A Mad Dash to Stratford

Thursday, August 27, 2009

posted by Marilee K. Gardner, A.C.T. Trustee

Marilee Gardner, a member of the A.C.T. Board of Trustees, was part of the A.C.T. family that traveled to Ontario, Canada, last week to represent A.C.T. at the opening night of Phèdre at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Produced in association with A.C.T. and directed by our artistic director, Carey Perloff, Phèdre will open at the American Conservatory Theater in January featuring actors from the acclaimed Stratford company.

I spent a whirlwind three days in Canada. Friday I flew to Toronto and met with fellow board member Cherie Sorokin and A.C.T.’s exiting executive director, Heather Kitchen, and then we made a mad dash to Stratford, Ontario, for the festival. It is a very cute town (and, if one can stay out of the antique shops, it is an affordable town). Heather had made all the arrangements, which included our hotel and a biographical tour of Stratford based on Heather’s many years there with the festival. It is lovely: parks, a river, charm . . . and, of course, the theaters. On Saturday night, before the opening of Phèdre, we met Carey, the chairman of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s board of directors, and its artistic director for dinner. I believe that I was able to convince their chairman to come to San Francisco with the promise that he would be well entertained. I offered to have a dinner at my home, and if I remember correctly, Cherie was charm itself when she said, “Oh, you must eat at Marilee’s.” It should be obvious to one and all by now that I’ll do anything for A.C.T.

After dinner we attended the show, and I can only say that Phèdre is wonderful. Carey has done a fabulous job with a terrific translation and we can all be very proud of “our girl.” The show will do very well in San Francisco, because period pieces are well liked by our audiences, and this one is smart, passionate, beautifully acted, and exciting. The feeling in the room at the post-opening party said it all—excitement and pride, with “tired” thrown in for good measure. I met most of the actors who will be coming to San Francisco, as well as the very pregnant wife of one of the actors. She will have delivered the baby by the time they arrive in San Francisco, and I have promised to babysit. Again, I’ll do anything for A.C.T.

On Sunday, we returned to Toronto through the very beautiful Ontario countryside and registered at the hotel. We stayed at the “King Eddy,” as all of us who know Toronto so well call Le Méridien King Edward. Just to let you know, it wasn’t easy to register, and once we did, we were handed flashlights and told that the electricity would be off from midnight to 5 a.m. Apparently, when the hotel was wired for electricity 100 years ago, they made some sort of error and decided to wait until I arrived to fix it. We were too tired and had laughed far too much to care, so after a drink or six, we went to dinner at a great steak restaurant.

I would like to tell my fellow trustees that you missed a wonderful weekend. I wish that more of us had taken part. When I say that we laughed, I mean it. By the way, I have never written a “blog” before, but I promised Carey I would do this. I hope you liked it because it may never happen again.

(L to R) A.C.T. board members Marilee Gardner and Cherie Sorokin with A.C.T. Executive Director Heather Kitchen in the lobby of Toronto’s famous hotel the “King Eddy”

The A.C.T. Intern Podcast Is Back! Introducing The NIA Project

Friday, August 21, 2009

posted by Rose Hogan, A.C.T. Marketing Intern

This week’s episode discusses one of the ways in which A.C.T. is involved in the community—through a student-run organization called The NIA Project.

Theater in its essence gives back to the community. The entire purpose of performing is to mirror society and inspire it. In addition, many theaters offer a wide variety of programs to better engage and help the community. A.C.T. offers several programs to encourage people that might otherwise not be able to attend the theater to see mainstage productions. One of the ways that A.C.T. is most out there and engaged in the community is through the conservatory. The A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program has several built-in ways in which the students actively involve the community in their process and use inspiration from the community in their own original works. Plus, in the second year, with the Will on Wheels program, students tour a Shakespeare play to schools around the Bay Area, teaching younger students classics in fun and accessible ways. And with the support of a recent grant from The James Irvine Foundation, the students will have many more opportunities to reach out to the Bay Area community in the future.

One of the most exciting programs at A.C.T., however, was started by students who felt that there was something missing at A.C.T. and took the initiative to make the change they wanted to see on their own. The NIA Project offers arts education to a variety of Bay Area children who have lost such programs in their schools. Arts education is hugely important for children’s development, and the mentors of the NIA project are fighting to keep it alive. Recently, I sat down with two mentors of The NIA Project to find out why and how they started the program and what they do.

Download and listen to the podcast using iTunes.

A Tearful Homecoming

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

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

Every other summer, 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 traveled 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 one last time after returning from her two-week transatlantic theatrical adventure.

After a tearful goodbye to Bath, we moved on to London. There was a lot of sniffling on the two-hour bus ride there. In just 12 days, we had all gotten incredibly close with the English kids. But, as they say, the show must go on, right?

We spent our first few hours in London wandering around Covent Garden. After a lovely dinner, we headed over to the West End to see a production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. However, by this point, it had started raining. No, a more accurate word is pouring. In the four or five blocks between the restaurant and the theater, we all got completely soaked. But it was worth it. Priscilla, about three drag queens crossing the Australian desert, was the most uproarious, crazy, hilarious thing I have ever seen. It even involved some audience participation, and I am proud to say that I made my England debut dancing that night (along with two other A.C.T.ers)!

We spent the next day seeing as much of London as we could in a day. After a wonderfully narrated tour of Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Big Ben (to name a few), we ended up at the National Theatre for a technically and expressively flawless production of Phèdre. The acting in this super intense Greek tragedy was superb. We all sat there with our mouths gaping in awe.

And then, before we knew it, it was time to leave. Now, at home, England feels like years ago. I’ll never really be able to describe the whole experience in writing, but I can safely say it was the best two weeks of my life. More than anything else, the camaraderie that enveloped us all by the end of the trip was so powerful that I can still feel traces of it here. It’s amazing how nostalgic I can feel for an experience that was, in actuality, so short. I grew as both an actor and a person more than I ever could’ve expected. And so, as simple as this may be, I miss it so much. Well, I suppose all I can do is write a few more therapeutic blogs and bite the bullet. The show must go on.

Anya Richkind (fourth from the right) with her fellow YC students
and their British counterparts in London

What Do You Know?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

posted by Mairin Lee, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2010
Each summer, several students from the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program take on the task of teaching and mentoring their younger colleagues in the Young Conservatory, solidifying what they’ve learned in the graduate program by passing it on to the next generation of theater artists. Mairin Lee, who will receive her M.F.A. degree from A.C.T. next May, describes the challenges and joys of stepping into the instructor’s role.

There’s nothing like hanging out with a bunch of third-graders to remind me of the following exchange from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:

LADY BRACKNELL: . . . I have always been of the opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

JACK: (after some hesitation) I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.

No bachelor am I, yet teaching physical characterization and improvisation to some of the world’s most impressive juniors leaves me feeling like one moment I’ve got it all figured out and the next feeling quite like Mr. Jack Worthing.

But this story has a prelude, and that begins eight years ago, when I took my first steps into A.C.T. as a student in the Young Conservatory. Two years ago, I made a jubilant return, this time as a member of the M.F.A. Program class of 2010. Two weeks ago, I entered the classroom once again, except now I was—oh my—the TEACHER.

It’s not my maiden voyage as an instructor—I’ve taught acting in places as diverse as the San Francisco Opera Guild and a South African township—but getting to teach for the very institution where I began my own theatrical journey is, to say the least, a privilege.

Faced with the task of leading a movement-oriented class for eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds, I readied myself with a long-term goal for the session as well as daily lesson plans. On the first day, I watched as five children entered the room, shrugged off their backpacks, and eyed me with a mix of suspicion and amusement. I welcomed them and introduced myself, but before I could get another word out, one of the young girls asked me how many times she was allowed to die per class.

Paging Jack Worthing to Studio 8D.

After the quick second I gave myself to be stunned, I answered, “As many times as you like, as long as you die a different way each time.”

The surprises have been nonstop ever since. I’ve witnessed these hungry little actors transform themselves again and again; we’ve encountered aliens, animals (particularly the nocturnal kind—seems to be a theme), humans of all dispositions and ages, raindrops that walk, and brushfires that talk. You name it, they’ve brought it to life.

We laugh a lot. We talk about our experiences. We explore infinite ways to walk across a room. Their voices are so pure; their dreams so unbridled. I learn from their gusto, their commitment, their imagination. I’m also learning that I know a lot more than I thought. That I’m able to articulate ideas better than I realized. That, even after these eight years, I could spend so many more in these studios and still have a world of questions before me. And I think, ultimately, that’s why I’m in this crazy business of acting. Not necessarily for the answers. But for the questions.

So as for this teaching thing . . . Exhilarating? Yes. Challenging? Yes. Completely and totally worth it? Yes, yes, and yes.

Our First Week in England

Friday, August 7, 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 first week of making theater across the Atlantic.

Gosh, halfway done already. I can’t believe it. On one hand, I feel like I’ve been here for months—The Egg, the theater we are working in, now gives me those warm and fuzzy vibes that come only with familiarity—but on the other hand, we leave in less than a week. In our week here, so much has happened, from learning about new theatrical techniques to exploring the beautifully ancient city of Bath.

Over the course of the first week, we rehearsed our play, Ursula Rani Sarma’s Riot, and took various acting workshops. It was remarkable and surprising to see how our characters grew and evolved in such a short period of time. We spent the few days reading and discussing the play, which proved to be quite controversial, perturbing, and altogether fantastic! Then we jumped into staging the play, finishing the complete blocking in just two days (whereas most plays rehearse for a month!). After a week of preparation, we performed our informal staged reading last night. Even though we used minimal props and costumes, it felt very real. I definitely had the notorious “butterflies in the stomach” before I went onstage. The English people who came to the performance certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves; I could recognize the really high-pitched melodic laugh of my host often throughout the reading. Furthermore, I’m sure I speak for the entire cast when I say it was an incredibly fun play to perform.

Aside from the theatrical experience, it’s been superb to get to know all the people on this trip—Brits and Americans alike. After a week of continually hanging out together, this crosscontinental group of youngsters has grown into a cohesive, super-enjoyable . . . family, if I may be so cheesy. I absolutely love how this program somehow manages to both provide amazing acting experience AND friendship up the wazoo! We go to the park for lunch, we go out to dinner, we explore a city that just reeks of that marvelous English old-fashioned mystique. Besides all that, plus seeing high-caliber English theater in the nighttime, plus the acting workshops, plus a brand-new, fantastic play, what more could I ask for? Furthermore, four [A.C.T. M.F.A. Program] students are on the trip with us, so I’ve gotten the chance to get to know some simultaneously hilarious and profound people I might not otherwise have met.

Oh and did I mention culture shock? It’s positively charming to hear English accents everywhere I go. (My host father has taught me that a “British” accent can refer to England, Ireland, or Scotland, so that’s why I now say English.) Hilarity ensues every time I discover a word they say particularly differently. All of us Americans get a kick out of how they pronounce aluminum as “aluminium.” And sometimes I feel like the everyday English activities around me are just too quaint to be real. For example, today, one of the hosts had a garden party for all of us (held indoors—it rains a lot in Bath!). I have never seen so many scones (pronounced “scawns” by the Brits), handmade raspberry jams, teas, or “Victoria sponges” in one place. It was adorable (and very tasty!).

Well, that pretty much sums up my experience thus far, although I doubt I will ever really find the right words to describe how enjoyable, exciting, and eye-opening this trip has been. I will treasure my last week here, and try not to think too much about that moment when I have to say goodbye.

Click here to read Anya’s first blog about her preparations for the big trip!

An Inspirational Week

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

posted by Jack Willis, A.C.T. Associate Artist

A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis, along with nine respected and talented actors from across the United States, was selected to participate in the inaugural class of the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program hosted by the Ten Chimneys Foundation. Willis describes his experiences during the weeklong intensive led in July by master teacher and revered Shakespearean actress Lynn Redgrave in the Wisconsin home of acclaimed actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Jack Willis with acclaimed actress and master teacher Lynn Redgrave

When you get selected for these sorts of things, you wonder what they are going to be about. “Prepare three Shakespearean monologues, two scenes . . .” You assume that it’ll be a chore. But this program wasn’t a chore at all. It ended up being a very affirming week. For seven days, I was surrounded by a great group of actors at the beautiful estate of Ten Chimneys, a setting that is very much still stuck in the 1920s: beautiful, kitschy, yet incredibly charming. And Lynn Redgrave was very moving and did a great job of leading the workshop.

The focus of the intensive was Shakespearean acting, but the whole week ended up being about much more than that. As we were all actors “of a certain age,” it was as much about throwing out ideas on how to best survive in the business. It was very affirming to listen to other actors talk about the difficulty they have memorizing lines and actresses talking about having to reinvent themselves and not being able to find great roles now that they are older. Lynn Redgrave herself has gone through these changes and now writes her own material and performs continuously. The biggest lesson she imparted to us was to make our own rules and never to let anyone box us in.

On the whole, the experience was very inspirational. I really wish they would have the same group of people back next year for a whole month to work on Chekhov. That would be amazing.

Hear more about Jack’s experiences and watch excerpts from his performance on the final day of the program:

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