Remembering Sylvia

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

posted by James Wagner, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program alumnus

Earlier this month A.C.T. lost a friend, supporter, and longtime library volunteer, Sylvia Coe Tolk. Master of Fine Arts Program alumnus James Wagner reflects on her life, their friendship, and her lasting importance to the A.C.T. community.

Usually death is a sad occasion; appropriately so. But when I heard that Sylvia Tolk had passed, surprisingly, I felt a tinge of grief overwhelmed mostly with relief and fulfillment. And not just mild fulfillment, but fulfillment of the kind that comes after a world-class seven-course meal. Not because I’m mean-spirited or cold-hearted, mind you, though I can be both at times, but because I sensed that Sylvia had lived a full long life wherein she did finally arrive at a satisfying dessert. It seemed time for her to get up, thank her guests, and leave the table; to wash up, put on her favorite PJs, and crawl into a pillow-laden infinite rest. Isn’t that what we all want? We all know we can’t live forever, but to live well for as long as we are given—something feels basically good about that.

Let me speak a little to my experience of her. When I was accepted into A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program as an incoming member of the class of 2008, I struggled with the decision to actually attend. A major part of that struggle was financial; at one point I even called [Conservatory Director] Melissa Smith and told her that I was not comfortable with the debt I would incur as a student and would not be coming. To my astonishment, without making a specific request, my financial need was heard, respected, and responded to. Three donors came forward to help build a financial aid package for me. Sylvia was one of those donors.

I was put in touch with each of them and would speak with them periodically. Because Sylvia was regularly working as a volunteer librarian at A.C.T., we would talk when I checked out books. She was always very sweet and would bring forth fresh chocolates from the depths of her librarian’s desk to offer a donation of cocoa to my well-being; always an effective gesture.

At one point I brought up the possibility of having a cup of tea or lunch to catch up and let her get to know me. I was Sylvia’s first and only scholarship student. Demure, she shyly declined my invitation, feeling (I think) funny about some posture of friendliness I might have towards her based on the fact that she was giving me money. I think she wanted to know there was a genuine connection . . . which, thankfully, did come in time.

It began simply. I would write letters at the end of each semester to my donors. She would respond in kind. In meticulously loopy and clear black-inked penmanship, on yellow legal-pad paper, she answered what I had written with a very conversational and familiar style. She wrote about seeing our performances, about how her experience with meditation was similar to mine, and little tidbits about her personal life. These letters and library talks went on for most of my three years as a student.

As graduation approached, she had bouts of illness. When she came to see me in A Christmas Carol on A.C.T.’s mainstage, she was in a wheelchair and had a full-time caregiver. Much of our talk was good-humored complaints about medical situations. I had to start sending my letters to a new address where she was receiving the attention she needed.

My final contact with her was at the ceremony christening the A.C.T. library collection, the “Sylvia Coe Tolk Collection,” in honor of a gift she made to establish an endowment for the library. Family, friends, and members of the A.C.T. community were present at the small gathering, where she said a few modest words of thanks, hope, and intention. It was nice to meet members of her family who clearly were carrying forward her warmth, conviction, and humility in service.

I am honored to be asked to write a short commemorative for Sylvia, inadequate to the task in my limited experience of her and knowing full well that she deserves the very best, but we each do our best with what we are given. So, here, now, as I was writing this, I took a moment to get quiet and feel her still-lingering presence, and although there is a good-bye we all are saying to Sylvia Coe Tolk the woman and the bodily life, her spirit and essence are not far. So, I say good-bye to the woman and Godspeed to her spirit. May she linger in the hearts she touched for a long time to come.

I Still Want to Be Rich and Famous

Friday, January 23, 2009

posted by Stephen DeRosa, Rich and Famous cast member

As I grew older I thought my dreams would become more practical or at least loftier. And I suppose I do indeed dream of world peace and paying off my student loans, but I still can’t shake off that “Rich and Famous” thing. At the end of the day it’s not really why I became an actor (I mean who wouldn’t love a profession where one can wear four wigs in under two hours), but I don’t believe any actor who says he or she wouldn’t love to walk the red carpet, particularly for a film that millions upon millions of people celebrated. That said, I’d even be excited to be invited to the afterparty or make loads of money for a commercial that nobody remembers. I guess I have gotten practical or just more desperate.

Well, HELLO!!! My name is Steve DeRosa and I’m guest blogging here today. Can I take a second and say that this theater is MAGNIFICENT?! And not just the exquisite building itself, but everyone backstage, administration, everyone is top-flight A++. What a privilege to work here. And I know my fellow castmates from out of town feel the same way. But after all, this is San Francisco. Judy Garland sings a song about it!

I had never been to your city. I can’t believe it ’cause I’ve been around. And around. I’m a New Yorker heart and soul, born and bred, and this is the first city where I’ve really felt the same energy on the streets as I do in NY. (Not to mention it’s the first city in the U.S. I’ve found MORE expensive, but I won’t go there . . . whoops I just did.) Still, the richness of culture. Well, ok, enough. This is a great, great city.

Oh, did I mention I’m in the cast of Rich and Famous? I play several characters: Fokine from the Red Shoes, who gives Bing Ringling (The BRILLIANT BEYOND BELIEF Brooks Ashmanskas) his rich and famous cufflinks, and The Stage Manager, who we call “Spruce” (not Bruce but Spruce), a proud if ineffectual gay man who has decided that in spite of his black eyebrows he will wear a blond wig.

Then there’s Anatol Torah, who has to have his own paragraph because he would insist on it. He’s a character based on a few wild artistic geniuses in Guare’s life, particularly one composer.

Bing’s Dad. Oh Dad, poor Dad . . . As my therapist once told me, “We all have parents.” Then she recommended all kinds of medication. Wait, Can I talk about the GENIUS Mary Birdsong?!!!—who plays Mom, along with a host of other fabulous characters in the show. (The fourth member of our cast is the SUBLIME Gregory Wallace, who you know so well. Alas, I don’t get to play much with Gregory onstage, but I can’t think of anyone to better complete our foursome.)

Finally, I play Tybalt Dunleavy, Bing’s oldest and dearest friend, who is now a giant Movie Star. For the set they actually made a billboard of my face, which at first was thrilling, then all I could think about was if my nose looked too weird or why they chose to make my lips look that way. Hmmm, perhaps the famous thing does heighten one’s neuroses . . . Tybalt is way up high, so his view of the world is not the same as everyone else’s, nor is it very secure up there. Ok, ’nuff said. I don’t want to give it all away. ROSEBUD IS A SLED. There, I said it.

I will say that going in and out of Tybalt requires two incredibly fast costume/wig changes, where four people help me transform in under a minute. In fact I call them “Team Tybalt.” They are superheroes to me, but I don’t know if there is a market for a comic book about a fabulous wardrobe and hair department. Then again this is San Francisco . . .

So yeah, I hope you enjoyed the show if you saw it. It’s a wild ride for us and I hope it is for you. After months now with this rich, remarkable play, I still can’t quite wrap up what it means and says in a tidy sentence or two, and maybe that’s a great thing. If you’ll forgive me for sounding “high-falutin’” as many of my relatives would say, I will quote a lecture of Robert Frost I ran across in a magazine (and don’t get me wrong I was just reading this because someone had taken my Enterainment Weekly):

“There’s the one place I choose to be—confront myself with something I can never give up wanting to be—can’t possibly give up wanting to be and can’t possibly be. That I know is ideal. That’s what I mean by ideal.”

Ideals, Idolatry, Dreams, Despair, Wigs, Hair, Vanity Fair. See? I just wrote you a poem. Take that, Bobby Frost.

If you’ve read this far you REALLY must be bored or crazy or both. And I thank you.

Singer’s Choice

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

posted by Craig Slaight, A.C.T. Young Conservatory Director

I believe that we don’t ask young people for their point of view often enough.

When you’re in the business of training young people in the arts, you had better listen keenly for their point of view, offer a platform for it to be heard, and nurture it unflaggingly. In recent years, this has become very important in our work in the A.C.T. Young Conservatory. And let me tell you, young people have unique and compelling points of view—about art, life, and their dangling future. Where our musical program here is concerned, we’re trying to provide dynamic training and offer a platform to young people’s view in the material that they work on. Case in point . . .

One day A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff mentioned that she felt that the main house on Geary Street needed to become more representative of all that we do at A.C.T., and challenged each of us on the artistic team to think of ways in which to do this. It gave me an instant jolt of an idea. I’ve long been a fan of the cabaret scene, especially in New York City, where on any given night you can see some of the truly great singer/actors in an intimate setting, crooning in many different musical styles. When A.C.T. resurrected the fallen Geary Theater after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the upper balcony was refashioned, creating a large room with exposed brick and beautiful iron beams. It was a quintessentially intimate space, complete with a kitchen/bar. From the day we reopened the theater, I’d had my eye on that room, and I didn’t keep it a secret. “I see cool lights, a small stage, and talented kids in this room, filling it with great vocals and personal patter. Oh, oh, and I see an audience having festive drinks.” Of course many people had an eye on that room, but I knew that we could help meet Carey’s challenge by presenting really wonderful young singer/actors to audiences of all ages. So I pushed. I came to Carey with my idea of having a special cabaret ensemble, comprised of some of our most talented young musical actors, that would perform in the Garret Room (as it came to be called) after the big show, in dress clothes, in programs showcasing some of the most interesting recent and past composers. She loved the idea, and the Young Conservatory Musical Cabaret Ensemble was born.

Candidates for the ensemble, 16 seriously gifted young singer/actors, audition each September for a full-season engagement presenting four different cabaret productions throughout the A.C.T. season, held on Saturdays and Sundays from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m. Each of these cabarets takes on a different theme. In recent outings we’ve explored the blues of torch songs, rocked the room with comedic songs, and featured special popular composers like The Fab Four and many others. But the one that really gets me going is the one in which I let the young performers select their own program of songs. We call it “singer’s choice.” For this cabaret, the performers must select songs that are particularly meaningful to them—and they have to interact with the audience by talking about the music and why it means so much to them. In “singer’s choice” the entire event is guided by the burning desire of the performer to share, to communicate with an audience, in a small room—with a light, a pianist, and a microphone their only aids. It is always the most exciting cabaret for me as I see these young artists making choices, defining their taste, generously sharing with each other and the audience a piece of music that has come from such a personal place.

In these many years at A.C.T., I’ve seen such amazing things happen when you empower young people to take charge of their lives and ultimately find the artist that is within. Some of these young people are so talented that there is no question in my mind that we’ll hear much more from them as time passes. Others will find their lives taking different paths. But there is a truly glorious moment in the intimate Garret space when a teen, dressed for “something important” as we like to say, steps into a pool of light, lifts the microphone, and shares with those gathered something innately personal. Wow. That is a very positive hope for a better tomorrow.

I invite you to “come to the cabaret, old chum!”

A Quirky Jewel

Thursday, January 15, 2009

posted by Michael Paller, A.C.T. Dramaturg

Working on Rich and Famous by John Guare is like recovering a lost jewel. A many-faceted and quirky jewel, but a jewel. It was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976 after an earlier version was performed at the Academy Festival Theatre in Chicago and the Williamstown Theatre in 1974. It had a subsequent production in 1977 at Trinity Repertory in Providence, then—silence. Nothing. Since then, there’s been no major production of this play until now.

It’s hard to know why some plays succeed in finding an audience the first time out and others have to wait for another moment. Some plays are presented by the wrong people—producers, directors, actors—some for an audience not attuned to the playwright’s wavelength. Sometimes, the story the playwright’s telling is ahead of the audience’s sensibilities when it comes to form or content.

For whatever reason this play by one of America’s most consistently inventive and theatrical playwrights disappeared, it now seems amazingly prescient. The story of an artist aspiring to be rich and famous rings truer now than ever. You can’t turn on the television without running across people so desperate for fame and glory that they’ll risk humiliation before millions of viewers displaying their—often meager—talents as singers, dancers, comedians, race-runners, cooks, entrepreneurs. Magazines and the internet are awash in the latest faux-news of the celebrity of the minute, tidbits devoured by fans equally anxious to have some, any, connection with these demi-gods, and who often harbor their own dreams of transformation. It’s the American dream, of course, to become whatever you want to be, and it seems that so often that something has to do with more: more money, more fame, more adulation, more anything to satisfy that desire in us to be bigger, better, more loved than we are. Nor does it seem to matter when we learn that even the successful American idols among us are no happier and possess no more self-wisdom than we non-rich, non-famous worshipers do, and sometimes considerably less. For their part, these celebrities discover that they’re the victims of their own success, and that whatever dignity or privacy they once were entitled to have vanished like a dream and that they’re now in the thrall of a pop culture machine over which they have little or no control. Somehow, even this doesn’t stop us from wanting to be them. This is the landscape of Rich and Famous and because it’s by John Guare, it’s hilarious, probing, and sobering all at once.

One of the great things about having a theater and a training program under one roof is the chance for our M.F.A. acting students to meet, talk to, and learn from our visiting artists. It was wonderful to sit in on the hour they spent with John on Monday morning. He told them how important it is that they not wait for a career to happen to them. Go out and make your own, he told them, find the people you want to collaborate with—beginning with your colleagues from school. When he was asked what kind of actor he likes to work with, he talked about actors who are unafraid to take big risks, make huge choices, who don’t stand there waiting for the director or playwright to tell them what to do, actors who put their imaginations to work in the service of the play and who know how to play: just the kind of actors we hope to train at A.C.T.

The cast of Rich and Famous matches this description perfectly. It’s been a privilege to watch them and their director, John Rando, as they’ve leapt fearlessly and joyfully into the world of Rich and Famous, which is surreal and wild one moment, quiet and touching the next, full of fury the next. It’s been wonderful to watch John Guare, who’s been here for many rehearsals and previews, revisit the play for the first time in 33 years, honoring what he wrote then but also adding some new things, peeling away some old things, then peeling away some of the new things, listening to the actors, listening to the play on the stage and the play in his head, 33 years old, brand new. He inspires us all.

A Costumer’s Handbook

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

posted by David Draper, A.C.T. Costume Shop Manager

Today we are doing final fixes on the costumes for Rich and Famous. Last Thursday was the first preview performance, and no major changes were requested. We still have some finishing to do: satin bindings on two of the tuxedo jackets, jewels on Leanara’s dress . . . but the end is in sight.

This show is the tricky slot in the season schedule. A Christmas Carol has a shorter—if jam-packed—run than most shows, and keeps us busy right up to its opening each year. Add in the holidays, and the build time for Show #4 [Rich and Famous] is tight.

The holiday season also brings some special obstacles to confront. Shopping locally means contending with the hordes of amateurs who clog the stores and walkways. Doing business online can also be a headache, with shipping departments backed up, inventories not at their fullest, and short-staffing everywhere. Then we get into the shipping companies who put on extra people who apparently just don’t care. It happens every year, but more so this year: we get notices that drivers get no response from us and can’t make the delivery at times when everyone is in the costume shop working. It got so frustrating that we literally took shifts at the front door when we expected deliveries. Of course that had a lot to do with our building owner not fixing the intercom, but that rant is for another day.

Scheduling aside, the costumes for Rich and Famous are a really fun look at the ’70s. We had some ’70s fashions in Rock ’n’ Roll, but that wasn’t the broad comedy this is. Still, it’s interesting how certain periods of clothing will never get used and then suddenly you’re doing two shows from roughly the same era.

The Rich and Famous designs incorporate so many skill sets that they are like a costumer’s handbook. There are the aforementioned tuxedos, which need an experienced tailor. There is a hand-painted silk tunic, which has to withstand water getting thrown on it each performance. Then there are the costumes for the play-within-the-play [Bing Ringling’s masterpiece The Etruscan Conundrum]. Gregory Gale, the designer (you may remember he did the clothes for Urinetown a few years back) created a look for them that suggests a really earnest attempt at what are ultimately cheesy costumes. The tunic and cape [worn by A.C.T. Associate Artist Gregory Wallace as Aphro performing in The Etruscan Conundrum] are “ombré dyed,” which means that the colors are darker at the hems and fade to off-white as they move up. They also have stars appliquéd on them, which have the reverse color movement, light at the bottom, dark at the top. This all required we baste the costumes together, fit them, take them apart to dye, re-mark the pieces to account for any shrinkage in the process, put the stars on and then put ’em together for real. Oh, and then decorate with sew-on jewels! Makes us remember why we refer to “building” a costume rather than “making” or “sewing” it.

The whole shop is really proud of how this show turned out. The costumes are really imaginative and just plain fun. It took A.C.T’s really talented shop staff to execute them as imagined by Gregory Gale. Working through the holidays to boot!
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