Producing for Results

Thursday, April 23, 2009

posted by Rusty Rueff, A.C.T. Trustee

My wife, Patti, and I have produced or executive produced six A.C.T. productions (A Mother, A Number, The Voysey Inheritance, The Imaginary Invalid, The Rainmaker, and the upcoming Boleros for the Disenchanted, pictured at right). When we were first invited to participate at this level I was not sure what to expect. In the film world, lots of people invest to have their name associated with a movie as a producer or executive producer with no expectations of ever being included in the making the movie. And yes, in most cases, it’s wise not to have people who are neither skilled nor experienced messing around with the creative process. That being said and recognized, the experience of producing at A.C.T. has far exceeded our expectations. Regardless of the medium—whether it be visual or performing arts—for Patti and me, our “thing” is to see the creative process unfold and come to life. What I have learned over the years is that what happens throughout the process—from the first reading of a play by the cast and director (and sometimes in the presence of the playwright, like when we were in the room with David Mamet the first time he heard the reading of his adaptation for A.C.T. of Harley Granville-Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance), to the technical rehearsals, through studio rehearsals, into previews and opening night, and sitting in the booth to hear the stage manager “call the show”—is the creation of magic. What starts as something so rough and raw that it seems unimaginable that it will ever make it successfully to “the big stage” ultimately comes alive and pulls together on opening night, and real magic is created. And as producers we can bask in being a part of that process.

At the annual A.C.T. gala last week someone asked me, “What do you get out of executive producing?” The answer came easy. What we get out of producing is that we receive the intrinsic reward of being “noncreatives” who can, through our contribution to A.C.T., be a part of bringing to life, through the creative process, a production that is unique and special for the audience and the actors. The pride I feel when “it all comes together” is many times overwhelming. But just as important has been the gratification that two people (who are products of the corporate world) feel when we see tangible results from our contributions. When we see the highest level of quality and excellence on the stage, perfection in the acting, and passion in the audience response—from tears to laughter—then we know that we have produced real results. And in this time, when the contribution dollars don’t come as easily and we each are having to evaluate with greater scrutiny where we direct our donations, with A.C.T. we rest assured that real results can be produced.

Patti and Rusty Rueff at A.C.T.'s Season Gala Illuminate the Night

A Golden City of Awesomeness

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

posted by Ryan Parham, A.C.T. Prop Master

One of the great things about working in A.C.T.’s prop shop (apart from the killer BBQs and vicious ping-pong smack-downs at the Florida Street shop) is the opportunity to create fabulously strange and wonderful props. You’d be amazed at some of the notes and requests that are generated through the rehearsal and design process. Oftentimes these props require extensive research and development, and sometimes multiple prototypes need to be built before the final product is successful. Granted, once all this work is done and the finished prop is onstage, chances are we will never build that prop ever again. It’s not a question of ability or desire—rather, it’s more a question of necessity. For instance, how many shows have you seen that call for a three-and-a-half-foot-long enema gun that shoots out disgusting green slime? (Answer: The Imaginary Invalid.) Or, how often do you need a large sheet of melted glass bottles that you can hang in a tree as “organic stained glass?” (Answer: The Quality of Life.) How about 20–30 fedora hats, all in descending sizes (some with bullet holes), beginning with a three-foot-diameter hat big enough for a giant, shrinking all the way down to a four-inch-diameter hat small enough for a cat? (Answer: Happy End.)

The props for War Music are no different, and as it stands now, one in particular leads the pack in the “extremely-fun-prop-to-build-but-when-the-heck-are-we-ever-going-to-use-it-again?” category. This would be the golden city of Troy. A prop like this is what we love best about the job, and you have to be quick on calling “dibs!” before someone else in the shop grabs the opportunity. The city of Troy is the type of prop, like all the good ones, that when you first look at the sketch or description, you have no idea how you’re going to pull it off, but you know it’ll be a blast figuring it out.

The description for this city was that it should look like the real deal would from afar, or look like what scholars today now think the city would have been like—defensively perched on a hillside, fortified by an ancient immense outer wall wrapping around the old city, as a newer refined wall shelters the recent construction of the ruling palace—and the whole city should be stepped so that the inner palace looks to be rising up to the gods. Oh, and it should look like it’s made of gold. Not all one shade of gold, but different shades so that you can see the history of Troy’s wealth, starting with the older gold on the outer wall, moving towards the shiny, newer gold encasing the ruling palace at the heart of the city. And it should be immensely detailed, down to brick and mortar lines and itsy-bitsy trees.

Sweet! This is going to be awesome!

In the end, we ended up using a healthy amount of polystyrene foam, mainly for the hilltop—that white bead foam that comes packed around your electronics. It’s amazing what you can do to a big block of it when armed with a carving knife, rasp, and ice pick.

The walls and building themselves are comprised of foam board and pink insulation foam, and as far as the individual brick and stone details on the walls and buildings went, we were lucky enough to find stencils from a dollhouse company—these allowed us to create whole sheets of bricks at one time as opposed to driving ourselves insane making 500+ miniature bricks individually. We went with a rough stone block pattern for the outer wall and buildings, thinking that they would be the oldest pieces in Troy’s history, and saved the refined patterned brick layout for the inner wall and palace, as those would be the most recent of construction projects within the city. After the whole thing was plastered, painted, and shaded in tones of gold, we made the pinnacle of the city pop even more by covering it in gold leaf.

And ultimately, we did end up adding in some itsy-bitsy trees to the hillside. (Although the debate still rages within the prop shop as to whether the Greeks would have burned or used up all the trees surrounding Troy, especially if they’ve been waging war for ten years. I mean, firewood has to be hard to come by after ten years of scrounging, and they wouldn’t have burned their ships for firewood for cooking . . . but that’s somebody else’s blog.)

I am extremely proud of what my shop was able to accomplish for this production—Jeavon [Greenwood], Eric [Cripe], and Laura [Julio] should be commended for doing such a fine job on everything we created for War Music. And though we put countless hours and materials into creating this golden city of awesomeness—and yes, it’s safe to say that we will never do a show that calls for this prop again—I still think it was totally worth it. Bring on the next prop request.

Collaboration Is the Future for Emerging Artists

Friday, April 17, 2009

posted by Evan Schnair, M.F.A. in Writing Program poet, California College of the Arts

Every day we see development in the art community among mediums. Expression continues to thrive because of innovations in thought, in practice, and in crafting art. For theater, collaboration is in its blood. This year I was invited to be a part of an experience to share language, imagination, acting, and writing between two institutions: American Conservatory Theater and California College of the Arts.

In today’s world of poetry, poets seek this kind of movement across genre and medium to produce our work. Where writing may be visually driven or sonically motivated or sense related, it is only natural that a poet turn to theater, where all those experiences come together. Today, when we can craft poems out of videos, sound pieces, and images, the theater still presents the most powerful canvas for the collaboration of emerging artists.

In August of 2008, I approached A.C.T.’s Melissa Smith about the M.F.A. Program and potential interest in collaborating on an attempt to write a poem-as-play. When I first met with [A.C.T. Director of Academic Affairs] Jack Sharrar and [M.F.A. Program student] David Jacobs[, the project’s director], I knew my vision was not just my vision, but one that David immediately latched on to. My first draft was a series of abstract sketches and dialogues that gave an impression. Almost immediately, David saw what I saw, and over a year of writing workshops he has helped me lead nine actors to unveil, discover, imagine, and create the world of my play, Let It Come, Down.

The ingenuity of the entire cast continues to keep me on my feet. Every time I take a risk with language, typography, or staging, the actors are ready with their imaginations to get the words on their feet. Let It Come, Down is written in lines of free verse and pushes the audience to listen, engage, and imagine two months, May and February, who with their reprehensible actions have made time stop. What results is represented through a chorus of humanity who dig, search, and question survival.

The power of this collaboration exists here: After our first meeting, the cast presented me with a clear issue that I had been reluctant to develop—the relationship between May and February. I returned to our next meeting with a fiery scene between the two that you could not mistake as the key to their relationship. February (played by [M.F.A. Program student] Toby Windham) and May (played by [M.F.A. Program student] Marisa Duchowny), before even beginning the scene, looked at each other and established an instantaneous bond of trust, then looked to David. David picked up what I had written, and while May and February began to tease and lead with their lust for each other, David had the impulse to create an earth-shattering quake of sound by pounding on benches. The splintering, shattering, slapping sound created an earthquake, suggesting that their actions were causing earth and time to fail. This sequence heightened my own imagination of the scene and empowered all of us to produce an intensity I could have never envisioned on my own.

Through working closely with Jack Sharrar, David, and the rest of the cast, I have new tools for writing poetry and plays. By working with the various elements of writing for the stage, I continue to further my understanding of the performative qualities of language: not just how it sounds aloud, but how images, contexts, and actions come alive in crafting dialogue. I believe that creating an action on the stage leaves a residue in the memory—the sound, the action, the body, the moment come alive in a way that allows language to get at its fullest seduction. I am constantly in exploration of language and seeking ways to expand how a piece of writing can be experienced.

Let It Come, Down is a play written in collaboration with the American Conservatory Theater M.F.A. Program and the California College of the Arts M.F.A. Writing Program. Collaboration continues to be an essential part of being a writer, and I hope others will continue to collaborate outside of their own genres and mediums to produce exciting new theater. The work of emerging actors and an emerging writer holds the strength that helps to keep the collaborative nature of theater young and vigorous.

An Unexpected Audience with Sir Noël

Monday, April 13, 2009

posted by Craig Slaight, A.C.T. Young Conservatory Director

In February, Craig Slaight—A.C.T. associate artist and director of the Young Conservatory (YC)—traveled to England to conduct research for the original Noël Coward revue he is creating for the YC. Performances of Bright Young People will be presented May 8–23, 2009 at Zeum Theater. Slaight reflects on his recent foray into the vast literary legacy of the master British dramatist:

It is an overcast English day, the kind the Brits like to call “glum,” and I’m riding a spiffy Virgin train from London to Birmingham. I knew that Virgin flew planes and sold all things media, but never realized that they also were big in train travel. But the sleek body of this train, the modern brightly colored paint, and this comfortable lower-class car prove that they do it very well. I’m on my way to Birmingham and the special collections department of the University of Birmingham Library. I have an appointment there to liberally examine the Noël Coward archives. Let me just say, for a die-hard theater man like me, the opportunity to dig through the pounds and pounds of Sir Noël’s legacy is just about as exciting as it gets.

You see, this all came about when the Noël Coward estate approached A.C.T. to produce a Coward play in the spring of 2009 as part of a celebration of the man and his work—uniquely connected to a special exhibit opening at the Museum of Performance and Design in San Francisco. Carey Perloff had already set the full A.C.T. mainstage season months before, however, and there wasn’t room to wedge in anything else. In her own wonderful Yenta kind of way—a way that no one can ever say no to—Carey suggested that perhaps the Young Conservatory might do a special Noël Coward project in our spring musical slot. When this idea came to my desk, I was excited but hesitant. I’ve seen plenty of bad professional Coward onstage and even more wince-inducing efforts by young people. Given our history here of doing new and unusual musical productions, I felt that the existing revues available for production were just not right for us. But when I met with the people from Coward’s estate, they were very interested in a new revue, especially one designed to be done for and with young people, which is very much a part of their mission. Thus began my journey into the world of the great master, eventually leading me to this train trip to Birmingham.

Prior to this trip, I’d done my homework. Starting in November I began to read all things Coward—over 40 plays, the collected letters, the diaries, hundreds of pieces of sheet music—in an attempt to absorb the voice, the style and the energy (and it is palpable!) of the genius. In my reading, I made note of the youthful characters and scenes that featured them, but I also highlighted scenes that were ageless, in spite of the age of the characters as they appeared in the particular play. I alternated between listening to available recordings and reading yet another play. I admit that when one immerses oneself in this much Noël Coward, one must lock up the gin bottle. The dry wit and the mention of martinis throughout the Coward canon lead one to longing for that cool libation upon finishing reading. I quit smoking over 20 years ago, but was I tempted? Who other than Noël Coward could make the cigarette look so sexy and inviting? Well, I decided that I could easily manage cutting the smoking from our collage, but somehow the sip here and there just had to be a part.

Armed with a very fat folder of cuttings, a handful of books that simply couldn’t be left home— they had become too much a part of my life—I headed over the Big Pond for the last but most important phase of my preparation, the invitation to examine the archives!

Now, lest one think that the A.C.T. budget is filled with pockets of cash to fly the likes of me around the world willy-nilly, I was gifted the airplane ticket by special angels and invited to stay with dear friends, Sharman Macdonald and Will Knightley (she the wonderful playwright, he the actor, and the two of them the parents of the astonishing Keira Knightley). Sharman had written a play for the Young Conservatory (Broken Hallelujah) and was very excited about my trip to Cowardland. The Macdonald/Knightleys live just outside London, and it was easy rail service to the City, where I had several revelatory days pawing through all the Coward materials in the office of Alan Brodie, the head of the Coward estate. They set me up in a conference room with stacks of published Coward volumes, biographies, and recordings. From time to time someone would come in with a folder and say, “Oh, this might be interesting to you. It is a one-act play that has never been produced or published.” Interesting? I began my first gingerly question, “Could I get a copy of this?” I was never denied. While at Brodie’s office I was able to look through the catalogue for the archives. This proved very helpful in preparing for the trip to Birmingham. I went knowing exactly what I was looking for. Without this preparation it would have been days going through everything available. I knew that Sir Noël had been amazingly prolific, but to the extent represented by this voluminous catalogue, I was truly astounded.

Now with an even fatter folder, still that cache of books, and a light lunch, I boarded the sleek Virgin train at Euston Station and was on my way. I had never been to a special collections department before, so I was giddy with excitement about what it would all be like. After landing in Birmingham, it was a short taxi ride to the University, where I was delighted to find that “I was expected.” I was escorted to the lower level of the library and to a small office for special collections. There I was instructed to deposit my “things” in a locker, and could only take my briefcase and a pencil into the reading room. Before that happened, however, I needed to sign several forms, promising in long legal terms that I’d not abuse the rights being offered. Then the charming Lisa, who had been assigned to me, led me to the reading room, where there were four large library tables and a few chairs. At the head of the room sat a librarian. Lisa had a small desk near one of the tables, where I made myself comfortable. Only two other people were working in the reading room, one poring over ancient volumes, the other taking digital photographs of large illustrated books. From the archive catalogue I would select an item and note the box in which it was contained, and like magic Lisa would retrieve the box, setting it before me on the table. That was all it took. I lifted the lid off a box and there before me was the original typed script of, say, Blithe Spirit, or a short story, or the original pages of the score for a song. The feeling was one of both euphoria and awe. I’ve spent nearly 40 years studying and working in the theater. I began reading Coward as a teen. Now, in front of me, in my hands, were original manuscripts, letters, songs, correspondence.

As I worked my way through the boxes, time was lost. I would find a piece that was interesting and dear Lisa would whisk it away and make a copy. When finally I had finished and turned in my last request, I returned to the office and was handed a neat stack of copies. The staff reminded me that my identification card (which had been issued when I signed in) was good for life. I said, “Really?” How wonderful to think that at some dull moment in my life, I might take that lovely train to Birmingham and “have a look” at the Noël Coward Collection! Leaving the library, my fat stack of treasures firmly in hand, I felt like I’d somehow had audience with Sir Noël himself. I was struck with a sense of privilege and honor—and trust. It certainly made me determined to make this new musical revue something truly remarkable and unique. I had, after all, been trusted to do this and had been given the keys to the full breadth of the Master’s world.

Once back in San Francisco, I sat down to the desk with all that I’d absorbed: snippings of scenes, copies of music, recordings, letters, diaries, and began knitting. Little by little the piece began to take shape but it wasn’t really until I’d had the very first reading of the revue with my cast of ten bright teens that I realized that this was going to be the most fulfilling, rewarding, and exciting journey any of us had ever taken. Bright Young People now exists, where it never existed before.

In the Year 2034

Monday, April 6, 2009

posted by Lesley Gibson, A.C.T. Publications Intern

Starting off the week with a bit of good news, this month marks the 25th anniversary of American Theatre magazine, the leading professional publication of the regional theater in the United States. In celebration, the editors have rounded up 25 theater professionals from around the country—including A.C.T. Sound Associate Jake Rodriguez and M.F.A. Program alumna Anika Noni Rose—to look ahead and share their ideas of how the landscape of American theater might evolve over the next quarter century. Check out “AT25: An Eye on the Future” for an inspiring glimpse into the future that reinforces our faith that, even in the bleakest of financial times, art will find a way to thrive.

From the Theater Jazz Playbook

Friday, April 3, 2009

posted by David A. Moss, War Music cast member

I’ll tell you right off that I will be mixing metaphors shamelessly.

I am a cast member of War Music and it’s like having played college football, then entering the NFL and realizing, “Damn! These players are fast!” I’ve always wanted to be in a cast where the level of talent is so high that my lungs burn from trying to keep up—that’s the case now. These players are fast!

It’s one thing to play college football, where your plays are fairly simple, but it’s another thing when you’re in the pros and you’re handed a biblically sized playbook written by the wizard of offense, Bill Walsh, only in this case the wizard is Christopher Logue. This isn’t a play in the traditional sense. It’s an epic poem that goes in and out of moments of huge spectacle and quiet moments of intimacy, without the through line and arc of a traditional play. It’s Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. The language is exquisite but it can be very daunting. Fortunately for me there’s a grizzled old veteran named Jack Willis that I can ask on the way to the line of scrimmage what the play is, what the formation is, and what the snap count is. Being in the presence of such high-caliber creativity has been influential in my own growth as an actor. Because it’s not a traditional play I’ve had to alter my approach to the music. Just play the scene and let go of trying to maintain an arc for a character. It’s like being on the bandstand with Miles. You either keep up or you climb down and go tend bar.

I did stand-up comedy for ten years and that was like playing three-chord rock music, because the bottom line was always laughter. No exceptions. Whenever I did make an exception (which was often) and did something that required the audience to listen and think I’d have to hear club owners having a nut-up as they handed me my money, ranting about “This is a comedy club! What the hell was that? Be funny! I can’t sell drinks when you talk about serious stuff!” It was like an arena filled with people expecting to see Guns N’ Roses but Miles walks out and starts playing. Coltrane once did a 67-minute version of “My Favorite Things” and the melody was recognizable every now and then.

That’s what I love about War Music. It’s straight-up jazz and folks who come and see it should be prepared to listen and think. Not everything is going to be spelled out for you. The melody won’t always be recognizable, but it’s there, you’ll hear it.
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