Check Out A.C.T.'s War Music Multimedia Extravaganza

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

This week the mood around A.C.T. is rife with anticipation. After four years of development, including two intensive movement workshops, two public readings, hundreds of hours of meetings and discussions and late-night brainstorming sessions, four weeks of rehearsal, and five preview performances, our world-premiere production of War Music, Lillian Groag’s brand-new adaptation of Christopher Logue’s visceral account of Homer’s Iliad, is set to open, finally and officially, on Wednesday night.

As a preview of this eagerly awaited event—which features a cast of 13 actors seamlessly weaving in and out of 42 roles, original choreography and music, a disco ball, smoke, and bubbles—we’ve compiled a multimedia playground of all things War Music. Come visit ancient Greece, reimagined for the future.

Mastering Uncertainty

Thursday, March 26, 2009

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

The season planning process is always a wild roller coaster. The hardest thing I’ve found about doing it at this particular moment in time is to trust that ANY of the instincts I have built up over decades of theatermaking have validity in a climate in which everything is so volatile and strange. We know we can not assume that the economy will support “business as usual,” but we have no idea what will encourage an audience to come out of its cocoon and go to the theater; we are trying to examine the marvelous template we have built for producing the highest-quality theater imaginable and to see what it would look like to do everything differently. In the midst of trying to responsibly contain expenses, cut costs, and ditch everything that is nonessential, we’re fighting to keep our eyes on the bigger picture—what is it about what we do that really matters, and how do we get the word out about it?

At this moment in time, it seems to me that whatever we choose to work on should be indisputably masterful. Just as when you have no money for clothes, it makes sense to buy one beautiful item and wear it every day, I wanted to invest this season in gorgeous plays that have huge literary richness, guided by real masters. There is something about the scope and vision and astonishing poetry of Racine and Brecht that is like a bracing tonic in a climate of tabloids and banality—they are simply the best there is. Likewise there is something about a conversation with director John Doyle that makes you breathe differently—you KNOW that you are in the company of a master, a deeply thoughtful and imaginative man who will bring all his artistry and experience to bear upon the work. I feel the same way when I walk into the studio to work on The Tosca Project and am confronted by the most astonishing collection of exquisite dancers and actors all committed to making up something entirely new but from the depths of their experience. Or when I talk to two of my heroes in the field, Marco Barricelli and Olympia Dukakis, about Morris Panych’s revelatory play Vigil. Or when I watch the transformational instincts of our resident company of actors and know that they will travel from Mamet to Ayckbourn on the turn of a dime because their theatrical muscles and imaginations are so well honed. Their vision is like ballast in uncertain seas . . . my own wavering instincts are bolstered by the sheer quality and depth of these artists’ experience, passion, and vision.

As we all wrestle with the choices we need to make to keep A.C.T. flourishing and moving forward, I keep looking for the nuggets that are UNIQUELY A.C.T. Like the fact that we are so multigenerational—that a senior artist like Giles Havergal is in the building directing M.F.A. students who are, at the same time, teaching acting to eight-year-olds in our Young Conservatory. Where else? Like the fact that we’re obsessed with the power and complexity of language and have spent months and months searching for a new speech teacher and text coach because we are passionate about plays with rich language and want to train and nurture actors equipped to handle them. Like the fact that we are an international theater in an international city and that next season contains a Canadian play, a French play, a German play, a whole British experimental theater company, and a dance/theater piece populated by, among others, a Cuban, a Frenchman, a Filipina, and an Australian. I love this!

I think the year ahead is going to be amazing, and impossible, and unpredictable. I feel incredibly excited about the work we’ve chosen to invest in and the artists who are creating it. And I feel like we’re going to keep asking ourselves the really hard questions, so that nothing is taken for granted as we ride the waves coming our way.

Notes of a Ladyhawk

Friday, March 20, 2009

posted by Arianna Papalexopoulos, A.C.T. Young Conservatory student and Volleygirls cast member

I’m flabbergasted that opening night has already past and saddened that closing night is approaching so quickly. We have become such a tight-knit family that I can’t bear the thought of parting from my cast members, director, and crew members. Isn’t it funny that while we are immersed in an amazing run we already ponder what will occur when it ends? Why can’t we just live in the moment? I know I will miss climbing on the MUNI train with my fellow cast member Jacqueline Toboni, and struggling for weeks to perfect my “air-volleyball” technique. I know that I will also miss my character, Marisol Hernandez. Where else will I be able to channel my inner Latina with such exuberance?

For me, the week of tech rehearsals was a delightful experience. The cast was fortunate to meet the amazingly talented playwright of Volleygirls, Rob Ackerman. Rob’s enthusiasm and eagerness have brought all of us into deeper contact with our characters and their intentions. His ardor for this show has shone through each conversation he has had with us. I remember the first time he saw the show during tech rehearsals. We all were curious to see what he had to say after the hard work we had put in during our rehearsals at 30 Grant [where A.C.T.’s offices and studios are located]. He ran down the steps with a huge grin on his face and expressed his utter enchantment with each character. He offered constructive criticism on how to tweak certain lines and perfect certain scenes, but Rob’s enthusiasm clearly catalyzed a higher level of energy for me and Marisol Hernandez.

Participating in this play has really been a challenging and revelatory experience. After playing Maria Merelli in Lend Me a Tenor in the fall play at my high school, St. Ignatius College Preparatory, and now having the opportunity to play this spunky, Latina teen, I have realized the especially hard work that goes into creating such ethnically diverse characters. I have also learned a great deal from working as a YC member in a collaborative show with M.F.A. actors. Before this play I had only seen actors of that caliber from my seat in the audience, but their professionalism and unique talent have shown me what I want to aspire to become as an actress. Not only have I been blessed with such a talented cast, but I have also had the great joy of working with David Keith as my director. His intelligence, humor, and patience consistently put me at ease and allowed me to reach new heights in my craft. If this is anything like what I will experience in my collegiate theater program next year, I couldn’t be more excited!

Less Is More

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

posted by Nick Childress, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2010

How much should an actor leave for the audience to imagine?

The other night I was chatting with an A.C.T. M.F.A. Program alum about the importance of imagination, specifically the audience’s imagination. I was telling him about a technical bit of stage blocking a few people in my class had learned. We discovered how, even though we were doing the same physical movements, the meaning of those movements changed completely when we combined them with the story of a simple situation. This sparked an intriguing conversation about how we, as actors, are supposed to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. We talked about the idea of doing less as actors, and allowing the audiences’ imaginations to do more. They’re not stupid. If I tell them, “This guy has to pee,” and he starts running towards a bush and abruptly stops, but smiles, they know what just happened without having it spelled out for them.

We student actors hear that dreaded statement—“do more by doing less”—often. Let’s face it, as a young actor who grew up “doing” things to improve, and who is now forking out quite a bit of time and money for an advanced education in acting, it strikes a discord to hear that the answer is actually to do less. When I’m in the midst of taking multiple technical classes—speech, movement, commedia prep, voice, text analysis—and I’m told that, after all the technical work is done, I have to trust its effect on me, let it go, and do less, I have to wonder why I did all that work in the first place. There lies the rub. The technical work may be hard, tedious, and taxing, but ultimately it forms the base of your character and is just downright necessary.

So how do I do less when I feel like I have more to do than ever?

I turned to Domenique Lozano, the brilliant assistant director of my class’s production of Macbeth, with this question 45 minutes before going onstage in front of an audience of high school students. I wanted to see if by “doing less” I would achieve more. Her response was simple, yet mind-blowing: “Do what is needed to tell the story, nothing more, nothing less. Let the audience fill in the gaps.” I was determined to try. My goal for that performance: to commit to communicating each word that came out of my mouth—nothing more, nothing less.

Was it brilliant work? Who knows? Did the kids in the audience pay attention? Yes . . . well, at least the first five rows did (the lights were too bright to see any farther). But a student did tell me in our postshow discussion that he was able to “relate to Shakespeare and didn’t realize how exciting it was.” That made the whole process worthwhile to me. Did I do too much? Too little? That didn’t seem to matter so much any more, because maybe, just MAYBE, we sparked a marble of interest into a world of classics and imagination that will inspire others.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

posted by Rob Ackerman, playwright of Volleygirls

In drama and in sports, it’s called a play. You try to make a good play.

I grew up in theater, as an actor, director, craftsman, and playwright, but I can’t recall a sports play that actually shows us a game’s action. What’s up with that? Why hasn’t anyone tried this?

Well, for one thing, it’s not easy. Even as I type these words, days before opening night, I’m not one hundred percent sure it’s possible. That scares me. It all does. Put yourself in my shoes. Or socks. I tend to write in socks.

There I was, at my desk, working on my very first commission for A.C.T., a theater I’ve admired for decades. I had my lists of characters—players and parents, coaches and staff—tacked to a bookshelf in front of me. But how could I set them in motion when so many voices in my head said no, no, no? How could I trespass in Girl World when I come from Man Swamp? How could I dream up a bunch of jocks when I’m not a real athlete? Was I out of my mind? What was I thinking?

You can’t think too much. Not in sports, not onstage, and especially not with pen in hand. At some point, after you’ve done your homework, you have to let go, let your characters be characters.

What do I know about girls? I’ve got two daughters, two younger sisters, a mom whose identical twin has three daughters, and a wife who is an advice columnist for Girls’ Life Magazine and author of a book called Girltalk. That’s a start.

The play’s landscape also encompasses the orderly tree-lined streets of my hometown in central Ohio where I attended a boys’ school that was paired, thank God, with a girls’ school.

And, yes, I love sports, always have, always will. I watched all the 2008 Olympic volleyball, I never miss an episode of Friday Night Lights, and have seen more sports movies than I ordinarily care to admit. I follow Ohio State football, Yankees baseball and Knicks basketball, and for nearly 20 years, I’ve been playing competitive co-ed volleyball with a New York team founded by a Palo Alto pal, Cathy Roos. Last season, we even won a championship.

Still, none of this felt like enough for me to get started on a new play. I needed more. I needed Anne Gravel. Coach Gravel mentored my older daughter in JV volleyball at Trinity School, three blocks from our apartment in Manhattan. This year, my younger daughter’s senior year, Annie coached varsity, so I called to ask if I could shadow her, from preseason to practice, warm-ups to games, and be part of it all, even the Trinity Tiger huddles. She said yes.

I watched the kids play and yell and coax and curse and win and lose and get hurt and get better. I winced when they fell apart and cheered when they came together. And then I started to write.

Producers Craig Slaight and Melissa Smith trusted and encouraged me to create Volleygirls. Director David Keith nurtured the script, picked great players, and found a gifted team of designers, coaches, and technicians. I am wildly indebted and grateful.

Now I’m in San Francisco for final tech and dress rehearsals. The actors are finding their rhythm; technicians are huddled at dimmer boards and laptops. Everyone is ready. We all have a story to tell. So here we go, people. Come on, Ladyhawks. Let’s play ball!

Slags, Hogs, and Homer: This Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

Friday, March 6, 2009

posted by Megan Cohen, A.C.T. Dramaturgy Intern

The text of War Music, the adaptation of Homer’s Iliad that is currently in rehearsal at A.C.T., is like a minefield, except that instead of deadly explosions of shrapnel that blow your legs off, you get awesome explosions of poetry that blow your mind. You don’t need to trip these pyrotechnics to love the writing in War Music, or to love the story, because author Christopher Logue is just that good, but when you find one, it’s like a little bonus. A sudden jalapeño in your Homeric burrito. You can stroll blissfully through a sentence, and then suddenly stumble upon a completely innocent-looking word like “slag,” or a simple phrase about a “mammoth hog,” only to discover when you look it up that it does not mean what you think it means, it means about a hundred different things. All of which make sense in the context, and all of which add weight, and add color, and add density, and add resonance, and add energy, and add poetry, and, well, just totally blow your mind.

Working on the dramaturgy for this piece, part of my job was to wander through the script with my eyes closed and my hands out, looking for any words that felt dangerous or smelled explosive, then write up anything interesting or relevant that I found about them, and deliver it to the artistic team.
It turns out that “slag” doesn’t just mean woman of questionable reputation, or perhaps of certainly disreputable reputation. Turns out, “slag” is also a metalworking term. It refers to the liquid impurities that float on top of molten metal, and are discarded in the creation of a piece, in the making of a sword or of a cup or of a crown. Sometimes, slag is used as a fertilizer. So, when the Trojan Anchises says of the Greek Army that “they are a swarm of lawless malcontents, hatched from the slag we cast five centuries ago,” he’s saying several things at once. He’s dissing their momma and their genealogy with one hand, while giving a shout-out to the technology of the Bronze Age with his other. He’s saying the Greeks ain’t nothing but runoff from the creation of Troy (which is sometimes known as the Golden City). Anchises is saying the Greeks grew out of the Trojans’ fertilizer, basically out of their crap, while Logue is simultaneously conjuring up a weirdly sort of sci-fi, Terminator-rising-from-the-silvery-puddle image of these warriors springing up from molten metal. “Slag.” That’s a word. That’s a word with power. In War Music, a lot of ’em are like that.

Then, there’s the giant pig. In the text, the “mammoth hog” is almost a throwaway line. In the middle of a debate about which Greek warriors will fight side by side on the front lines, an uppity young soldier clamoring for status yells at his assembled colleagues and his commander, “My lord, my uncle, Meleager, slew the mammoth hog that devastated Calydon!” Blink and you’ll miss it. Look it up, and you’ll find out that the mammoth hog story is this wild myth, a cautionary tale about what happens when you anger the gods (like in the Iliad), then get a crowd of Greek warriors to come in and try to clean up your mess (like in the Iliad), and have people fighting alongside each other who don’t really want to fight alongside each other . . . just like in the Iliad. It also turns out that Meleager and his saucy nephew might actually have had more to be ashamed than proud of in this saga of woe, wherein the “heroic” Meleager angered the immortal fates, killed his uncles, and got slaughtered by his own mom. So, maybe Homer was slyly poking fun at this uppity young soldier’s braggadocio. Maybe Christopher Logue is. Maybe not. After all, Meleager did kill the giant ravenous pig sent by Artemis to decimate the countryside where the king had forgotten her instead of honoring her as an Almighty, so maybe this tarnished uncle is a hero after all. “Mammoth hog.” One little phrase, just hanging out in the middle of War Music, waiting for someone to notice it, to ask, to poke, to prod, to walk across it and set it off.

After I served up my findings to the actors on a platter made of xeroxed pages, I ran off to start working on our next show, José Rivera’s Boleros for the Disenchanted. As the War Music cast and their staggeringly impressive director Lillian Groag run around in the rehearsal studio upstairs, I can’t wait to see what happens to the words. You never know what the artists will decide they need slag or hog to mean in the context of their scene, and you never know what the audience will hear when the words fly out into the Geary air like so many barbed arrows. Come see War Music, and keep an ear out for the slag . . . and for the mammoth hog.

Warning: A.C.T. Interns Are a Force to Be Reckoned With

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

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

So, I am an intern at A.C.T.—the marketing intern to be more precise. I organize press, help with promotions and special events, research shows and the demographics to which they appeal, and make lots and lots of copies. Some days I don’t know how a single person could possibly get everything done, and other days I reorganize newspaper clippings as I wait for something else to do. It was one of those fateful days when I had an idea. While my fellow interns and I are learning more and more about our prospective fields, we find there is still a lot about A.C.T. and the theater business as a whole that we don’t know about. So, why not take some time this year to rectify that—get all we can out of this internship? And if we in the “inner circle” have all these questions, isn’t it possible that audience members and other aspiring young theater professionals might want to hear the answers, as well?

. . . MY IDEA:
Create an intern-run podcast that explores how a major nonprofit theater works. A.C.T. is the perfect company for such a project as it is both a highly renowned producing theater company and an accredited graduate school for actors. Part of A.C.T.’s mission is to foster the development of future generations of theater artists.

I took my idea to the other nonproduction interns (Deborah in the artistic department, Lesley in publications, and Megan in dramaturgy), who got really excited about having our own project. Deborah immediately jumped on board to help me structure each podcast, write the proposal, and contact senior team members about approval. Lesley and Megan, having previous experience with blogs, offered their advice and guidance, and we all set out to make it happen!

The hip, talented, and incredibly beautiful head of marketing (I’m not brown-nosing at all), Janette Andrawes, immediately got behind the idea. She talked us through the process and helped us to better focus our episodes. After taking some time to arrange the technical needs of such an endeavor and finalize our exact plan for each week, we came up with a detailed proposal.

Check out our mission statement:
The A.C.T podcast is an educational tool for interns that offers a fresh perspective on how a not-for-profit theater functions, develops, and remains vital today. Over a series of episodes, the interns will interview staff members, seasoned professionals, and fellow newcomers in order to uncover the inner workings of A.C.T. Each interview will answer questions posed by the interns about A.C.T.’s mainstage, new works program, and conservatory, the larger theater community, and the challenges of being an aspiring professional in the arts.

Booya! That’s right—it’s going to be amazing. Educational and fun!

Last week, Janette presented our proposal to the senior team, who loved it and told us to go ahead with the interviews. Our first episode will introduce the interns (what we do here, what brought us here, what we hope to gain from our internships, etc.) and will feature interviews with Artistic Director Carey Perloff and Conservatory Director Melissa Smith.

So . . . if you have ever wondered what goes on behind the curtain, upstairs at A.C.T.’s administrative offices at 30 Grant Ave., and in the minds of masterful artists . . . TUNE IN to the A.C.T. INTERN PODCAST. We hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoy interviewing!!

Download and listen to the podcast using iTunes.
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