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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On any given night at the American Conservatory Theater, the role of the audience is played by a distinct and varied group of people. A thousand pairs of eyes, a thousand held breaths, a thousand different reactions that can alter and inform the action that takes place on the stage. The cliché that there would be no theater if there were no audience is in fact true, and as our audience, each of you is a permanent and integral part of the artistic process at A.C.T. But it is also true that if there were not a vast cast of artists, artisans, trustees, staff, faculty, and students to work behind the scenes, there would be no A.C.T. In this forum we hope to pull back the curtain and give you, our audience, the opportunity to look into our shops, stages, studios, and offices and interact with the myriad people who make live theater happen at A.C.T.

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