing for class together over at 30 Grant, we’ve developed a great rapport with each other when it comes to dressing room hijinks. The most recent incarnation of this is “The Great Change-Off.”

For the first few previews, after the show, one of our fellow M.F.A.s was consistently changing out of costume and walking out the door well before any of the rest of us was ready. We were bewildered at how quickly he changed. Then suddenly one day another M.F.A. guy hustled through his change and was out the door first. The competition was on. Now we’ve put up a calendar and are initialing who wins after each performance. After last Sunday’s matinee I saw that all the guys were taking the elevator up to the fourth floor—it’s a freight elevator so it’s a bit slow. I charged up the steps, got off on the third floor, pressed the elevator button on that floor, and ran up to the dressing room on four. So, while the gents were accidentally getting off on the third floor, I had already started changing on the fourth. Sadly, I still managed not to win because I lost valuable minutes scrubbing the make-up off my face.

I’ve come to learn that it’s as much what happens offstage as onstage that makes me want to be involved in the theater. A Christmas Carol is no exception. Onstage I love playing across from Jim Carpenter’s amazing Scrooge. As Fred, his cheerful nephew, every night I try to convince Scrooge to come to my holiday party. And every night I meet Scrooge in the street on Christmas Day, and we finally get to be a family together. Offstage the entire A.C.T. family comes together—M.F.A., YC, core acting company—it really is the whole organization in one show. And that’s a great thing to be a part of for the holidays. God bless us, everyone!

Waiting to Exhale

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

posted by Meryl Lind Shaw, A.C.T. Casting Director

Wednesday, November 26, the day before Thanksgiving 2008, 3 p.m.

A group of us are gathered around Carly Cioffi’s desk on the sixth floor at 30 Grant, just outside Carey’s office. Greg, Carly, Vinny, Deborah, Caresa, Heather, Carey, Tom, and me. We’ve just popped open a bottle of Prosecco Vinny has provided, clinked glasses, and toasted to completing the casting for Rich and Famous. A festive moment, wouldn’t you say? Little would the casual observer appreciate the first deep breaths I’m inhaling in days. We have just received a “yes” from the last actor to join what is a fabulous cast, which is a wonderful moment. The excitement comes from the fact that the show in question starts rehearsal a mere 12 days from this moment.

Winding back the clock, here’s how the casting for this show evolved. The first cast member, A.C.T. company member Gregory Wallace, was signed on from the moment we read the script and chose to produce the play. John Guare was interested in revising the 1974 script substantially and incorporating some text from another piece, Muzeeka, and new songs. There is a hilarious character named Aphro, and it had Gregory’s name on it.

The next two roles fell into place pretty easily and quickly, despite the complication of having to have several people “sign off” on making offers. The director, John Rando, who directed the outstanding Urinetown we were lucky enough to produce prior to the national tour, had several actors in mind for the lead role, a character named . . . wait for it . . . Bing Ringling. Of course, as John and I discussed possible actors to whom we’d make offers, each idea would then need to be “signed off” on by both John Guare and Carey (playwrights have casting approval as part of their contracts, and Carey has approval rights, as well, of course). We needed to find a cast that had great comic acting chops and could sing. After we all agreed, we were thrilled to have an offer accepted by our very favorite choice: Brooks Ashmanskas (another great name!). Brooks was in San Francisco a few years ago in the Martin Short piece Fame Becomes Me, in which he played a variety of hysterical characters. He and John Rando had just collaborated this past summer and fall in a much-praised production of She Loves Me at Williamstown and the Huntington Theatre.

Next, after another round of approvals, we made an offer to Stephen DeRosa to play The Actor, a role that includes playing several characters, including Bing’s father, a matinee idol named Tybalt Dunleavy, and Anatol Torah, a very eccentric composer. After a bit of breathless anticipation on our part, Stephen also signed on. While all this was going on, however, John Rando was directing in New York, D.C., Boston, Milwaukee, etc., so finding the time to communicate was challenging along the way.

We also had the help of a wonderful New York casting director, Laura Stanczyk, with whom we’d collaborated before, continuing to feed us ideas. So, we were down to the fourth and final role: The Actress, who plays Leanara, an actress; Veronica, an elderly Broadway producer; Allison, Bing’s high school sweetheart; and Bing’s mother! No small order. Here’s where the wanderings of the artistic staff became a challenge. John R. was directing an Encores! production of On the Town in New York, John G. was working on a new project, and Carey was in Boston with Rock ’n’ Roll. Only John Rando knew our next top candidate, Mary Birdsong, whom we had already ascertained was available for the dates and who had expressed some interest in coming to do the show here. (She was also in the Martin Short show with Brooks.)

Although I had only seen Mary onstage in the Martin Short piece, we had watched her reel on her fabulous website, and fallen completely in love. After we showed the reel to Carey, she signed off on the offer, but we were waiting for John Rando to contact John Guare and obtain his okay. John R. was in tech rehearsals in Milwaukee, trying to reach John G. Finally, on Wednesday morning at around 10 a.m., John R. called with the okay, and I immediately called Mary’s agent with the formal offer. To add to the drama, the agents were all closing their offices at 1 p.m. New York time because it was the day before Thanksgiving! Fortunately, Mary’s agent is one of the good guys; because I had told him I expected to be able to make an offer that day, he had given me his cell phone number as a backup. The agent and I made all sorts of contingency plans to communicate over the holiday weekend, and I was anticipating an angst-filled few days. Then, at 3 p.m., the call came: Mary accepted our offer.

I exhaled. Clinked glasses with the group around Carly’s desk. Drank Prosecco. Went home and took a nap before going to see a play that night!

Rockin’ Boston

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

posted by Jud Williford, A.C.T. Associate Artist and core acting company member

After finishing their run in San Francisco, the company of Rock ’n’ Roll, a coproduction of A.C.T. and the Huntington Theatre Company, took to Boston, where they are performing at the Huntington through December 13. A.C.T.’s Jud Williford, who primarily plays Ferdinand, took over the role of Jan for Manoel Felciano for two nights in November to enable Mano to make a quick trip back to the Bay Area. Jud sends an update from the road.

It has been a wild and crazy first week of performances. The crew here at the Huntington Theatre has been tremendous. Warm and hospitable. I’m finally through the performances where I had to go on as Jan (Mano) and am thrilled that I can now enjoy this city!

The audience here is different from the one in SF. Sometimes I feel that they watch me and Mano as if they were watching the “debating cavemen” on The History Channel. But overall they have responded enthusiastically to the show . . .

We all live on the same street and in houses/apartments right next to one another (Sesame Street) . . . like a neighborhood full of artists, or as Jack would refer to us, “craftsmen.”

Right now it feels like all we are doing is going from the theater to our homes. It’s a little repetitive but I figure I pretty much do the same thing when I’m in San Francisco so it’s not so bad.

The most exciting thing I’ve done, however, is the Freedom Trail! My mother was in town this past weekend to see me perform Ferdinand and Jan, which was really fun for me AND her! (Although, I’m convinced that she uses me as an excuse to go to cities she’s never been to!) Anyway, we went on this amazing journey through old Boston to see all the sites: Paul Revere’s house, Old North Church, the U.S.S. Constitution, site of the Boston massacre, etc. . . . It was very cool. We ended our tour with an early dinner at the Cheers bar. My mother insisted on sitting on Norm’s stool and getting a picture . . .

So far, that is all I’ve done. Everyone here is doing great and having a wonderful time exploring and getting to know the city.

I will have much more to come! On my way to New York this weekend on the Greyhound, which is sure to provide many great gifts of weirdos to talk about!!!

When You Don’t Miss Time Shifting

Friday, November 21, 2008

posted by Rusty Rueff, A.C.T. Trustee

It was not that long ago that we didn’t even know the term time shifting. Had someone told you that you could do so, you would have thought of time travel and science fiction. And then along came the TIVO Digital Video Recorder (DVR) and all of a sudden we were able to take control of what and when we watched television. There was no more reason to be home on Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. if we wanted to see The West Wing. And then we figured out that watching TV when you could skip through the advertisements was even better than waiting through the commercial breaks. The DVR and time shifting has been a great advancement for managing entertainment. But not all entertainment forms need a DVR. The live theater is one such medium that can’t be captured and shifted, and really why would you want to do so? The live theater is about unique moments that are different from performance to performance. An inflection, an audience reaction, and a delivery of a line all are distinct signatures for each and every performance that are interpreted and filtered through the human experience at that moment.

Recently, Patti and I saw The Quality of Life. This deep and engaging play about the choices of life and love when faced with life-threatening circumstances had both of us emotionally teetering as we sat in the audience and pulled the play through our own current circumstances and feelings. A few days before we saw the show, Patti’s father, my father-in-law, had been diagnosed with kidney cancer and was readying for surgery and treatment. We wept and were enthralled with The Quality of Life, while the other audience members all around us were interpreting the play through their own life circumstances. That night for us will be remembered within our own minds’ DVR with a thankfulness that we were in the theater at that particular moment. Some things just shouldn’t be time shifted. It is us who need to shift our timing to get the most from the experience. There is no better medium than the live theater to time stamp your own unique memory.

"Tragedy Tomorrow, Economic Woes Tonight"

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

posted by Lesley Gibson, A.C.T. Blog Editor

An article about the bleak financial future of American theaters popped up in yesterday’s New York Times. Recently, A.C.T.’s own trustee Rusty Rueff blogged about the importance of investing in the arts, and the importance of the arts to our very existence. As the recession worsens I anticipate a new stream of dialogue will emerge on this issue, both within our organization and in the media.

A common topic of conversation these last few weeks has been the fact that, as one political and economic era comes to a close, an entirely new and unknown era is beginning. I can’t help but wonder if our industry, as we’ve known it, won’t be forever altered (for better or for worse), as well? Time will tell.

A Day in the Life of a Dramaturg

posted by Dan Rubin, Publications & Literary Associate

During the last week of October, A.C.T. hosted a closed workshop of Daniel Kramer’s yet-to-be-titled movement piece inspired by Modest Musorgsky’s famous Pictures at an Exhibition and based on the composer’s tumultuous life. Mugorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 as a tribute to his friend Victor Hartmann, an artist who had died the year before. Daniel’s concept is to attach often-abstract movement to these songs in such a way that, together, they create a picture of Musorgsky’s life. “I don’t want the audience to get it right away,” he told me during one discussion. “I want them to get it three months later.” Next spring, Daniel will be producing this creation at the Young Vic in London after a ten-week rehearsal process. You should all go. Oh, bollocks, it’s not that far!

While here, Daniel got the opportunity to experiment and solidify ideas, and A.C.T.’s fearless third-year M.F.A. students, divided into teams to tackle specific songs, were given the opportunity to explore (some for the first time) movement-based theories of acting and flex their devised-theater muscles. And I, based primarily in the publications department, got the opportunity to put on my production dramaturgy hat. Realizing that many people don’t know what production dramaturgy actually entails (and we dramaturgs are constantly discussing and revising our own thoughts on our role in the rehearsal room), I thought it may be interesting for you to see a day in the life of this production dramaturg on this project.

Cue music!

Day 5 of research / Day 2 of rehearsal.

7:30 a.m. Finish reading “Childhood and Youth, 1839–1856” in The Life of Musorgsky.

9:00 a.m. Arrive at work. Make new packets for the “Limoges” team (Cat Walleck and Allison Brennan) that include all the letters between the Purgold sisters and Musorgsky. Give packets to team.

9:30–11:30 a.m. Return to the research. Figure out what information is necessary to understanding Musorgsky’s relationship with his father, what information is necessary to understanding Musorgsky’s relationship with his mother, what information is necessary to understanding Musorgsky’s relationship with his nurse and his life at military school, and try to uncover the mystery of Musorgsky’s sexuality (again).

11:30 a.m. Make new packets including all the information assembled 9:30–11:30.

12:00 p.m. Go downstairs to rehearsal. Distribute new packets. Check in with Daniel: Assure him that not only can I assemble a packet with all the information gathered over the week, but I can make him an electronic copy of said packet on our amazing copier. He is pleased. New requests from students: Are there any letters between Hartmann and Musorgsky (for the “Promenade” team [Rondrell McCormick and Christopher Tocco])? What were Musorgsky’s views on religion and Judaism (for the “Two Jews” team [Lloyd Roberson and James Bigelow])? Talk to Daniel: Learn that, for him, “Two Jews” isn’t about religion but about economics and Musorgsky’s fall from wealth. I decide not to spend time researching Judaism; decide to focus instead on creating a timeline of Musorgsky’s economic deterioration.

12:30 p.m. Bring “Promenade” team all the letters that mention Hartmann, having found no evidence that Musorgsky and Hartmann corresponded by mail.

1:00 p.m. Quick lunch break with Assistant Artistic Director Pink Pasdar to check in about project.

1:30 p.m. Begin to assemble timeline. Get sidetracked following research thread that will help me determine if bringing elements of Musorgsky’s Nursery Cycle (an earlier composition) to Daniel’s attention is worthwhile. Pictures at an Exhibition is not enough music to fill 90 minutes by itself. Find the complete score of Nursery Cycle on Wikipedia. Find that the Mechanic’s Library has the CD.

2:30 p.m. Finish timeline and run it down to rehearsal. Check in with “Two Jews” team: no new requests. Check in with “Gnomus” team: requests for Russian folktales about gnomes, images of German nutcrackers, and images of BDSM.

3:00 p.m. Run to Mechanics Library for the CD Mussorgsky: The Nursery, Sunless, Songs and Dances of Death and the book Russian Fairy Tales (translated by Norbert Guterman from the collections of Alexander Alexeieff).

3:30 p.m. Return to office. Begin listening to CD while reading the lyrics in the accompanying booklet. Decide it is worth bringing to Daniel’s attention. Find image online of gnome nutcracker from Switzerland and decide it is worth bringing to the “Gnomus” team.

4:00 p.m. Copy lyrics and score of Nursery Cycle and images of gnome nutcracker.

4:10 p.m. Deliver images of gnome nutcracker. Meet with Daniel. Give him material on Nursery Cycle; learn that he has long been considering somehow bringing it in to flesh out “Tuileries.” We discuss progress and discoveries made thus far in rehearsal and research. Discuss overall scope and shape of piece, figuring out what each song represents in Musorgsky’s life. We have reservations about “Limoges” being just about the Purgold sisters: where is Musorgsky in this picture?

4:30 p.m. Check in with “Two Jews” team with Daniel. Take notes on his comments to refer back to later: stage combat needs to be about what is behind the fight; the idea that an older Musorgsky is fighting with a younger Musorgsky is getting lost in the movement.

4:45 p.m. Check in with “Limoges” team with Daniel. They have incorporated text from the research I gave them at 9:00 (silent validation!).Take notes on Daniel’s comments to refer back to later: the piece needs to be more affectless, dead, simple, sterile, cold, trapped, German, mechanical, but he is pleased they have discovered that these pictures can be humorous.

5:15 p.m. Full cast check-in. Daniel tells them to embrace the witty, the ironic, and the absurd. He asks them to push the abstraction as far as it can be followed. He explains that sentimentality is considered disgusting in English theater. He advises that the best actors pay attention to the notes given to all the actors in a company, not just the notes specifically directed towards themselves. End of rehearsal.

5:30 p.m. Return to office. Begin wading through Russian Fairy Tales. Realize that there are no fairy tales about gnomes. Damn.

Keeping It Fresh

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

posted by Manoel Felciano, Jan in Rock 'n' Roll at both A.C.T. and the Huntington Theatre Company

The second most common question I get as an actor—after, “How do you memorize all those lines?”—is usually, “How do you keep things fresh, doing the exact same thing night after night?”

[A.C.T. Associate Artist] Jack Willis likes to talk about being a “workman” when it comes to acting, and I appreciate the unsentimental, demystifying instinct in that word. It’s essential to bring what we do down from the lofty aerie of “artist” to a lunch-pail, workmanlike level. We call it “the work” because, well, that’s what it is. Just like anybody working on a construction site, for a nonprofit, or in a huge corporation, we have a job to do, within a larger structure. We have certain skills, both learned and innate. We have coworkers upon whom we depend and who depend on us. We have the same work ethic that you would find on a construction site or in a startup: timeliness, courtesy, respect, discipline, and professionalism. We have good days and bad days; we find both joy and frustration in our work.

The biggest differences between acting and other jobs are simply the materials and the tools. The materials? Potentially, the entirety of human experience, exemplified by one character at a time, as conceived by the playwright. And the “tools” we need to translate the word into a fully alive, multidimensional human (or animal or spectral or elemental) being onstage? Our bodies, our voices, our imaginative muscle (I recall this as “thinking outside the box” from my Wall Street days), our self-awareness, our emotional availability, our capacity for empathy, and, most importantly, our ability to listen. The biggest challenge to “keeping things fresh” is figuring out how to use all of those tools at your disposal to shape the materials provided by the playwright, and focused by the director, to experience what is going on onstage as if for the first time. To hear news, to make a declaration, to have a realization, to catch sight of someone as if for the first time.

In Rock ’n’ Roll, because of the material and because of the actors I’m onstage with, this has been more of an easy joy than a challenge. The depth and complexity of Stoppard’s writing, the broad swaths of history that he covers, means that there are always new facets to be uncovered. And because Jack and [A.C.T. Associate Artists] Jud [Williford] and René [Augesen] and all the other members of the cast never stop being “workmen,” they too continue to make discoveries that in turn affect me. None of that would be possible if we had actors who weren’t present onstage, who didn’t listen, who were in fact, just “doing the exact same thing night after night.” Now, starting previews in Boston after running the show at A.C.T. for six weeks, I am astonished at how many little eureka moments there continue to be. Having had time off has given us new ears and new voices with which to bring these words to life. It has never felt fresher.

The Unreasonable Investment

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

posted by Rusty Rueff, A.C.T. Trustee

In these trying and turbulent financial days, decisions are being made about where one places one’s financial bets. Do we hang in the market, or do we just retreat and bury Mason jars of money in our backyards? My wife, Patti, and I have been having lots of discussions about this broadly, and personally, as we watch the nonprofit organizations that we support suffer under the pull-back of donations due to the economy and the nearly one billion dollars that have been donated for the presidential election. We are the recipients of many requests for donations, and we are doing our best to dig deep, and in some cases double down from prior year donations, to ensure that the nonprofit organizations that we care about do not implode during this difficult time. Some would say that we are being foolish in continuing to fund the arts at the same level or greater than the past. To many, these look like unreasonable investments. But as the writer and playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “Reasonable men adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable men attempt to adapt the world to themselves. That’s why all progress depends on unreasonable men.”

I am a trustee of A.C.T. because, first and foremost, I love live theater. When once asked if I could spend a day any way I wanted, I said that I would take in an afternoon baseball game and a great theater performance in the evening. It’s just part of me and what I love. But, for the rest of society as a whole, the theater and visual and performing arts are the fabrics that bring soul and essence to our everyday lives. Without them we risk becoming one-dimensional and flat in our humanity. If we are not stimulated to think, laugh, cry, and explore the lives of others by placing ourselves in the situations and characters that live theater provides, then we can find ourselves living out our own lives without reference points or exploration into what we could truly be.

After seeing Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll at A.C.T., I kept asking myself (and others who had seen the show), Why did Jan stay in Czechoslovakia through the entire period of oppression, when with the smarts, energy, and resources that he could have mustered, he could have stolen out of the country and defected? My conclusion was that he loved the fight for the cause more than he loved freedom and more than he loved Esme and what she represented for him in England. It seemed unreasonable, but no more unreasonable than what anyone might want to do who wants to see progress. When we have things we love, like live theater, even the most unreasonable things we do can become reasonable for the cause of progress.

"The GODS, Enjoy Themselves in an ORGY."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

posted by Cat Walleck, Master of Fine Arts Program Class of 2009

These were the first words I read on page 1 of Good Breeding last spring, when we first got our copies of the script that was to be our first third-year M.F.A. project. I have, for the last two and a half years, spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours poring over my body—learning all about the myriad of ways I can use it as my instrument—but it wasn’t until I got to Good Breeding that I truly realized just to what extent I would need to be “available” to my audience.

Melissa Smith, our conservatory director, is famous amongst us for her provocative saying: “Real acting is like standing completely naked in a room full of strangers, and turning around—slowly.” Of course, this intimidating and sexy woman announcing this to a bunch of nervous first-years was shattering enough, and then to imagine oneself having the courage, the generosity, and the killer rear view to pull off such a stunt is potentially debilitating. Or, maybe, exhilarating?

What would it be like to be nude onstage? The idea buzzed around our class: “Do you really think we’ll be actually naked?” “Is it only the characters playing Gods?” “What’s your Good Breeding diet?” I can’t speak for everyone individually, but most of us found ways—from carb cutting to yoga—to assuage our body image issues in pursuit of this higher cause. In college, I’d played parts where I stripped to my skivvies, but never truly in the buff. That was sort of the last-hold-barred: I realized that I held on to my costumes—even just a few inches of fabric kept me feeling safe and, to a certain degree, protected from an audience.

Day one of rehearsal, our generous and warm director [Timothy Douglas] went right to it. We got over the presentational quality of it in a heartbeat, and Tim led us in a meaningful discussion about what that opening scene meant to us—what it feels like to be seen, to experience extreme personal pleasure, and to be available to that level to the audience and for one another as an ensemble. Of course, it was hysterical that after this talk, the playwright, Robert [O’Hara], told us how impressed he was at our deep discussion, but really he just thought it would be cool to open with an orgy.

Even since we started running the show, one of my favorite moments has been our entrance—walking out onto the stage, looking right into the eyes of the people who have come to witness our show, wearing basically my birthday suit. And of course, we then turn slowly to a killer beat.

It’s been liberating. In a career where weight and fitness are omnipresent devils, and the images of the L.A. physique and the romanticized Starving Actor are everywhere available, I have learned to be particularly conscious of my own and others’ approval and judgment of my body. And I’m not going to lie—I definitely do as many push-ups as possible right before I head to places. But for at least that first moment, I have nothing hiding me from those people I’m looking at, except some silver straps of Lycra and oodles of glitter. Now, I know to look for that level of transparency and availability for my audience, regardless of the costume—or lack thereof.

"Where would I find a Plastic Person?"

posted by Carey Perloff, A.C.T. Artistic Director

Of the many wild and unexpected things that occurred during our rehearsals of Rock ’n’ Roll (like Russian tanks rolling into South Ossetia claiming “fraternal assistance” on the day we began rehearsals, an eerie echo of the August 21, 1968, Russian occupation of Prague), none was more surreal than going with the cast to Slim’s at midnight on October 9 to hear The Plastic People of the Universe play. I couldn’t even fathom that they were still together—this was the group of “long-haired weirdo hippies” that by bizarre circumstance triggered the trial that humiliated the Czech Communist Party in 1977, and led to the formation of Charter 77. So what the hell were they doing in San Francisco in 2008?

There’s an incredibly moving moment in Rock ’n’ Roll in which Jan tells Nigel that the Plastics are over—they had been asked to compromise one time too many and finally broke apart. Turns out that 20 years later, in 1997, Václav Havel brought the group back together for the 20th anniversary of Charter 77. To add to the string of weird coincidences, my beloved composer friend David Lang told me that when he first visited Prague during the height of the Cold War, the guy who was assigned to shadow him and make sure he behaved was the upright bass player of the Plastics, an intense deep-eyed guy named Ivan! So on October 9, 2008, we find Ivan sitting in the Sky Lobby of A.C.T. at intermission with the rest of the Plastics, selling CDs and posters and stirring up interest for their midnight concert. The aging sax player, Vratislav Brabenec, pulled out a marker and autographed Carly Cioffi, my lovely and intrepid assistant director, right on her chest. The guys hadn’t appeared to have bathed since 1968, and the acrid smell of sweat and cigarettes hung in the air long after Act 2 had begun… we all stared at them in wonder, these crazy guys who had gone to prison for refusing to cut their hair, and caused an entire government to fall. And now they were back in action in the capitalist West, just as Stoppard had predicted at the end of Rock ’n’ Roll. Is this progress? Who knows.

By the time we got to Slim’s, the Plastics were in full force onstage—this crazy fusion band with a sexy young electric bass player and the old violinist and a marginal drummer and the sax player belting out Czech lyrics and scanning the room for cute girls. They were the warm-up act for a really hot band from Budapest who came next… in my complete fog of exhaustion I sat there staring at the stage trying to imagine what these guys had gone through in their lives and what it must’ve felt like to come together all these years later in a radically different world. Tom’s plays always merge reality and fantasy in such porous ways—I knew the Plastics were a real band but somehow in the context of Rock ’n’ Roll they had become a fictionalized force to me, a metaphor—“not heretics, but pagans.” The guy who did the mighty roar that sends Mano dancing across the stage towards Jud in our production was up there in front of us sawing away on his violin. Are the Plastics still pagans? Is it possible to be pagans and sell out a tour in America? Was it worth all the pain and imprisonment and chaos of those years?

Three days after the Plastics, Tom Stoppard arrived to see the show. Sitting next to him in the theater on Saturday night, watching him watch his own creation on the Geary stage, it was as if he had invented a magical historical world in which real historical characters collided with Stoppardian creations in such a seamless way that I was momentarily amazed the Plastics hadn’t recognized Jan and Ferdinand from prison in 1977… when we asked them where they were going next, they said back to Prague—they had a matinee of Rock ’n’ Roll to play on Sunday! Unbelievable.

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