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 RenĂ© [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.
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