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!
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