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!”
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