All Aboard for England!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

posted by Anya Richkind, A.C.T. Young Conservatory student

Every other year, students from A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory go to England to develop a new play written for young actors as part of an ongoing exchange program with Theatre Royal Bath. This year, a group of Young Conservatory and M.F.A. Program students travels to Bath to work on 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. Anya Richkind, a junior at San Francisco’s Lick-Wilmerding High School, writes about her preparations for this summer’s big trip.

Approximately 46 days ago, I started counting down the days till takeoff. “Forty-seven days!” I muttered under my breath. And now, that number has dwindled down to one. ONE. One day till we leave for England.

At this point, I am beyond excited. I am dumbfounded, flabbergasted, amazed that this is actually happening. And it all starts tomorrow. I mean, how perfect does this get? Taking acting workshops during the day, seeing plays and eating out at night. Oh yeah, IN ENGLAND. I’ve just read the first draft of the play we’ll be putting up [in San Francisco] next spring, and I think it’s just wonderful. I know that we will spend some of our time at The Egg (the theater we’ll be using in England) workshopping this play, so it will be great fun to see how the characters grow and develop as time goes on.

Well, I’ve been slowly packing over the course of this last week. Now, my suitcase—which I could comfortably sleep in, along with a medium-sized cat—is practically filled to the brim. (I’m trying to leave some space for whatever British things I bring back with me: tea, marmalade, crumpets . . . that kind of thing.) I’ve heard it’s generally foggy and cool in Bath, so luckily my San Francisco wardrobe is quite fitting.

I’ve been communicating with my host family for the last few weeks, discussing logistics and whatnot. I’ll be staying with the British girl my family hosted last year, so it will be one happy reunion. We’ve stayed in touch since she was here last year, but it will be so great to actually see her in person! I also can’t wait to see how British family customs differ from American ones. I mean, I know my family has all sorts of odd little traditions, and I wonder how many of those actually carry over to England. Along those lines, I’m hoping to pick up a British accent during my two-week stay! (We’ll see how that goes
. . .)

Anyway, that’s pretty much it for now. Next time I write, it’ll be from England! Until next time, lads!

Phèdre in Canada—Week Two

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

posted by Carey Perloff, A.C.T. Artistic Director

Artistic Director Carey Perloff writes to us again from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, where she is directing Jean Racine’s
Phèdre, which will transfer to A.C.T. next January.

In our rehearsal process at A.C.T., the protective embrace of the rehearsal studio is fiercely maintained until the end of the fourth week, when we make the big leap to the theater and begin to think about giving the play to a much larger audience in a very public way. By then, we have presumably found our sea legs and made our humiliating mistakes and have found a shape to the production that we can all hold on to.

So it was wild and disconcerting, after two weeks of intensive work on Phèdre in the rehearsal studio, to suddenly be rehearsing onstage this weekend—knowing that we still had another month to go in the studio! The way it works here is that on Sunday nights when nothing is performing, these poor exhausted actors, who have already done four shows that weekend AND been in rehearsal, have a chance to work on the set of their next show, which is temporarily set up in the theater. I had to keep reminding myself that this was part of the PROCESS—that we didn’t have to be finished, we just had to use the space to discover the next step of the play . . .

It’s actually a remarkable gift to have that opportunity, particularly for a play like Phèdre, which is all about bodies in space, for the actors to feel the vast gulfs between their characters and the enormity of longing and language that is needed to fill those gulfs. We had gotten to the scene in which Hippolytus says goodbye to Aricie, and she is distraught that he won’t confront his father about Phèdre’s proposition. It’s a big, passionate scene of misunderstanding between two people who love each other—he wants her to go into exile with him, but she knows she can’t go until he officially proposes to her, which he’s too wild to remember, or to understand—and suddenly, being on the actual set on the stage, the whole storytelling became clear.

The stage we are performing Phèdre on is a 48-foot thrust surrounded by a sort of moat, with audience on three sides. I asked Johnnie [Jonathan Goad] (who plays Hippolytus) to stay in the moat, while Claire [Lautier] (Aricie) was on the deck . . . the spatial gulf between them was unbridgeable in a way we couldn’t have anticipated in the studio. She couldn’t go down there into that no-man’s-land with him, and he, an exile, could never come back onto the stage with her. When Aricie asked, “If we are not in any way bound, how can I honorably escape with you?” that word “bound” was like throwing out a rope that had to be held between them to allow the gulf to be bridged. They stopped having to “act” the scene, because the space told them everything. Incredibly helpful! Now we can go back into the studio with that knowledge intact.

Most of these actors have a long history of working together, and their level of emotional availability to each other is amazing and moving. They have played across from each other in every permutation of relationship, so they’re unafraid. They also have too many other shows in their minds to get bogged down. The experience of doing three shows at a time seems to wake them up rather than wear them down. It makes me long to do real rep again at A.C.T.—to slam one play up against another, to allow actors to hold within them multiple characters—it’s a great workout and a great way to keep the work alive.

Of course it also helps that Stratford is a town in which working theater actors can afford to own homes and live like real human beings. I think about how hard our actors struggle just to pay their rent and make ends meet, while here at Stratford, if you’re lucky enough to get a company contract, you can afford to have children and dogs and houses and cars like the rest of humanity, and live right in the middle of the community you are performing for. That is a gift. I’m not sure how to solve that in San Francisco, except to keep fighting to endow A.C.T.’s core company so that senior actors are paid what they are worth and their commitment to the company is rewarded. One perk we CAN institute at A.C.T., which I have loved watching at Stratford, is the idea of company classes. These actors warm up together before every show, they take voice, Alexander technique, speech, and movement classes, both together and individually, so they all continue training at the same time as they are working. There is an intimacy that comes from being in class together, from lying on a ball and breathing together and making ridiculous sounds and from moving together, that binds a group of artists in a profound way. Now that our conservatory has our amazing new core faculty in place, we have the chance to do this with our company—and we have to grab it!

Finally—I have been realizing how unusual it is that the actors in A.C.T.’s company have a real say in the work they do and in the governance of the institution as a whole. The actors in Phèdre seem amazed that our core company has a hand in choosing the repertoire, but it seems to me that the actors who are at the center of the work have an instinct about audiences and storytelling and the REACH of the work that is unique and should be central to the decision making of the institution as a whole.

I rode my bike through the bucolic fields of southern Ontario this morning, and after about five miles I came to a one-street town called HARMONY. Made me smile.

Phèdre in Canada—Week One

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

posted by Carey Perloff, A.C.T. Artistic Director

A.C.T.’s 2008–09 season is coming to a close this weekend (Don’t miss out on the final performances of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo!), but there’s no rest for our fearless leader. Artistic Director Carey Perloff is up in Ontario directing Jean Racine’s Phèdre, which will transfer to San Francisco next January, with the stellar company of the world-famous Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Here are some of her thoughts from abroad.

It’s Canada Day up here at the Stratford Festival, but that doesn’t mean a day off from French eroticism. We’re a week into rehearsals for Phèdre, heading deep into the heart of this amazing labyrinth of a play. My head is still reeling as I try to get accustomed to working at this enormous institution, which operates like its own kingdom with its own jargon and laws and sets of givens. The daily rehearsal schedule has military precision: there are eleven plays in repertory this season, some in performance already, some in rehearsal, all populated by the same company of actors, who rush from class to costume and wig fittings to performance to rehearsal with a stamina that exceeds anything I’ve ever seen.

There are days the rehearsal call says “P” which means “Priority” and on those days I get my entire company, if I want them, but only if I’ve claimed them two days in advance, or they get swallowed back up by the machine. On other days the call says “GS” or “Good Secondary” which means I get NEARLY all of my cast except for those in Julius Caesar (so I lose the divine Johnnie Goad, who is my Hippolytus, since he is also Mark Antony in Caesar). And then there are days like today which are labeled “S” for “Secondary”, and that means almost my entire company is off doing Three Sisters so I get to focus on the big scenes with Queen Phèdre and her confidante Oenone, played by the truly amazing Seana McKenna and Roberta Maxwell who are not in the Chekhov.

In order to squeeze out the hours, you almost always have to work out of order here, a pretty wild proposition with a play like Phèdre since it is structured like a series of dominoes falling: one explosion or discovery leads to the next and to the next with a kind of terrifying inexorability, so when you jump to a new scene without having staged the scene before, you have to constantly reconstruct the thread that got you there . . .

It’s definitely a new adventure. I got to see the entire set “fitted up” in the theater the day I arrived—which was a huge bonus. Christina Poddubiuk, the designer, has created an extraordinary structure out of wire mesh and vellum that looks like a cascading wave that comes over the portal and spills onto the floor like surf: it is reminiscent of the drapes of fabric in the background of baroque paintings, but is also the tidal wave of libido that erupts into Theseus’s palace, and the night we got there, the stage crew was busy inserting tiny strips of LED lights into the structure so that it glowed from within in a totally magical and mysterious way. There are three pieces to the mesh sculpture which we have labeled “the cascade”, “the surf”, and “the cloud”, and much of our challenge in tech rehearsals will be to see how the shapes relate to the actors and how to create an atmosphere that embraces the actors without dwarfing them. My lighting designer has been at nearly every rehearsal—another benefit of being in a small town where everyone lives three blocks away. So we’re all in this together.

The beauty and intensity of Phèdre is overwhelming. To keep myself sane I am taking voice class with Nancy Benjamin, who is about to come to A.C.T. as our new speech teacher. That’s a whole other adventure. After the first class I was dizzy for two days. She reassured me that it was only because I probably hadn’t breathed that deeply in ten years. Or EVER. By the third class I could feel my tight little voice relaxing into new places . . . I may be a whole different person by the time I get back to San Francisco.
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