A New Family

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

posted by Omozé Idehenre, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2010 

Omozé bonds with the Carol kids during the annual latke party.

The word carol is defined as “a song of joy” and/or “to sing in a lively and joyous manner.” When I think of A Christmas Carol, I think of the chance to perform this particular custom during this special and particular period of time. Caroling is an opportunity to let go of all the stress you’ve retained throughout the year and put it to something useful before the New Year. It is a joy one is fortunate to receive when people take the attention off of themselves and give it to others. How great it is to know that, no matter what, we all can get the chance to let our hearts sing in a joyous manner again and again.

Participating in A.C.T.’s production of A Christmas Carol has truly been an incredible experience. I’ve been saying this A LOT, but it has felt like a vacation of sorts. Much of this, I feel, has to do with getting the opportunity to work with various generations of actors outside of school. Each of the M.F.A. students has a mentee from the Young Conservatory participating in the show, and in turn we are mentored by core company members and guest actors. The beauty of this is the incredible bonds we form with one another while performing on the stage of a professional theater. With the constant laughter and conversation, you really can’t help but let go and just be in the joy and festiveness of it all. Last week, for instance, the kids and their parents threw their amazing annual latke party. While sitting at the table, watching the kids perform, it occurred to me how incredible and all-inclusive tradition can be. Every individual is different, but the simplest act, song, plate of food, or gathering place can truly bind. It’s really difficult that I won’t be with my family this holiday, but being welcomed by another family truly ameliorates this. It’s been a blessing.

Lastly, I think one of the greatest things that I will take away from all of this are the relationships that I formed with many of the actors during this whole process. Coming into it, after a very long semester, I feel my mind was stuck more on the work of it all. But once we got into rehearsals with the kids, especially onstage, it became more about the play and one another. I love those kids!!!

Revisiting Phèdre

Friday, December 18, 2009

posted by Claire Lautier, cast member of Phèdre

Claire Lautier plays Aricie in Phèdre, a new translation of Racine’s 17th-century French tragedy directed by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff in a coproduction between A.C.T. and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada. Presented at Stratford last summer, Phèdre arrives at the American Conservatory Theater in January. Lautier will travel to San Francisco along with many members of the original cast to revisit Racine’s classic drama at A.C.T.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a public place in the midst of squawking televisions, ringtones, a dozen cell phone conversations, background music, loudspeaker announcements, engines and horns, beeps and chirps, fluorescent lights, flashing screens, diesel fumes, and the rhythmic bouncing of my seat as the person down the bench from me jiggles his legs frantically while listening to an iPod and playing a video game. And I think to myself, I should write that blog entry for Phèdre. What should I talk about? I’ve never written a blog entry of any kind before (what would I say and who would care?). In this environment I draw an even bigger blank—my surroundings seem pretty incongruous with ideas about French court drama!

After a month in New York City, I’m pretty worn out from sleep deprivation. Somehow I managed to live here for 17 years without being overly affected by it, but after nine months in beautiful, blissful, and quiet Stratford, coming back to the city has been a rude awakening and I feel as if my nervous system is screaming for peace. So I’m REALLY looking forward to being at A.C.T., in San Francisco, a city I’ve only briefly visited. But mostly, I’m looking forward to sinking into the world I remember from this summer, which is Phèdre. It’s not that often you get to reexamine a piece a few months after a run, and in a radically different setting. During the summer, it felt like we barely scratched the surface; by the time I began to feel grounded, the run was over. In Stratford, we played on a rep schedule, so although we usually did eight performances a week, we were doing two or even three different plays in that week. It was usually several days between performances of Phèdre, which can be either refreshing or disorienting. I found it a real challenge to get underneath the material and stay there. I liken it to dropping anchor in a deep ocean, going to sleep, and waking up the next morning to find you’ve drifted off course somehow with your anchor trailing.

As I relive the play in my mind I have a full-body experience in direct contrast to my environment. My memories are of stillness: listening, breathing, light reflected by the water in the fountain, a bare stage. The words are spare and dangerous; they emerge from an ominous silence, reaching through the long expanse of space. We can only perceive silence because of sound; when we do, we notice that underneath the sound and ever present is the deep, deep silence and stillness. What finally emerges from that silence, from the primordial depths of our psyches, long suppressed, is what sets the events of the play in motion, inexorably, until there is only one possible outcome. I want to drop back into that kinetic stillness, that pure potential. I find that stimulating and profoundly satisfying—and a refreshing antidote to the modern world of pervasive, meaningless noise.

So I’m excited! I get to work at A.C.T.! I’m looking forward to reuniting with Carey and our cast and creative team, meeting the new cast members, and seeing what happens when we go from a long thrust stage to a proscenium. How will we do it? How will it affect the play? How will Aricie be influenced by it? In Stratford, the audience was so close and surrounded us; at A.C.T they’ll be “out there” and we’ll be “up here.” It’s the same play, but it won’t be the same play. It will be totally new!

Christmas Produce

Thursday, December 3, 2009

posted by Shelley Carter, A.C.T. Artistic Intern
Two Turkish figs (Isabella Ateshian and Rachel Share-Sapolsky)
in the 2007 production of A Christmas Carol.

“Too big to be a fig. Maybe an onion though,” says veteran A.C.T. Casting Director Meryl Shaw.
“Or even a plum?” offers A Christmas Carol Casting Consultant Greg Hubbard.

From outside the door of the casting office, I wondered what mystery fruit my two bosses could be discussing. Surely something exotic.

“Hey, Shelley, could you come help us with this produce?” Meryl called.

Expecting to see them peering over a small tropical fruit, I was surprised to see them huddled around the picture of a small adorable child. As the new artistic intern at A.C.T., I’ll admit there is a lot of casting terminology for me to learn, but I was highly perplexed by their farmers’ market vocabulary.

“It’s just that we have a zillion onions. I’m tearing up all ready,” says Meryl.

I furrow my brow and nod, playing along. Very pale and onionlike, I agree. Seeing my obvious confusion Meryl explained what anyone who has seen A.C.T.’s A Christmas Carol will all ready know:
the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to Scrooge the “sensory delights of the holiday season” by showing him a delectable array of Spanish onions, Turkish figs, and French plums—all portrayed by students in A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory.

Cut to September 9, the day after initial A Christmas Carol auditions, when, after weeks upon weeks of preparation, Carol director Domenique Lozano, Meryl, Greg, and I find ourselves in the midst of a veritable fruit basket of auditionees.

I was astounded at the amount of, ahem, “raw” talent and professionalism exhibited by these young actors. In all seriousness, though, the kids showed an incredibly high degree of focus, commitment, and energy. We were all surprised at the skill level of these young actors, who brought in audition pieces as varied as Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and the Beatles. Seeing a young actor tackle the middle-aged and imposing Paulina from The Winter’s Tale with such mastery over speech and language was very impressive, to say the least. One of the more delicious highlights of the evening included a rendition of ye olde YouTube classic, “Banana Phone.” It was work you could really sink your teeth into. Meryl regaled us with favorite stories from previous auditions, such as last year’s Ilya (who played Boy Dick in 2008) performing both Gwendolyn and Cecily in a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest.

There are so many difficult factors that go into casting a show, like older actors who are a wee bit too “ripe,” or younger ones who might still be too “green.” Mentally, I found myself trying to keep up with Meryl and Greg’s observations, “Yes, yes. His portrayal of the onion has . . . many . . . layers?” I think. The acting work seems so . . . organic. Finally, after a marathon 14 hours of auditions, we decided we’d had enough of speaking “fig-uratively” because we were all, indeed, plum tired.

Holding Back My Tears as a "Carol Mom"

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

posted by Susan Berston

Each year, A.C.T.’s annual production of A Christmas Carol features almost two dozen young actors as young as eight, who are all students in A.C.T.’s acclaimed Young Conservatory. Susan Berston, whose 12-year-old son, Samuel, appears as Ned Cratchit in this year’s production, writes about the rewards and challenges of being a first-time “Carol mom.”

Hearing the joy in my son’s voice, listening to him sing Christmas carols in early November, and noticing a pronounced bounce in his step, I have pondered whether being a “Carol mom” is almost as exciting as being in his shoes. My son, Samuel, has always loved to act both “on- and offstage” since the age of four, but it wasn’t until a year ago in Betty Schneider’s musical theater class in A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory that he realized there were other more serious, like-minded “singing, dancing, and acting” kids like himself. Ms. Schneider is a talented vocal and acting coach, with a magic and gentle influence unparalleled by other teachers my son has experienced. She is one of those teachers who have made a difference, and an integral part of his journey to bring him to the stage of A Christmas Carol as Ned Cratchit. This brings me to write this blog to share with you—the Carol experience from a parent’s perspective.

I soon became immersed in learning new jargon in order to understand where and when my son was to be for rehearsals. A “callback” meant a “second interview.” To “read” translated to reciting lines for a given role during an audition. And my son was “cast” in the production—based upon factors we could only randomly guess during the surprisingly warm and friendly audition process. The nightly emails with the following day’s schedule took some decoding, with the assistance of a dedicated and detailed “veteran” parent, Lisa Share-Sapolsky. In layperson’s terms, she provided more detail to terms like “straight six,” “release times,” and “break coverage.” At the parents’ meeting, I was embarrassingly overwhelmed with the volume of information disseminated and number of names to remember. Despite information overload, I felt the bond between the parents, who strongly realize the immense value this experience holds for each of our children.

Even with uncertainty around daily schedules and planning, shuttling back and forth, and some missed school, I knew the growth experience, confidence building, and actor training (more like boot camp) would be unparalleled. As a parent, and for full disclosure, of an only child, I’ve pretty much followed and encouraged my son’s passions—and whether he was “cast” or not, I sensed the audition experience, while a little scary for him, would be a learning one at that. An experience, regardless of role, with a multigenerational cast would help my son respect the choice of those who have chosen acting as a career. Developing relationships, camaraderie, and friendships with an immensely creative, focused, fun-loving, and extremely bright bunch of new kids has proven to be invaluable. Samuel has been exposed to the professional world of theater and the opportunity to be mentored by one very vivacious, sensitive, and extremely talented actor and M.F.A. student, David Jacobs.

As opening night approaches, I’ll bet you that Ned Cratchit’s mom will most likely be holding back her tears as she sees her son realizing his dream on the A.C.T. stage, knowing that his experience will transcend as a source of growth and inspiration offstage for many years to come.

Samuel Berston gets fitted for his costume for A Christmas Carol.
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