A New Family

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

posted by Omozé Idehenre, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2010 

Omozé bonds with the Carol kids during the annual latke party.

The word carol is defined as “a song of joy” and/or “to sing in a lively and joyous manner.” When I think of A Christmas Carol, I think of the chance to perform this particular custom during this special and particular period of time. Caroling is an opportunity to let go of all the stress you’ve retained throughout the year and put it to something useful before the New Year. It is a joy one is fortunate to receive when people take the attention off of themselves and give it to others. How great it is to know that, no matter what, we all can get the chance to let our hearts sing in a joyous manner again and again.

Participating in A.C.T.’s production of A Christmas Carol has truly been an incredible experience. I’ve been saying this A LOT, but it has felt like a vacation of sorts. Much of this, I feel, has to do with getting the opportunity to work with various generations of actors outside of school. Each of the M.F.A. students has a mentee from the Young Conservatory participating in the show, and in turn we are mentored by core company members and guest actors. The beauty of this is the incredible bonds we form with one another while performing on the stage of a professional theater. With the constant laughter and conversation, you really can’t help but let go and just be in the joy and festiveness of it all. Last week, for instance, the kids and their parents threw their amazing annual latke party. While sitting at the table, watching the kids perform, it occurred to me how incredible and all-inclusive tradition can be. Every individual is different, but the simplest act, song, plate of food, or gathering place can truly bind. It’s really difficult that I won’t be with my family this holiday, but being welcomed by another family truly ameliorates this. It’s been a blessing.

Lastly, I think one of the greatest things that I will take away from all of this are the relationships that I formed with many of the actors during this whole process. Coming into it, after a very long semester, I feel my mind was stuck more on the work of it all. But once we got into rehearsals with the kids, especially onstage, it became more about the play and one another. I love those kids!!!

Revisiting Phèdre

Friday, December 18, 2009

posted by Claire Lautier, cast member of Phèdre

Claire Lautier plays Aricie in Phèdre, a new translation of Racine’s 17th-century French tragedy directed by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff in a coproduction between A.C.T. and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada. Presented at Stratford last summer, Phèdre arrives at the American Conservatory Theater in January. Lautier will travel to San Francisco along with many members of the original cast to revisit Racine’s classic drama at A.C.T.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a public place in the midst of squawking televisions, ringtones, a dozen cell phone conversations, background music, loudspeaker announcements, engines and horns, beeps and chirps, fluorescent lights, flashing screens, diesel fumes, and the rhythmic bouncing of my seat as the person down the bench from me jiggles his legs frantically while listening to an iPod and playing a video game. And I think to myself, I should write that blog entry for Phèdre. What should I talk about? I’ve never written a blog entry of any kind before (what would I say and who would care?). In this environment I draw an even bigger blank—my surroundings seem pretty incongruous with ideas about French court drama!

After a month in New York City, I’m pretty worn out from sleep deprivation. Somehow I managed to live here for 17 years without being overly affected by it, but after nine months in beautiful, blissful, and quiet Stratford, coming back to the city has been a rude awakening and I feel as if my nervous system is screaming for peace. So I’m REALLY looking forward to being at A.C.T., in San Francisco, a city I’ve only briefly visited. But mostly, I’m looking forward to sinking into the world I remember from this summer, which is Phèdre. It’s not that often you get to reexamine a piece a few months after a run, and in a radically different setting. During the summer, it felt like we barely scratched the surface; by the time I began to feel grounded, the run was over. In Stratford, we played on a rep schedule, so although we usually did eight performances a week, we were doing two or even three different plays in that week. It was usually several days between performances of Phèdre, which can be either refreshing or disorienting. I found it a real challenge to get underneath the material and stay there. I liken it to dropping anchor in a deep ocean, going to sleep, and waking up the next morning to find you’ve drifted off course somehow with your anchor trailing.

As I relive the play in my mind I have a full-body experience in direct contrast to my environment. My memories are of stillness: listening, breathing, light reflected by the water in the fountain, a bare stage. The words are spare and dangerous; they emerge from an ominous silence, reaching through the long expanse of space. We can only perceive silence because of sound; when we do, we notice that underneath the sound and ever present is the deep, deep silence and stillness. What finally emerges from that silence, from the primordial depths of our psyches, long suppressed, is what sets the events of the play in motion, inexorably, until there is only one possible outcome. I want to drop back into that kinetic stillness, that pure potential. I find that stimulating and profoundly satisfying—and a refreshing antidote to the modern world of pervasive, meaningless noise.

So I’m excited! I get to work at A.C.T.! I’m looking forward to reuniting with Carey and our cast and creative team, meeting the new cast members, and seeing what happens when we go from a long thrust stage to a proscenium. How will we do it? How will it affect the play? How will Aricie be influenced by it? In Stratford, the audience was so close and surrounded us; at A.C.T they’ll be “out there” and we’ll be “up here.” It’s the same play, but it won’t be the same play. It will be totally new!

Christmas Produce

Thursday, December 3, 2009

posted by Shelley Carter, A.C.T. Artistic Intern
Two Turkish figs (Isabella Ateshian and Rachel Share-Sapolsky)
in the 2007 production of A Christmas Carol.

“Too big to be a fig. Maybe an onion though,” says veteran A.C.T. Casting Director Meryl Shaw.
“Or even a plum?” offers A Christmas Carol Casting Consultant Greg Hubbard.

From outside the door of the casting office, I wondered what mystery fruit my two bosses could be discussing. Surely something exotic.

“Hey, Shelley, could you come help us with this produce?” Meryl called.

Expecting to see them peering over a small tropical fruit, I was surprised to see them huddled around the picture of a small adorable child. As the new artistic intern at A.C.T., I’ll admit there is a lot of casting terminology for me to learn, but I was highly perplexed by their farmers’ market vocabulary.

“It’s just that we have a zillion onions. I’m tearing up all ready,” says Meryl.

I furrow my brow and nod, playing along. Very pale and onionlike, I agree. Seeing my obvious confusion Meryl explained what anyone who has seen A.C.T.’s A Christmas Carol will all ready know:
the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to Scrooge the “sensory delights of the holiday season” by showing him a delectable array of Spanish onions, Turkish figs, and French plums—all portrayed by students in A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory.

Cut to September 9, the day after initial A Christmas Carol auditions, when, after weeks upon weeks of preparation, Carol director Domenique Lozano, Meryl, Greg, and I find ourselves in the midst of a veritable fruit basket of auditionees.

I was astounded at the amount of, ahem, “raw” talent and professionalism exhibited by these young actors. In all seriousness, though, the kids showed an incredibly high degree of focus, commitment, and energy. We were all surprised at the skill level of these young actors, who brought in audition pieces as varied as Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and the Beatles. Seeing a young actor tackle the middle-aged and imposing Paulina from The Winter’s Tale with such mastery over speech and language was very impressive, to say the least. One of the more delicious highlights of the evening included a rendition of ye olde YouTube classic, “Banana Phone.” It was work you could really sink your teeth into. Meryl regaled us with favorite stories from previous auditions, such as last year’s Ilya (who played Boy Dick in 2008) performing both Gwendolyn and Cecily in a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest.

There are so many difficult factors that go into casting a show, like older actors who are a wee bit too “ripe,” or younger ones who might still be too “green.” Mentally, I found myself trying to keep up with Meryl and Greg’s observations, “Yes, yes. His portrayal of the onion has . . . many . . . layers?” I think. The acting work seems so . . . organic. Finally, after a marathon 14 hours of auditions, we decided we’d had enough of speaking “fig-uratively” because we were all, indeed, plum tired.

Holding Back My Tears as a "Carol Mom"

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

posted by Susan Berston

Each year, A.C.T.’s annual production of A Christmas Carol features almost two dozen young actors as young as eight, who are all students in A.C.T.’s acclaimed Young Conservatory. Susan Berston, whose 12-year-old son, Samuel, appears as Ned Cratchit in this year’s production, writes about the rewards and challenges of being a first-time “Carol mom.”

Hearing the joy in my son’s voice, listening to him sing Christmas carols in early November, and noticing a pronounced bounce in his step, I have pondered whether being a “Carol mom” is almost as exciting as being in his shoes. My son, Samuel, has always loved to act both “on- and offstage” since the age of four, but it wasn’t until a year ago in Betty Schneider’s musical theater class in A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory that he realized there were other more serious, like-minded “singing, dancing, and acting” kids like himself. Ms. Schneider is a talented vocal and acting coach, with a magic and gentle influence unparalleled by other teachers my son has experienced. She is one of those teachers who have made a difference, and an integral part of his journey to bring him to the stage of A Christmas Carol as Ned Cratchit. This brings me to write this blog to share with you—the Carol experience from a parent’s perspective.

I soon became immersed in learning new jargon in order to understand where and when my son was to be for rehearsals. A “callback” meant a “second interview.” To “read” translated to reciting lines for a given role during an audition. And my son was “cast” in the production—based upon factors we could only randomly guess during the surprisingly warm and friendly audition process. The nightly emails with the following day’s schedule took some decoding, with the assistance of a dedicated and detailed “veteran” parent, Lisa Share-Sapolsky. In layperson’s terms, she provided more detail to terms like “straight six,” “release times,” and “break coverage.” At the parents’ meeting, I was embarrassingly overwhelmed with the volume of information disseminated and number of names to remember. Despite information overload, I felt the bond between the parents, who strongly realize the immense value this experience holds for each of our children.

Even with uncertainty around daily schedules and planning, shuttling back and forth, and some missed school, I knew the growth experience, confidence building, and actor training (more like boot camp) would be unparalleled. As a parent, and for full disclosure, of an only child, I’ve pretty much followed and encouraged my son’s passions—and whether he was “cast” or not, I sensed the audition experience, while a little scary for him, would be a learning one at that. An experience, regardless of role, with a multigenerational cast would help my son respect the choice of those who have chosen acting as a career. Developing relationships, camaraderie, and friendships with an immensely creative, focused, fun-loving, and extremely bright bunch of new kids has proven to be invaluable. Samuel has been exposed to the professional world of theater and the opportunity to be mentored by one very vivacious, sensitive, and extremely talented actor and M.F.A. student, David Jacobs.

As opening night approaches, I’ll bet you that Ned Cratchit’s mom will most likely be holding back her tears as she sees her son realizing his dream on the A.C.T. stage, knowing that his experience will transcend as a source of growth and inspiration offstage for many years to come.

Samuel Berston gets fitted for his costume for A Christmas Carol.

The Reality of Theater

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

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

One night last month, Thursday, October 17, San Francisco was marking just another night of theater being performed on stages throughout the city and the Bay Area.

On that night the American Conservatory Theater was in an extended run of full houses for the Kneehigh Theatre production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter. This fusion piece set in England during World War II told us of unfulfilled love and escape in a tumultuous time. Next door at the Curran Theatre, the touring company of Rent, with Anthony Rapp (original Mark) and Adam Pascal (original Roger), was sold out, with a raucous crowd watching the La Bohème story, told through Jonathon Larson’s characters, about poor, HIV/AIDS–infected, starving artists in New York City. They sang of the hope of dying in dignity with others caring about their plight. Across town another sold-out war-themed show was turning away people who wanted to see the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific—another love story, set in the islands of the South Pacific with war raging all around them. On the other side of the Bay, Berkeley Rep was extended with standing-room-only audiences eager to see the rock opera American Idiot. Green Day’s musical rant against war, government oppression, big-government mismanagement, and societal pressures caught fire and enraptured the audience for 90 minutes of nonstop push. Back in San Francisco, the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program students, under the direction of Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of Cal Shakes, were presenting Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play Her Naked Skin, about women’s rights and the struggle for suffrage in turn-of-the-century Britain. This play was the first by a woman playwright to be presented on the National Theatre’s Olivier Stage in London. This moving work reminded us that human rights advancement is a contemporary issue and we still have a long way to go until all are treated equally. Another National Theatre production was in town that night, as well. There was a simulcast screening of their All’s Well That Ends Well at the Sundance Kabuki film theater. On top of all of the live theater in town that night, a few hundred people were taking in Shakespeare through the cinema screen, in an effort by the National to build better relations with the American audience.

I know I have missed at least another half dozen to a dozen other plays that were running on that night, as well. There is always much theater in our town on any given night.

But on that night the theater became reality as at the same time that curtains were rising across the Bay Area, just over in Union Square, at the St. Francis Hotel, the first sitting U.S. president to visit San Francisco in nearly a decade was speaking live. President Obama turned out thousands of supporters to hear him update them on the issues of our time, issues that were all around him that night in the theaters of the Bay Area: war, health care, human rights, the social-class divide, international relations, the economy in the context of the financial crisis, and government’s role in all of this. President Obama didn’t need to look much further than the scripts and librettos of the theaters around him that night to find relevant substance for his speeches.

We go to the theater to suspend our disbelief and to experience the stories of others so we connect and feel. We use the theater to wrestle with the issues that are our own. We sometimes find what is true reality being no further away than just on the stage before us.

On this one night in San Francisco in October of 2009, the theater was as real as it gets.

A Winter Ritual

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

posted by Michael Paller, A.C.T. Dramaturg and Director of Humanities

I miss the seasons in San Francisco. Growing up in the Midwest and then living for over two decades in New York City, the seasons were markers of time: a return to either school or work accompanied by falling leaves in autumn; holidays marked by singing and an abundance of lights and genuine good cheer all over the city, followed by what seemed like endless cold and snow in the winter that made arriving at one’s final destination all the more rewarding; warmth and greenery in the spring; hot days and long vacations in the summer. Each season heralded something both new and familiar. You could count on these things; there was comfort in the cyclical nature of the world and in the annual rituals we create to mark them.

As far as I can tell, there are no seasons in San Francisco. People tell me that they exist, but I don’t believe them, unless fog is a season, in which case there’s one. Eight leaves on the ground in front of my building? Oh, fall has arrived. Two hot days (meaning over 75 degrees) in a row? It’s summer. Unless it’s late September. Or October. It all runs together.

And so in November it’s a great pleasure to go upstairs to the William Ball Rehearsal Studio and see 40 people at work on our fifth annual go-round of Carey Perloff’s and Paul Walsh’s A Christmas Carol. This annual ritual says winter to me, although this year, the season will have barely begun when the last chorus of “Look Up!” fades away into the American Conservatory Theater’s dome at about 7:30 p.m. on December 27. It’s not just that the story takes place at the winter solstice (do we have that out here?), or that Dickens’s story embodies what’s coldest and warmest about the season. It’s the ritual that we at A.C.T. enact each year, when our core acting company mentors our third-year M.F.A. students, each of whom has a role, while they, in turn, mentor the many cast members who train in our Young Conservatory. The ritual has a new twist this year: more of the core company is appearing in the show than ever, as René Augesen and Gregory Wallace join the cast as the Cratchits, mère and père, alongside Jack Willis as the Ghost of Jacob Marley. Steven Anthony Jones will be pitching in at certain performances, as well. And other adult members of our cast are back, as regular as a snowless San Francisco December: James Carpenter as Scrooge, Sharon Lockwood as Mrs. Dilber and Mrs. Fezziwig, Jarion Monroe as Mr. Fezziwig, and BW Gonzalez as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Just as each winter is different from the last but still winter, each year’s Christmas Carol is both familiar and new. The story’s the same, and while the lines come one after another in a reassuringly recognizable way, the third-year M.F.A. students who say many of them are new—and yet familiar to those of us who have taught them for the last two years. Watching them rehearse the party scene at the home of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, on Christmas Day, the outlines of the scene are the same as always—young, exuberant people living fully in their enjoyment of each other and the season—but the details are fresh, invented anew, moment by moment, by this young cast and our director, Domenique Lozano.

By the end of the rehearsal, although I’ve heard the ending of the “Yes and No” game more times than I can count over the years, I’m as delighted as if it’s brand new—which it is—and cozily familiar—which it also is. Which is what a holiday ritual should be.

Inspired By Turkeys

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

posted by Manoel Felciano, A.C.T. Core Acting Company member

When I learned I was going to play "A Representative of the National Association of Turkey and Turkey By-Products Manufacturers," I was a bit baffled at first. Who is this mysterious, bespectacled, mustachioed man with a few anger management issues? In David Mamet's play November, this hapless fellow has earned the great privilege of introducing the president of the United States to the two turkeys that ceremonially get pardoned every Thanksgiving. I imagined this was one of the highest honors that a "Turkey Guy" could get, and he's been preparing for this moment for months, if not years, and can't wait to shake hands and get a picture with the POTUS himself. Unfortunately for our intrepid hero, he can't even get his first words out before he is cut off, and things go rapidly downhill for him throughout the rest of the evening.

So how to find this character? I looked in the dictionary under "hapless" expecting to find a picture of myself staring back at me, but no luck. So I went right to this guy's passion, his livelihood, indeed his very raison d'être: TURKEYS. I got lost in the fascinating and sometimes terrifying world that is the turkey industry in this country largely through their advocacy organization, The National Turkey Federation. This is where I discovered their, I mean my, motto: "Turkey: The Perfect Protein." That's where our costume designer, Alex Jaeger found the pièce de résistance of my costume, a pin featuring a gold turkey in relief, flying, claws extended over a waving star-spangled banner. I read up on the myths that continue to spread the malicious belief that turkeys are dumber than rocks—that turkeys will stare up in a thunderstorm, mouths open, until they drown. Or that you have to put colored pebbles in their drinking water so they think it is food and peck at it, otherwise they will die of dehydration. Hmm . . . my Representative was not the sharpest guy either, a bit slow on the uptake. OK, good to know.

I learned that Minnesota has one of the highest number of turkey farms in the country, so suddenly my Turkey Guy was from Minnesota. Somehow I had decided he was named Herb, and since he was now from Minnesota, he might have Scandinavian heritage, so I named him Herbert Blomstedt, which may ring a bell to longtime SF Symphony fans. Finally I watched a lot of YouTube videos of actual turkeys and their physical behaviors. I tried to incorporate how they turn their head sideways to look at something, since they can't use both eyes to focus on anything. Of course I watched their "gobbler" and finally put to good use the double chin I've been self-conscious of for years. Various bits of head bobbing and weaving slowly started to creep into Herb's physicality. Most of all, I kept in mind that my character was always one step away from disaster, from being shipped off to a military prison in Bulgaria, or from the president potentially wrecking the turkey industry's annual Thanksgiving Day windfall. I found the perfect metaphor for this in a video of Sarah Palin after pardoning a turkey, giving an interview while one of the turkey's less fortunate brethren is unceremoniously thrust into a grinder in the background. Herb's mantra became: Avoid the grinder. Avoid the grinder. Avoid the grinder.

Needless to say I will sit down to Thanksgiving Day dinner this year with a whole new perspective. Gobble gobble!

The West Coast Premiere of David Mamet's November at A.C.T. continues its extended run through November 22.

A Unique Collaboration

Friday, November 13, 2009

posted by Gillian Confair, stage manager of The Soldier’s Tale 

A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Marisa Duchowny performs with
the New Music Ensemble of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Four members of the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2011 are in rehearsal for Stravinsky’s groundbreaking theatrical piece The Soldier’s Tale, produced in A.C.T.’s first-ever collaboration with the New Music Ensemble of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. A.C.T. Associate Artist Giles Havergal and New Music Ensemble Artistic Director Nicole Paiement lead the unique joint venture. Stage manager Gillian Confair—who recently completed a year-long internship at A.C.T.—describes the unique experience of working on this unusual multidisciplinary project.

I find myself in the rare and difficult position of having to stage-manage a show that is not, by its basic definition, a show at all. If you were to call this piece anything, perhaps a “concert” would be the word to describe it. More likely than not, “performance” is the word that would give it its due. It’s an interesting piece, at the junction of two separate but equally wondrous branches of the arts. The Soldier’s Tale contains the elegance and beauty of the symphony, and the joy and passion of the stage, slotted together in one cohesive, intricate piece. They are, indeed, strange bedfellows, but their commingling creates a rare and interesting work.

During our first rehearsal, Giles Havergal, our fearless director, spoke to the actors about what place this piece has in their education. He talked to them about the academic challenge of a work like this, and about The Soldier’s Tale as an exercise of their vocality and physicality as performers. It’s a challenge they have certainly risen to. Because of the atypical nature of this piece they find themselves without the limitations of staged drama or comedy.

The realm The Soldier’s Tale resides in requires an entirely different approach to characters and to storytelling. The challenge doesn’t fall on the actors’ shoulders alone. I can honestly say that this is one of the most difficult pieces I’ve had the opportunity to work on. Coordinating with the Conservatory of Music, overseeing rehearsals, and preparing for performance are only the beginnings of it for me. This piece marks the first time I’ll be calling a show from directly onstage. It also marks the first time that I will be combining the skill sets I’ve acquired through theater and dance work. Instead of tracking cues through words I’ll be reading measures of music, following along in a score while quick changing actors into and out of coats and cueing light changes. It is a bit daunting. It’s also extremely exciting for me. The Soldier’s Tale is stretching my skills and knowledge, testing my problem solving, and keeping me on my toes in a way that I enjoy.

Rehearsal has been entertaining, watching the actors learn dance choreography, me juggling a script, a score, and a combined master copy, watching them create grandiose characters, bobbing and weaving through chairs that mark the place for orchestra members, laughing and working our way through complicated pieces. It promises to be an amazing show, and a unique theatrical experience. I count myself lucky to be a part of it.

The Soldier’s Tale performs at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Saturday, November 14, 2009, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For more information, please visit www.sfcm.edu.

Who Wants to Be a Psychoanalyst?

Friday, November 6, 2009

posted by Linda Lagemann, Ph.D., Wendy Stern, D.M.H., and A.C.T. Group Sales Manager Edward Budworth

The fifth season of the wildly successful Theater on the Couch program at A.C.T. started off running after the performance of Brief Encounter on Friday, September 18. Dr. Linda Lagemann and Dr. Wendy Stern of the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis were the panelists. Cast member Joseph Alessi joined in and brought many insights into the characters he portrays.

In this production, boundaries were broken. As cast members appeared in the audience and live characters entered movie scenes, the production created in us the feelings that the two protagonists, Laura and Alec, have as they breach boundaries. Fantasy and reality were also blended—aspects of the play were structured like a dream. The visual images projected on the back wall and the music expressed the unconscious feelings of the characters bubbling up. A perfect vehicle for a lively discussion!

From a psychoanalytic standpoint, Brief Encounter posed the common dilemma of any era: how does one have more than just a brief encounter with the passions of life? Other themes that came up during the discussion were loss, limitations of reality, integration of suppressed feelings and split-off aspects of the self, impossible love, and suppression of life dreams.

To make the event truly interactive, and since vignettes from the play can be analyzed like a dream, the panelists stimulated discussion by playing “Who Wants to Be a Psychoanalyst?” with the attendees.

You, too, can play along with these questions, but don’t let the answers provided limit your thinking:

Question 1. A patient tells you, “I had this dream: it was in my living room, but it was like in a black-and-white movie, and there were two empty chairs in the room.” What hypothesis do you have?

A. The dream reveals your patient secretly wants to apply to be on the reality show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
B. A couple of vibrant throw pillows would really punch up the look and take this room from drab to fab.
C. Clearly this dream image represents two people having wild sex.
D. Neither your patient nor her husband is really “present” at home. They each have so much of their self repressed or split off that all that is left in the marriage is dull and colorless. Their marriage is static, not alive.

Question 2. A patient tells you, “I had a dream I had something in my eye: I couldn’t see clearly and I was in pain. Then this man helped me.” What does it mean?

A. The dream is a premonition of an impending eye injury.
B. Through complex unconscious symbolism, the dream is communicating that your patient has something in her eye, is in pain, and needs to see an optometrist.
C. Your patient has not been able to see the barren state of her life and marriage. The pain of her life has become unbearable. This is triggered by the encounter with the man.
D. Not enough information to know.

(This is a trick question. While answer “C” is compelling and is a theory that could fit, “D” is the correct answer and serves as a reminder to all psychoanalysts, official and honorary, that while we may have knowledge of how the unconscious works, it is only in a collaborative process with the patient and their associations that meaning is uncovered.)

Question 3. A patient tells you, “I had a dream I was at a train station, Milford Junction, talking to a man I met about a time when I was more alive and adventurous. Then a powerful wave swept over us.”
What hypothesis do you have?

A. Your patient should avoid the train station today as there will be a tsunami.
B. She has unresolved feelings from age 5 about her first “boyfriend”, named Milford, who loved Thomas the Train more than her.
C. Her unconscious mind is telling her that she needs to wake up and go pee.
D. She is at a junction in her life. Big emotions, long repressed, are sweeping over her like a force of nature.

Our regular “Couch” groupies tell us that these sessions are enlightening and entertaining and that they gain a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the show they have just seen.

We hope you will join us for these upcoming Theater on the Couch discussions:

Phèdre (January 22, 2010)

Vigil (April 2, 2010)

Round and Round the Garden (May 7, 2010)

Diving into Williams's New Orleans

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

posted by Brian Jansen, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2011

There are so many positive changes taking place right now at A.C.T. I thought I’d blog about one improvement, which is the newly zoned performance space for the Conservatory. For years, A.C.T. M.F.A. Program students have staged wonderful productions in Hastings Studio Theater, but due to zoning regulations these shows were by invitation only and not open to the public.

This year we are excited that Hastings has been designated as a public performance space. It allows the public to come see the wonderful work going on in the Conservatory, and enhances student training by extending our run to allow more shows. Two plays are opening there this week featuring the 12 student actors in the M.F.A. class of 2011, and we hope you’ll come!

The plays are by two American legends—Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carré and Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love. We’ve been working hard with our two directors—A.C.T. dramaturg Michael Paller and core acting company member Jack Willis.

I am part of the Vieux Carré cast and have had a good time exploring the world of 1938 New Orleans. The story revolves around a young writer struggling with his homosexuality and literary ambitions. Set in the decaying glamour of a boarding house in the French Quarter, it is a memory play teeming with longing, loneliness, sensuality, smoke, and jazz in the last part of the Great Depression.

I play a drifter jazz musician who enters the writer’s life and invites him to escape to the freedom of the open road. It is a role that plays in contrast to the other characters, who are trapped in the
confinement and dissolution of the boarding house. Researching the role, I listened to a lot of New Orleans jazz, cooked gumbo, and took another look at the definitive American road trip novel (set ten years after Vieux Carré), Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Williams fills the play with the Southern eccentricities, evocative atmosphere, and sense of lyrical passion we have come to love in his best work, and it has been a sultry place to spend the last few weeks of rehearsal. I think Vieux Carré is something of a lost treasure—brimming with heart and heartbreak, and moments of hilarity in this bizarre Bohemia.

After you’ve had a taste of New Orleans, I hope you will also join us to head to the world of the Southwest in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love.

Vieux Carré and Fool for Love run in repertory October 21–31 in Hastings Studio Theater at 77 Geary Street, 6th Floor. For more information and to purchase tickets, please click here.

Taking "The Leap"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

posted by Anthony Fusco, A.C.T. Core Acting Company member

One of the challenges for artists working within institutions (no, not those kinds of “institutions”) is to be creative, imaginative, and even occasionally inspired . . . on a schedule. We here at A.C.T. are continually churning out work, from the mainstage to the classroom, and it all has to happen on time and on budget. Sometimes we capture lightning in a bottle; sometimes we get singed. Usually our plays are ripe for an audience at just the right moment, but sometimes we have an opening night because, well, that’s what it says on the calendar.

So how do we ensure that we’re always working at our best? How do we foster an atmosphere of continual creativity and invention, so that when those opening nights arrive we will be ready for them? Trying to find new answers to those old questions has been the focus of a lot of our energy lately, and has involved efforts ranging from informal hallway conversations to company-wide meetings, surveys, interviews, and focus groups. And it all got kicked off this year in a fantastically inspiring way:

“The Leap.”

This year we began the 2009–10 academic year with an experiment: students from all three years of the Master of Fine Arts Program gathered with faculty, core acting company artists, Conservatory Director Melissa Smith, and Artistic Director Carey Perloff in a two-day exercise in creativity and collaboration. We warmed up together, taught and learned from each other, and made theater with each other all over the building at our administrative offices and rehearsal spaces at 30 Grant Avenue. On the first day, three groups of students and two of faculty/staff were given three hours to create short pieces of theater based on poems drawn out of a hat. It was a matter of “Here’s your poem. Go!”

We DEVOURED those poems, deciphering the ambiguities, pondering the depths of the imagery, wrestling with the same questions we always do—How should it sound? How should it look? What’s the author really trying to say and how can we best serve that? How do we decide what works and what doesn’t? How do we respect everyone’s experience yet attain a unified whole?—trying idea after idea until a form began to take shape. “My” group finally settled on an abstraction of the poem’s main ideas, using choreography, choral speaking, even water swishing around in a wastebasket just for the sound of it. I haven’t been as nervous or excited about a performance in years! Other groups performed in almost total darkness, made wild music with their bodies and voices, created hilarious skits worthy of Saturday Night Live—it was an evening of total raucous inspiration and mutual admiration that left us all exhausted and exhilarated.

The next day the process repeated but with mixed student/faculty groups—not part of the original plan, but the best idea of all—creating pieces based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, and that’s when things really got interesting. The story seemed to demand the impossible: set in a foreign country and taking place over decades, the characters all male, with elements including comets, trains, the countryside, and a deadly knife fight. But no time to worry about that! Students, company members, and faculty worked together as equals, each group being responsible for one fifth of the whole story, with the students’ inspirational abandon and great sense of play enlivening and being given enhanced expression by the older artists’ concepts of form and clarity. To be honest, in my group the “teachers” learned a few lessons in collaboration from our “students.” I was perhaps proudest of the fact that in my group each member’s most personal response to the text got included in the final result . . . even though at first they might have seemed not to mesh at all. As one student observed, “I couldn’t have thought that up, but we did.” Although it wasn’t part of the original plan either, the pieces when presented took place all over the building, in the Hastings Studio, in classrooms, in a hallway, and even out on a balcony. We dashed from place to place, eager to see how each group would handle the story we already knew. The interpretations were really varied and inventive, using all the elements of stagecraft available to us—sound/silence, motion/stillness, voice/body, words/music—in ways that often made us literally gasp with delight. It reminded me all over again of the reason we do classical theater in the first place: it is thrilling to see something you think you already know, reimagined for this very moment by creative artists. And it proved once and for all that it IS possible to create on a deadline, under pressure, if everyone is willing to set aside their usual “roles” and work in a spirit of mutual loving commitment to the art of theater.

Now as we move forward into the rest of the school year and the mainstage season, I hope we can find a way to keep the spirit of “The Leap” alive, every working day.

A.C.T. core acting company members Anthony Fusco and René Augesen
in last season’s Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo.

You Know What I Did Last Summer . . . ? Part 3

Friday, October 9, 2009

posted by Dan Rubin, A.C.T. Publications & Literary Associate

Please join me in welcoming the Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2012. In this third of three posts about what our students did this past summer, we offer you a first glimpse into the lives of the actors who will be spending the next three years with us.

Matt Bradley spent a month in Atlanta, Georgia, on his knees in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and doing his best Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer (the musical). He watched a lot of theater, read many books, spent a week in Sun Valley, Idaho, and, finally, moved into a little studio apartment on Pine and Hyde.

Alex Crowther: “My summer was busy getting ready for the big move to San Francisco. It was a mix of good (the excitement of meeting my new classmates and learning more about what the next three years have in store), bad (the never-ending visa applications, government assistance applications, and health care coverage applications), and sad (saying goodbye to family and friends). I had the chance to play A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Demetrius in Brampton, Ontario, with a fun and friendly cast. The big highlight though: seeing a rehearsal of Phèdre [directed by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff] at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a chance to watch my favorite Canadian actors in the process of creating their roles. I can’t wait for them to arrive in the new year!”

Christina Elmore: “This summer was simple and mostly relaxing. After graduating from college in June, I drove from Boston to California on a six-day road trip. I then headed back that way and had the pleasure of spending two months in Chicago living with my sister and working high-end retail with my cousins. In between folding and the cash wrap, I saw some great shows, enjoyed the beach, read plays, and reconnected with friends. Once back at home in Sacramento, I did a workshop at a local theater, hunted for an apartment in the city, and helped my family move and am now gearing up for the next three years.”

Ben Kahre: “This summer I moved to San Francisco from Evansville, IN, and prepared my apartment as well as myself for the upcoming year. While here in the city, I had the opportunity to volunteer as an audition reader for Magic Theatre during a couple of their Equity auditions. I met most of the artistic and management staff of the Magic, as well as many of the working Bay Area actors. It was a fantastic experience, and I look forward to being on the opposite side of the table next summer.”

Jessica Kitchens spent the first part of the summer taking over the role of Mary for an extended run of Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius at Magic Theatre. She then spent July relaxing, working, and saving up money for a trip to Turkey to visit friends who live there. Most of her time there was spent in Istanbul, but she also traveled south to visit Olympos, a beach town on the Mediterranean Sea, where she mostly read plays and soaked up the sun. Upon her return to the States, she flew to Nashville to hang out with her family—the perfect end to the summer.

Maggie Rastetter spent the first half of the summer on a cross-country road trip, hiking through national parks and cavorting through deserts. Highlights included herding cattle with a four-wheeler, running across a moose, coming down with food poisoning in the middle of a Yosemite snowstorm, and nearly getting stranded in Death Valley. She moved to San Francisco in mid July and is steadily adjusting to big city life with the rest of the M.F.A. 8.

Courtney Thomas: “Let’s see . . . How I spent my summer vacation? The morning after graduating from Howard University in Washington, D.C., I packed up all my stuff and flew home to the Bay Area. Sleeping in and reading plays was going magnificently until I received a call from The Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., offering me my first understudy role: as Canary Mary in Fucking A, by Suzan-Lori Parks. AWESOME! That was a Thursday—I was on the phone Friday making living arrangements, and in the airport Saturday, Sunday, and Monday trying to make it to the first rehearsal on Tuesday. I live for that kind of excitement! I lived in the basement apartment of my former Howard University professor and babysat her absolutely adorable kids, Tashi (four) and Juney (two), all summer. I’ve been back home for about two weeks now, and I’m still looking for the perfect apartment in Nob Hill, getting to know my amazing classmates (love at first sight!), and trying so hard to brace myself for what’s to come in the next three years and on. Ready or not—here I come!”

You Know What I Did Last Summer . . . ? Part 2

Thursday, October 1, 2009

posted by Dan Rubin, A.C.T. Publications & Literary Associate

Our Master of Fine Arts Program students are back at school, and we could not be more excited. Find out below what the class of 2011 did the summer before they entered their second year at A.C.T.

A note of pride: all 12 second-year students were eager
to share their experiences with you and submitted posts—if you have ever tried to wrangle an entire group of students to do anything outside of class, you know that this is saying quite a bit. As one student said when we celebrated their responsiveness: “Honestly not surprised, we are overachievers.”

Stefannie Azoroh: “As soon as school was out I asked a few friends to do me this HUGE favor. I asked them to do a show for me in the apartment I share with Tobie [Windham]. I directed David Mamet’s American Buffalo in our apartment with a slightly different twist; let’s say I ‘renovated’ the play. I decided to make the two older figures, Teach (Tobie Windham) and Don (Richard Prioleau), black males, while the younger boy, Bobby (David Jacobs), remained white. Tobie and I renovated our spacious studio into a 1970s junkshop and made magic. The story was the same; however, you saw the story through the black experience. We all agreed upon this project because we wanted to do something rather than wait on something to happen for us. We gained a great level of trust, appreciation, and collaboration, and we enjoyed the RISK. Have you ever invited strangers into your home? Literally, we had a full house each night! It had the magic and immediacy that initially drew me to theater. It was FANTASTIC. Nothing was the same night after night, and we were terrified. That to me was beautiful and the best way to start my summer and end my first year.

“Immediately after the show, I departed to go to my hometown, Huntsville, AL, full of barbeque and the blues (music), family and friends, and nice sunny weather. First year began to settle beautifully throughout my body. I read and wrote a lot during the summer. It was a very peaceful summer and I am back with a larger appetite.”

Dan Clegg: “I spent my summer working in San Francisco and in Maine. I played the roles of teacher, bartender, babysitter, and gardener—each with varying degrees of success. It seems I spent the first half of the summer filling out a lot of forms and standing in a number of lines with different pieces of identification . . . and the second half trying to rid the first from my memory: I partied in West Hollywood, went fishing in the Penobscot Bay, and played croquet in Connecticut. I shot a couple of short films, spent time with my two brothers, and tried to camp under the stars as often as I could.”

Stephanie DeMott began the summer with a vacation in Poipu, Kauai, where a surfing incident involving a really mean coral reef and her left foot meant she was poisoned and limping for about a month. Point to note: when poisoned in Kauai, if a hot surfer offers to pee on your foot, it’s not a come on, it’s a remedy. Back on the mainland, she spent a few days (and way too much money) wandering around New York City before taking the train upstate for a cousin’s wedding. To try something new, she got a job as a server and bartender at this really nice Mexican restaurant. Much to her delight, she found that interacting with people in this way—serving them food, making them drinks—is a lot like performing, and therefore something that comes very naturally to her. All in all, it was a summer of reading, working, spending a lot of hours at the gym, and, if she’s being honest, a lot of wine.

Marisa Duchowny: “I moved back home to L.A. for the summer. I got to eat a lot of great meals with family, spend good quality time with best friends, and explore my old city with a new, more independent self. I worked at Nordstrom and practiced Bikram yoga, which is essentially hot yoga in a 100-degree heated room! And, I got to catch up on a lot of great reading, including Positively Fourth Street, a history of the folk scene in the 1960s with biographies of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and Turning the Mind into an Ally, about meditation and peaceful abiding. But, in all honesty, the best part of my summer was beginning to write and create my first show/piece. I am very excited about this new endeavor and look forward to all of the possibilities ahead!”

Brian Jansen traveled cross-country this summer with recent M.F.A. Program graduate Allison Brennan and spent most of the summer working in Hollywood. Look for Brian in the upcoming Bruce Willis movie The Surrogates, in which he plays an evil cyborg bent on murdering the leading lady.

Jenna Johnson: “When the first day of summer hits, my first thought is, ‘FREE TIME!!’ Followed quickly by, ‘What do I do with all this “free time?”’ Desperately in search of an income, I applied for every job that popped up on Craigslist. Somehow I ended up with three jobs, which I managed to balance with some success and a lot of caffeine. With only a month left of summer, I took August off to head down to L.A. I woke up to fresh mimosas every morning and finished each evening with an episode of True Blood. A week later, I was jetting off to Seattle. I am not the best flier, but two Valium and a complimentary glass of wine from the crew and I was feeling no pain. I hung out with my brother and saw how the other half lives (he works at Microsoft). Tired but happy, I returned home to move into my brand-new downtown apartment (my first in SF). I am looking forward to the start of my second year at A.C.T. and all the magic it will bring.”

Richardson “Rob” Jones is very excited to start his second year after spending a fantastic summer with his boyfriend, Jeff. Most of his time was spent working at a hip San Francisco restaurant called Lime. He was also able to do some traveling between the two coasts, because two of his best friends back home got married and another great friend just moved to L.A. He and Jeff are most excited about their new apartment on Castro Street. They moved in with an amazing family with two adorable kids: Serafina is six and just started first grade, and Toby is four. In the last couple of weeks before school started, he finished his summer reading and dramaturgy work for Vieux Carré, one of the first second-year projects, directed by Michael Paller, A.C.T.’s dramaturg and director of humanities.

Patrick Lane: “I had a very enriching summer in a couple of different ways. Before school was even out, I started working on Romeo and Juliet at Cal Shakes. It was about a three-and-a-half-week rehearsal process, and the show ran for a month. Working on that show was a really valuable learning process. Working with such incredible actors, including three other A.C.T.-ers (Jud Williford, Nick Childress, Ashley Wickett), and such a passionate director, Jonathan Moscone, was truly inspiring. After the show closed in late June, I flew back home to Louisville, KY, where I replenished my starving-artist fund by working in a bank. I recommend that every out-of-work actor work at a bank. The pay is great, and when business is slow, you have ample time to read plays . . . that’s how I finished the summer reading list.”

Richard Prioleau appeared in The Renovation Theatre’s American Buffalo and served on the faculty of Northwestern University’s National High School Institute (Cherubs), where he taught acting and directed Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous).

Joshua Roberts spent the summer rehearsing and performing supporting roles in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Gooper) and The Wedding Singer (Glen Guglia) and a lead role in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (Paul) in rotation at the Summer Repertory Theatre in Santa Rosa, California. He also spent some time by the pool; tried (and failed) to get a decent tan; worked his way through all five seasons of HBO’s The Wire (again); took yoga and Pilates classes for the first time ever; enjoyed Pixar’s Up; traveled to New York City (his former hometown) and saw The Public Theater’s incredible revival of Hair and watched Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly perform Sam Shepard’s True West on an archived recording at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; visited the Harbin Hot Springs; and took third place in a mac-and-cheese cook-off. Next year he will win.

Max Rozenak: “I traveled to Massachusetts and took part in a workshop with Double Edge Theater in Ashfield, MA, then went to New York for a week, came back to SF for a week, and then flew to Baltimore, MD, and spent the rest of my summer teaching at the Olney Theatre Center, in Olney, MD. Over the five weeks of the program, I helped my students create an original piece of theater based on T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men.”

Ashley Wickett: “This past summer I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work on Romeo and Juliet, directed by Jonathan Moscone, at Cal Shakes in Orinda, CA. I played an ensemble member, as well as understudied the role of Juliet. It was great to work with A.C.T. alumni, as well as current students, and to meet several new professionals in the Bay Area. I spent the second half of the summer in Bloomfield Hills, MI—my home town—working and spending time with my family. I can’t wait to get my second year started!”

You Know What I Did Last Summer . . . ? Part 1

Friday, September 25, 2009

posted by Dan Rubin, A.C.T. Publications & Literary Associate

Although the halls of A.C.T.’s conservatory and administrative offices are filled with the constant stream of actors taking classes during the summer, there is a definite (though indefinable) change in atmosphere when our Master of Fine Arts Program students return for the fall semester.

Maybe the renewed energy in the building is from the return of our new third-years. They’ve become our friends and colleagues—though they still feel a bit like our children (in the most adoring sense of the word!)—as they have grown as artists over the last two years. But many of them have been in and out of 30 Grant over the summer (some teaching and working; others just visiting), and they have all actually been “back” for a couple of weeks now, rehearsing their cabaret, Sweet Charity, which opened at Zeum on Friday, September 11. So maybe it is from the return of our new second-years, of whom we have seen less over the summer months and whom we are anxious to get to know better over the course of this year. Or maybe it is from the infusion of a new class of first-years, handpicked from the most promising young actors in the country. Who are these brave young talents? What will they teach us?

Of course, it is likely the combination of all three. At our core, we are a training institution, one that supports our school with money raised by our mainstage productions and contributions from our donors. It follows that we are all more than a little excited when our committed and passionate full-time (and I do mean FULL-time) students return to us. It is also unsurprising that we are curious to know what they have been doing with themselves all summer. So we asked!

In this post—part one of a three-part series—you can find out what members of the class of 2010 were up to between May and September.

Nick Childress: “Overlapping with a long second year, I began a fantastic rehearsal process with Cal Shakes’s production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Jon Moscone. The cast had three other A.C.T. students and alums in it. From there (since tuition was raised AGAIN) I went to work for A.C.T. painting the theater with the facilities department and working reception to help keep the riffraff out of the A.C.T. halls. In a nutshell, very little vacation time, but much accomplished.”

Caroline Hewitt: “I spent this summer working at the Chautauqua Theater Company in western New York. I played Chloë in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Davis McCallum, and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, directed by Annie Kauffman. Working on the shows was a great learning process: we worked not only with our peers but also with our teachers and guest artists. In addition to the shows we took classes including mask, clown, Alexander [Technique], voice, and yoga, and master classes with casting directors. There were also staged readings of new plays and a couple of other performances by the theater company. I was also able to attend a lot of lectures and see other performing artists (Garrison Keillor and Anna Deavere Smith, for example), because the Chautauqua Institution is a summer community with tons of stuff going on all season. I had an incredible time and learned an immense amount about myself as an actor!”

Sophia Holman assisted director Rebecca Taichman on A.C.T.’s production of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo. She then visited her hometown of New York City, drove down to New Orleans, traveled to Bath (England) to workshop a show with the Young Conservatory (Riot, a brand-new play by Irish author Ursula Rani Sarma, which will receive its world premiere production at A.C.T. in April 2010), and took a trip to Rome.

David Jacobs: “My summer was spent in Tobie Windham and Stefannie Azoroh’s apartment performing American Buffalo with Richard Prioleau. It was one of the greatest theater experiences of my life. I also traveled to the Ilse Middendorf Institute for breath experience in Berlin, where I ran into a group of Israeli anarchists who changed my perspective on the world.”

Mairin Lee: “Here’s my summer in a few sentences: I taught for the San Francisco Opera Guild and in A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory. I originated the role of Mollie in a world-premiere adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm with the Shotgun Players. And I took an amazing aerial conditioning class at Circus Center—while dreaming that some day I will get to combine my love of theater and circus on a stage somewhere!”

Kyle Schaefer: “I spent the summer doing a pieced-together version of Bernstein’s Candide at Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I played Maximilian—the charmingly handsome prince who gets killed three times and wears a dress at the top of Act II. I’ve thought about it, and it’s at least the fourth time I’ve worn a dress onstage. It rained a lot, but I met some great people, had a great run, and saw some great theater. Then I road-tripped back with my girlfriend, Allison, through NYC, to Kansas City, and down to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Yeow!”

Tobie Lee Windham III: “My summer . . . the first half was spent working on American Buffalo with Stefannie Azoroh, Richard Prioleau, and David Jacobs . . . we started rehearsal as soon as school ended in May and had a three-day run in June. It was an amazing experience. And it was all done in a freaking apartment. Only a day after we closed the show I packed my bags and headed to France and Italy to embark on what has become a life-changing experience. I spent one week in Paris enjoying every possible thing there . . . and I loved how many beautiful people were there. After that I took a plane, charter bus, train, cab, and minibus to Italy to work with Primo del Teatro in a demystifying Chekhov workshop. Now Chekhov is a little clearer to me. The last part of my summer was spent in the beautiful state of Alabama, where I had a blast with my family.”

Richard Prioleau, David Jacobs, and Tobie Lee Windham III in American Buffalo

Noël Coward in San Francisco

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

posted by Brad Rosenstein, Curator of Exhibitions and Programs, Museum of Performance & Design, San Francisco

The U.S. premiere of the Kneehigh Theatre production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter at the American Conservatory Theater (formerly the Geary) marks a notable return by Coward not just to San Francisco, but to the same street where his work has been most frequently seen in this city and which The Master himself frequented in his lifetime.

In researching the Museum of Performance & Design’s recent exhibition Star Quality: The World of Noël Coward, I was delighted to discover that San Francisco was a very significant town for Coward, both personally and professionally. He first visited in 1926, staying at the Fairmont Hotel, and even though literally on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he fell in love with the city. He thought it was one of the very few great theater towns in America and returned many times on his visits to California or while en route to points across the Pacific.

San Francisco returned the admiration: since the late 1920s his plays have rarely been absent from local stages, and in fact the city may be second only to New York in terms of frequency of presenting his work. The first Coward play to be produced in the Bay Area was a 1927 production of The Vortex at the Fulton Theatre in Oakland, just two years after Coward first made his name with the play in New York. It starred Marjorie Rambeau, a San Franciscan who was by then an established star on Broadway and in silent films.

During Coward’s lifetime, the Curran Theatre, right next door to A.C.T., was the playwright’s favored San Francisco home for his work. Productions of some of his greatest New York hits often toured here with their original Broadway casts, including his operetta Bitter Sweet, starring Evelyn Laye in 1935, and the Clifton Webb–Peggy Wood–Mildred Natwick Blithe Spirit in 1944. The Curran would be the site of several Coward milestones: his very last performances with Gertrude Lawrence took place there in 1948 (when he filled in for an ailing Graham Payn in Tonight at 8:30), and some of Coward’s final stage appearances in North America graced the Curran in 1958, with his double-bill of Nude with Violin and Present Laughter.

Still Life, the basis for all subsequent incarnations of Brief Encounter, began its life as one of the series of nine one-act plays Coward wrote for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, performed under the collective title Tonight at 8:30. Still Life premiered in San Francisco in 1937 at the Curran in the first production of Tonight at 8:30 seen here—Noël and Gertie had just made their New York bow in it earlier that year. This incarnation of Tonight at 8:30 was produced by Estelle Winwood and her director husband, Robert Henderson. Winwood acted in most, but did not play all, of the leading women’s roles—Still Life starred Mary Astor as Laura and Bramwell Fletcher as Alec. Fletcher is the only other actor besides Noël and Gertie to play leading roles in all nine plays of the cycle. This production was also unique in that, once all nine plays had premiered here, the producers had audiences vote on their three favorites and presented those for a few additional performances. There is no record of whether Still Life was among those selected, but it was highly praised by critics and embraced by audiences.

Graham Payn, Gertrude Lawrence, and Noël Coward rehearsing the revival of Tonight at 8:30,
which played the Curran Theatre on Geary Street in 1948
(photo by Vandamm Studio / courtesy of Timothy Morgan Owen)

The next major San Francisco incarnation of Tonight at 8:30 was the 1948 revival Coward directed, with Gertie again as star and Noël’s partner Graham Payn playing Coward’s former roles. They enacted six of the plays; Still Life was not one of them, probably in part because the film Brief Encounter had been such a huge recent hit. The A.C.T. production of Tonight at 8:30 in 1974 included three of the plays: Red Peppers, Family Album, and Shadow Play. So 72 years after it was first seen here, Still Life is finally returning to a Geary Street stage, right next door to where it began.

© 2009 Brad Rosenstein

A Very Special Theater

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

posted by James Haire, A.C.T. Producing Director

January 10, 2010, marks the 100th birthday of American Conservatory Theater’s historic home, originally known as the Columbia Theatre, later dubbed the Geary Theater, and finally renamed the American Conservatory Theater in 1996. James Haire, who has been with A.C.T. for more than 35 years, kicks off our online celebration of this unique and special building, which has been home to some of the most incredible theater artists of the last century.

In the early days of my career, I spent about ten years stage-managing on Broadway before coming to A.C.T. During that time, I worked on several national tours, traveling throughout the United States with various plays. We played most of the country’s larger cities, and during these treks I remember three theaters as being particularly outstanding due to their enlightened architecture, which made both performers and audiences feel somehow “special.” The first was the Colonial Theatre in Boston; the second, the Winter Garden Theater in New York; and the third, the Geary Theater in San Francisco.

In reality, the Winter Garden is a big barn of a theater, but when I saw West Side Story there as a student, there was no reality involved. I felt that production changed my life and, hence, that theater has always had a hint of magic about it for me. When I actually stepped onto the Winter Garden stage in 1970 as a stage manager with my own musical, Georgy, I thought I was in heaven. Unfortunately, after a week of traumatic previews, Georgy opened and closed four performances later. My elation was short lived.

My love affair with the Geary has lasted much longer. As I said, I played here a couple of times while I was on tour, but in 1971 I was asked to come to A.C.T. on a one-year contract. I didn’t want to stay out of New York for too long and lose all of those contacts I had built up, so the one-year time limit was my idea. Well, I don’t know what happened, but I’m still here. During that first year, I found A.C.T. to be a combination of the kind of very idealistic theater one always wants to find after leaving college, and the professional theater I had been a part of in New York. It was the work, of course, that kept me, but it was also the theater itself.

There is a certain something about our stage that is unique. It makes me, as a theater artist, feel special just working on it. The relationship of the stage to the audience is close and comforting. It’s a relatively large theater—1,000 seats—but in spite of its size, the feeling of intimacy is very tangible. When I say intimacy, I’m referring to the relationship of the actors to the audience, and vice versa. Actors are able to communicate with the audience and form a close emotional bond. In that way, the audience feeds the actor as the actor feeds the audience. This being said, the building is also heroic in size and stature, and inspiring in detail. I believe it was the Geary itself and its raked stage that lifted up A.C.T.’s early work to the same heroic scale. It was necessary for A.C.T. to rise to the drama of the building itself, which it easily did thanks to Bill Ball’s visionary view of art and artists. Just think of some of those memorable early plays: Tartuffe, Cyrano de Bergerac, Taming of the Shrew, and many others. I’m sure we all have our favorites.

It was the earthquake of 1906 that brought this special theater into being, replacing an earlier theater (located a couple of blocks away) that had been lost in that historic temblor. Ironically, the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 brought the theater to its knees, turning A.C.T. into a “touring company” overnight. The situation was touch and go for the company for quite a while, and we didn’t know if the Geary would ever be the same again. Thanks to the efforts of many San Franciscans and donors across the country, as well as our “new” artistic director, Carey Perloff, it has risen like a phoenix, showing off its 1906 splendors to modern audiences. The postearthquake renovation strove to uncover and highlight many of the architectural details and original colors, much of which had been obscured over time. In retrospect, it seems like a miracle that we were able to save not only the company, but also this amazing playhouse. I take both great professional and personal pride in helping this fabulous landmark celebrate its centennial. I hope each of you takes the opportunity next January during our centennial celebration weekend to walk on this stage and feel as “special” here as I always have.

Let’s Talk About Sets, Baby

Friday, September 11, 2009

posted by Timothy Faust, A.C.T. Marketing Intern

The crew tries out the video projection during the load-in of the Brief Encounter set at A.C.T.
All photos by Timothy Faust. For more photos of the Brief Encounter load-in, visit A.C.T.’s Flickr page.

The dog-eared National Geographic on my bedroom floor offers evidence that Stonehenge, that ear-ringingly spectacular, eye-wateringly mysterious clump of rocks in Wiltshire, England, was built over the course of 500 years. The splendor of its prehistoric creation is matched only by its mystery, and words are insufficient for its majesty: Stonehenge was awesome back when “awesome” was a solemn, whispered word instead of today’s withered adjective, used for everything from sandwiches to skateboards.

On the other hand, the traveling Brief Encounter set, fresh from the production’s tour of the United Kingdom, needed only three days for its California construction—and it boasts two video projectors. National Geographic indicates that Stonehenge had zero video projectors. Eat your hearts out, Druids.

Pictures are pleasant and movies are marvelous, but given the option I’ll take a set over either. Everything happens somewhere—all actions have context—and seeing a set well used as a living, functional space through and with which performers can interact to give their actions meaning and spectacle engages me in ways that not even the greatest treasure of American cinema (Rocky) can match.

On July 18, after a final performance at Oxford, the folks of Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre stuffed the Brief Encounter set into a 40-foot-long box and shipped it from London Thamesport ’cross the ocean on a slow boat toward San Francisco. On August 24, it reached Oakland—the finest of U.S. ports—where it floated around customs for a week. After the boxed set passed inspection, shippers loaded it onto a semi truck and drove it around the Bay—because, of course, this was the weekend the Bay Bridge closed. I’d seen a few photos of the Brief Encounter set from the U.K. tour, and it looked sharp—when I was offered the chance to mosey around load-in for a few days and snap some photos of Brief Encounter’s American resurrection, I took it. I mean, a chance to see how a gorgeous set is put together? Exciting!

I don’t exactly have the most glamorous set construction experience: scattered across a half-dozen college dorm productions, my life in set building was a life in which we, the brave construction crew, flailed about like terrified infants bashing together hammers and poorly cut lumber until someone’s dad showed up with an electric screwdriver to hush our anguished yelping.

So, yeah, I was pretty excited to see how the pros do it.

I’m not entirely sure what I had anticipated I would see. Well, that’s not true: I know exactly what I had hoped I’d see. I imagined a dream team of linebackers and longshoremen; a troupe of mustachioed musclemen heave-ing and ho-ing from the theater’s control booth to the catwalk, single-handedly tossing around expensive set pieces as if they were made of balsa. In my imagination these bald-headed genies—A.C.T. subcontracts Mr. Clean, if you will—would piece together the set in minutes, rig the lights in an hour, and be out by the first smoke break.

That was awful dumb of me.

When I parked my bike outside the theater on Friday I learned the theme of the day was “careful and methodical” (which is completely appropriate when the set costs [approximately] a zillion dollars). I found a dozen or two members of Local 16 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees carefully and methodically emptying the contents of the truck into the theater. When the truck was empty, they carefully and methodically began organizing the set pieces and preparing the stage for their installation. Once the set was organized and the stage prepared, the crew carefully and methodically took a coffee break. After the coffee break, the crew carefully and methodically spread across the entire stage like freckles and began assembling (carefully and methodically) various parts of the set: towers, floorboards, and other goodies. It appeared that everything had been planned out, step by step, painstaking detail by painstaking detail.

The process seemed at first a bit slow. After three hours in the theater, only a curtain and backdrop hung onstage. After five hours in the theater, only that same curtain and that same backdrop hung onstage. After seven hours in the theater, only that same damn curtain and that same damn backdrop hung onstage. The sunshine winked at me from the theater’s front doors and I could hear the sound of children’s laughter from Geary Street.

But then, Saturday morning—bam! The stage sprouted floorboards and multicolored scaffolds sprang from nowhere. Lights danced on the projection screens and reflected vibrant purples and pinks onto the house seats. The stage had become a set, alive with the hustle and bustle of its crew. The hammers pounded time, metering the cautious choreography of construction. I perched in the dress circle and watched the performance.


Lights go up at the American Conservatory Theater for the load-in of Brief Encounter.

The crew secures the set pieces in place during the load-in of Brief Encounter.

The show’s signature pink curtain goes up during the load-in of Brief Encounter.

Getting the Word Out . . . with Flair!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

posted by Rose Marie Hogan, A.C.T. Marketing Associate

You are a lot more likely to attend an event that you know is happening, right?

In its most basic form, the job of A.C.T.’s marketing department is to make sure that the public knows that our shows are happening. We use all of the usual means of communication with our audience: ads, emails, radio and TV spots, stories in the press. In my very humble opinion, however, the BEST way to reach people is to do it with FLAIR!

What do I mean by flair? To get the word out with what A.C.T. does best: theatricality.

To open our 2009–10 season, A.C.T. is bringing Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter straight from the U.K. I am crazy excited about this show. It’s terribly romantic, wackily funny; it’s got great music and an innovative approach to fusing cinema and theater; and it’s got BRITS! Seriously, if it had been in rehearsal here instead of across the ocean, I would have been playing hooky every day from work to get into that rehearsal hall. The only problem: both Kneehigh Theatre and the show itself are relatively unknown in the U.S. It doesn’t have the same built-in audience that a big musical from New York has. So we have to work extra hard to make sure that everyone in San Francisco knows that this is the event of the fall.

Fueled by my passion for this show, I decided that we had to take the word out TO our audience. I gathered up some of our M.F.A. students and headed to the costume shop. Brief Encounter takes place in the 1940s, so we were fitted in period costumes (GORGEOUS period costumes), and I gave the students the rundown on the show. That night, we headed to the mecca of theater audiences—the crowd leaving August: Osage County. After the performance, and every performance following, we stood in front of our theater (the American Conservatory Theater, which is next door to the Curran, where August is playing) in costume and with British accents (one authentic), talking about Brief Encounter and handing out flyers. We have a lot of fun—which translates to the passersby that the show is going to be a lot of fun. Seriously, there is nothing like a smile, an accent, and a perfectly tailored suit.

Our costumed gang may also be making appearances at BART stations (like the train station in Brief). And we’re bringing cocktail napkins to local bars that say, “Meet me for a Brief Encounter” with the website (www.briefencounter-sf.org). AND we have fabulous buttons that we pass out around town.

We are not selling toothpaste, after all. We are selling a great experience. It’s my job to entertain you straight into the theater for a beautiful night.

Master of Fine Arts Program student Stefannie Azoroh chats up a potential patron.

(L to R) A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program students Tobie Lee Windham III, Stefannie Azoroh,
and Dan Clegg in front of the American Conservatory Theater
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