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 ( 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

Communication Beyond Language

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

posted by Tobie Lee Windham III, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2010

Ciao, to all of the A.C.T. family and friends. It’s your boy, Tobie Windham, and I wanted to take a moment to let you all know how my summer in Italy went. Myself and my fellow third-year classmate, Omozè Idehenre (a.k.a. slick and sly) had the chance to experience a three-week “Demystifying Chekhov” workshop in San Miniato, Italy at the Primo del Teatro European School for the Art of the Actor.

Let me tell you that those three weeks changed my life. This was my first time in Europe, and it was amazingly beautiful. The people were wonderful and the food was even better. (Did you know pepperoni pizza does not exist in Italy? I didn’t.) And I had the chance to eat wild boar, which was sooo good . . . but all I could think about was Pumbaa from The Lion King. Funny, right?

San Miniato, which is between Florence and Pisa, is this jewel of a village that sleeps during the day and comes alive with tons of people around 6 p.m. There was a festival almost every night and the celebration method ranged from small groups of people coming together to sing a few songs to some of these people performing full-out plays with life-size puppets. I was able to see people truly enjoy one another in ways I have never seen in the States. I saw that their appreciation is found not in what a person has, but in who a person is.

The Chekhov workshop was cool, too. Our instructor, Jo Blatchley, is a British director who worked with Peter Brooks in a famous production of Cherry Orchard some years ago. Within the workshop we focused on getting back to the basics. The first five days were spent reading—no, better yet—dissecting two of Chekhov’s best-known plays: Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya. After that, we got to work on scenes. All 16 of us students had to work with someone from another program, and everyone had to speak in their native language. This is where it got interesting. Omozè and I were the only two Americans. The rest of our group were from Italy, Hungary, and Spain. Some spoke a little English and some didn’t at all. With that being said, the scenes went really well—despite the fact that I knew no Italian and no Hungarian. I eventually got to a point where I knew exactly what my scene partners were saying. It was communication beyond language. With Jo we learned how important it is to clearly read Chekhov.

This trip has changed my soul. I left Italy a new person. I feel much more valuable as a person and as an artist. I felt that my voice was one that was needed, welcomed, and accepted. Italy showed me once again how to appreciate myself, something that I had forgotten how to do. I encourage us all to once again find the value in who we are. And, whatever it is we do in life, to really ask yourself: Do I need this? You know I have to say it . . . I looked damn good over there in Italy. Ciao, Bella.

Love you all, my A.C.T. family.
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