'Tosca' Wrap Up: A Thread, The Bartender

Thursday, May 28, 2009

posted by Beatrice Basso, Dramaturg and A.C.T. Artistic Consultant

Last week at A.C.T. we held a workshop to continue developing The Tosca Project, a theater/dance fusion piece created by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and San Francisco Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli. Featuring a remarkable cast of actors and dancers, The Tosca Project celebrates a century of San Francisco history in North Beach’s famed Tosca Café. Beatrice Basso, who serves as the production’s dramaturg, wrote to us from the workshop studio about the process of shaping—and reshaping—this unique original work.

There’s something that often happens after a presentation: everybody involved has someone they know (and trust) in the audience and ends up collecting their observations—what they loved, what they didn’t understand, what they craved.

The morning after our presentation, we gathered the audience’s thoughts and our own, and found that many echoed one another. The main point of consensus was the need to see this world through the eyes of the bartender (Jack Willis, see picture). This is something we have been moving toward for a while now, but it became crystal clear during and after the presentation.

This über-bartender is the custodian of the Tosca Café and our guide through the decades, and all kinds of journeys, chance encounters, abandonments . . .

He revisits his memory of a lost woman, while letting himself be affected by the history of the bar as it passes by him. But is he an observer from the present time or a participant throughout the decades? What triggers his memories? Is this all happening in one day? What kind of day is it? How is the bartender changed by the events and the people he is remembering, come the end of the day, of his life, of the bar? Does he ever find that woman or does he let her go?

In our last two workshop days together, we worked our way through the decades once again, now concentrating on the Bartender’s emotional arc, trying to find solutions for some of these questions, and letting others linger in the air. Just as they should even a year from now, when the completed Tosca Project hits the A.C.T. mainstage in front of a full audience.

A 'Tosca' Diary: Day 3

Friday, May 22, 2009

posted by Beatrice Basso, Dramaturg and A.C.T. Artistic Consultant

This week at A.C.T. we’re holding a workshop to continue developing The Tosca Project, a theater/dance fusion piece created by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and San Francisco Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli. Featuring a remarkable cast of actors and dancers, The Tosca Project celebrates a century of San Francisco history in North Beach’s famed Tosca Café. Beatrice Basso, who serves as the production’s dramaturg, writes to us from the workshop room about the process of shaping—and reshaping—this unique original work.

Day 3: A Sneak Preview

A large portion of our time was devoted to preparing a “sneak preview” for donors and others who have particularly helped us develop the project. Among them, three women carrying whole chunks of Tosca Café history were at the presentation: Jeannette Etheridge, who has been the owner and soul of the bar since the late 1970s (and shared many of her stories with us over time), and the two Francesconi sisters from Lucca—Martha and . . . Tosca(!)—now in their eighties.

In 1919, after their father, Gesualdo Francesconi (see picture, right), returned from World War I, he bought the Tosca Café. He named both the bar and his eldest daughter after Puccini’s opera, which had recently become an international sensation. In an interview we did with them a few weeks ago, Martha and Tosca told us that Prohibition was already in the air, and people in the neighborhood thought their father was “shell-shocked from the war” for opening a bar at that time. In fact, he wasn’t; he just loved opera and Italian coffee (spiked with rum when necessary!).

It wasn’t on the program for the evening, but as soon as Carey [Perloff] heard that the Francesconi sisters were present, she asked the performers if they were willing to share a rough version of the scene depicting the founding of the bar, in their honor. We had barely worked that section, but they were all game anyway (see picture).

Even though the material we’re creating in no way attempts historical or even topographical accuracy, there are elements in it that are wildly recognizable by the people who have been a part of this bar for decades.

To see the sisters watch intently and giggle and whisper to each other as our version of the Italian founders was taking place; to see Jeannette be moved to tears by “Vissi d’arte”—her mother’s favorite aria—was a show in and of itself.

A 'Tosca' Diary: Day 2

Thursday, May 21, 2009

by Beatrice Basso, Dramaturg and A.C.T. Artistic Consultant

This week at A.C.T. we’re holding a workshop to continue developing The Tosca Project, a theater/dance fusion piece created by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and San Francisco Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli. Featuring a remarkable cast of actors and dancers, The Tosca Project celebrates a century of San Francisco history in North Beach’s famed Tosca Café. Beatrice Basso, who serves as the production’s dramaturg, writes to us from the workshop room about the process of shaping—and reshaping—this unique original work.

DAY 2: On Letting Go

Yesterday afternoon we worked on a duet between WPA artist Sargent Claude Johnson and a young woman who happens to enter the Tosca Café as he is painting a mural inside. We were talking and struggling, trying and re-trying.

In general, this is a process of experimentation that requires patience and the willingness to “fail again, fail better,” especially in those awkward stages when the ideas sit uncomfortably in the bodies of the performers, or an improvisation has no shape yet. And so we did. And then again. And again. (The first picture captures this phase.) But no matter what we tried, something just wasn’t working.

This is a process that also requires the willingness to let go of ideas when the trying and re-trying doesn’t feel productive. And that is exactly what happened. We decided to incorporate a new idea originating from Gregory [Wallace] (who interprets the role of the painter), and we watched as all of the variables magically changed in front of our eyes: instead of a duet, the scene became a quartet of women, conjured up by the painter (see picture number two). The women, at first stuck in a Depression-era line of hungry homeless outside the bar, are transformed into muses for his mural. This is just a sketch for now, and much of the physical relationship between the artist and his subjects still needs to be figured out. There is dynamism, though.

In this workshop, each day ideas spring up and fall away and are reborn in new forms. Will we keep this newfound moment and let it grow, or will some new variation develop? I’ll let you know.

A 'Tosca' Diary

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

posted by Beatrice Basso, Dramaturg and A.C.T. Artistic Consultant

This week at A.C.T. we’re holding a workshop to continue developing The Tosca Project, a theater/dance fusion piece created by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and San Francisco Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli. Featuring a remarkable cast of actors and dancers, The Tosca Project celebrates a century of San Francisco history in North Beach’s famed Tosca Café. Beatrice Basso, who serves as the production’s dramaturg, writes to us from the workshop room about the process of shaping—and reshaping—this unique original work.

DAY ONE: Layers and Anticipation

We are sitting around in the rehearsal room. I don’t know if the picture shows it, but it’s right at that moment before a new process begins, when the air is filled with plans and chatter and unspoiled anticipation—still one of my favorite moments in theater. Even as these moments accumulate, each one seems to carry its own brand of specialness.

In this case, I am surrounded by some of the best dancers and actors in San Francisco, co-creators of a piece that has this very city as its backdrop.

We are talking about the Tosca Café as a large and layered storage of memories. The bar has been around since the 1920s and has seen Italian founders, opera divas, beatniks, painters, famous dancers, and masses of regular people pass through it and leave their more or less visible mark. Carey just mentioned that this place is similar to an archeological site that we should be excavating.

This is the third time I find myself on a “first Tosca day,” and there have been several “first days” before I even started working on the production, serving as a sort of idea generator/resonator. (Also, I am Italian, which can come in handy when working on a piece that has “Tosca” in the title.) This rehearsal room is filled with books, DVDs of previous workshops, pages and pages of old scenarios and dramaturgical research, collages of images on the walls . . . Even this is starting to feel like an archeological site. We are about to delve in.

Leaving the Nest

posted by Britannie Bond, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2009

Last week we bid farewell to the M.F.A. Program class of 2009. They’ve officially graduated and are now headed out into the world to pursue the life of the professional actor. Before they left us, these young artists, like every class before them, traveled to New York and Los Angeles to perform a showcase for casting directors and agents. Below are images, and a note, from their trip.

Dearest San Francisco,

I am sitting in the middle of Times Square fashioning you a love letter in the shape of a big apple. I am here on my showcase tour and have oh so many things to thank you for. Eh-hmm...

Do you remember that time I walked 12 blocks in NYC and it didn't faze me because those city blocks were flat?! Or the time I thought the NYC subway was a piece of cake compared to the BART? Or even the time that I felt so supported by A.C.T. friends and alumni during the showcase performances that it didn't feel like some scary intimidating audition in front of agents and casting directors, but in front of people who genuinely, wholeheartedly believed in me and my 16 other classmates? Or how three years ago when I visited NYC, how I had such a distaste for it, and how now I feel so much more prepared for the city (and perhaps the world)? San Francisco, much like graduate school at A.C.T, you have prepared me well for the trials of city living. With your colorful characters and picturesque hills, you have provided me with endless inspiration, you have supported a theater for over 40 years, and you have given birth to a plethora of young talents bursting from their seams. If and when I make the big move East, I will have left much of my heart with you, to which I will surely come back many times (see also: Tony Bennett).

Thanks,
Britannie Bond
A.C.T. M.F.A. 2009

Snapshots from New York:



From Los Angeles:

A Flicker of Light

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

posted by Dion Mucciacito, cast member of Boleros for the Disenchanted

A curtain is falling with the cascading shimmer of guitar strings.
A young couple embrace,
bathed in light and possibility.
Their older selves on the opposite side of the stage
hold on to this memory of hope.
A flicker of light that glimmers from the past
like the stars in the sky.
Stars that might already be gone, but we wouldn't even know it.
Their light still lingers.
The curtain has fallen.

We have just finished our last preview for José Rivera's Boleros for the Disenchanted and the curtain for our opening will soon rise. The cast and crew have put a lot of work into this piece, and we are still finding new and exciting revelations as the process of deepening continues.

As much as this play is about dreams and memories, it is also deeply about hope. How hope can somehow exist in a place where the light of dreams past have been extinguished by life’s brutal circumstances.

Upon starting work on this play that I deeply love, by a playwright that I have admired since a teenager, I have been waking up and writing about my dreams.

So much of life we defer dreams as fleeting figments of our imagination.

But what happens to a dream deferred? I love my dreams. They are the gold that I mine for in my process. They can be prophetic, haunting, and cathartic.

For myself, having the opportunity to work on this play is a dream fulfilled. Or I should say “in process,” because we have until the end of the month to keep dreaming lucidly. All of us in the cast seem to have devoted our process to shining a light to reveal the meaning in the dream that is in front of us in the form of text. I am in awe at how quickly we have become an ensemble. Moreover, a family, focused on telling this story that is so dear to all of us for one reason or another. I became aware of the play a year ago, when I had an audition for the production done at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. Upon first reading it, I loved the play. It resonated with me on a very personal level. José’s work has always done that for me. There is a dignity and strength to his characters even when encountering circumstances that break one’s heart and test the very metal of their spirit.

For my family, this dignity in the face of struggle has been a constant. When I was very young, I watched my mother lose a six-year battle with cancer and die in a slow, humiliating way that rent my heart to witness. My Mother, the light of my life, 34 years old, broken. Yet somehow hopeful. She would speak to me of her dreams, and desires. Even though I was eight, I knew these dreams would probably never be fulfilled; I understood her condition. Yet it was good to hear my terminally ill mother dreaming of the future.

Was she delusional? Maybe. I view it as courage. A defiance in the face of the slow despair that was bludgeoning her will.

She kept fighting. For what? For love? I still wonder. I ask myself if I have this fight in me. While in the midst of working on this play, in the midst of scenes that echo her plight, the question lingers. “Do I have the courage to keep fighting in the midst of grim circumstances?” And by fight, I mean to live without fear, and love like each moment could be my last. That is the challenge: to live moment to moment. And it is the challenge to the actors in this play to give our life, love, and truth to the words given to us.

It is a testament to the strength of the play that all of us—actors and our beloved director, Carey—are taking the task of bringing it to life so personally. All of us see ourselves and loved ones in this beautiful storm of words that José Rivera has written. And we have been dancing in that rain for the past month. Some days singing, and some drowning. But most, admiring how, when the light passes through the rain, a whole spectrum of a world is revealed. It has been our task, and our joy, to find this “light” in our selves that will illuminate this world of the play for the audience.

Yet my question still remains: “Do I have the courage to keep fighting...?”

The older characters of Flora and Eusebio in Boleros for the Disenchanted are constantly asking that question of themselves. Why keep going if the colors of the world have been dimmed to grey even though the sun is bright? Where can one find hope? Perhaps for Flora and Eusebio it is in the choice to love, and the remembrance of the innocence and truth of that basic choice. As she tends to her sick husband, Flora is asked, “You don't want to run away?” in regards to her marriage with Eusebio. And she replies, “Every day. I cry, I get mad, I blame him, I blame myself. I beg God for a different life… but, in the end, I don't walk away.”

Somehow, I find, the experience of art, of watching a play or listening to a piece of music, or seeing someone live without fear can cleanse the soul of all the clutter that keeps one from seeing clearly. And a moment of communion is reached. A catharsis. A moment of clarity. The defenses are down and the inner workings are somehow changeable. The glimmer of distant constellations of dreams are re-awakened. They ask, “Do you have the courage to keep fighting… ?”

The curtain is about to rise at A.C.T. for Boleros

I can only pray that the curtains of my eyes stay open as I dream…

Planting the Seeds

Thursday, May 7, 2009

posted by Deborah Munro, A.C.T. artistic administration intern

The A.C.T. intern podcast has returned, and in this episode we explore the process of creating new works, from germination to full-fledged realization.

Each season, A.C.T. hosts the development of dozens of new works, from table readings of works-in-progress to mature productions that appear on our mainstage. Some projects, like War Music and next season’s The Tosca Project, involve seasoned artists who shepherd works from the studio to the mainstage—a process that can take years of hard work. Most of these projects, however, find a home in our conservatory, where they serve as an educational tool, challenging students to work with new forms and ideas, affording them the opportunity to originate roles, and even empowering them to devise their own pieces.

Because new work is by nature experimental and innovative, it really can “change the world,” as one student says—but how does the process work? How do people collaborate to build it, refine it, and present it? What is its greater impact on the American theater? We interviewed Michael Paller, A.C.T.’s resident dramaturg, and Beatrice Basso, literary consultant, as well as two A.C.T. M.F.A. Program students, Erin Michelle Washington, who recently appeared on the A.C.T. mainstage in War Music, and Nick Gabriel, who was seen at Zeum in the world premiere production of Volleygirls (a commissioned coproduction of the M.F.A. Program and Young Conservatory) to shed some light on these questions.


Download and listen to the podcast using iTunes.

Best of A.C.T. Rehearsal Reports, 2008–09

Friday, May 1, 2009

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

Every day after rehearsal is over and the actors have gone home, the stage manager for each production (or his/her harried intern) sits down and types up an email that summarizes, in minute detail, that day’s work. Typically containing general information about the production’s progress, as well as notes and updates for the design team, the rehearsal reports are divided into categories (costumes, lights, sound, props, etc.) and presented as a list of updates and/or requests for each department that are sent to designers, production staff, artistic staff, marketing staff, and (luckily for me) the publications intern.

I don’t make it into rehearsal very often; I will maybe see a run-through once or twice in the studio before a production moves into the theater for tech rehearsals. While I spend most of my time confined to a cubicle on the seventh floor of A.C.T.’s studios and offices at 30 Grant Avenue, typing away at my computer, the rehearsal report regularly appears in my inbox, my only glimpse into the performance as it evolves, and into the (occasionally) wacky and wild goings-on of the floor above me. Most of the time rehearsal reports contain random, unexplained notes and requests that, to anyone not intimately involved in the creation of the production, would be both puzzling and entertaining. I have compiled a list of the best of this season’s random notes/observations below. (By the way, the names of actual people have been changed to protect the perhaps not-so-innocent; character names are intact.) Enjoy!

General

1. Ms. Bowie was released at 3:20 and we worked on Ms. Allen’s alternate personalities for the remainder of rehearsal.

2. Mr. Smith hurt himself when we were running the act. He is blocked to run offstage and the rest of the cast follows him. When he got to the doorway, he stopped, but the rest of the cast smashed him into the doorframe. An accident report has been filed.

3. We are asking Tanya to be up on the clock for almost two pages, so is it possible to have a foothold for her?

Props

1. The red blob has been spiked. Turns out Ms. Connor would like the blob to be horizontal instead of vertical.

2. The petals have a very unusual odor to them. Would it be possible to consider Febrezeing® them? Thank You!

3. Please add one bronzed dirty diaper for Mom to show Bing in Scene 6.

4. Please bring the Volcano vaporizer to rehearsal as soon as possible.

5. Do you foresee any problems with the ventriloquist dummy being thrown from one actor to another?

6. Yoyo: the bigger the better.

7. The baby cobra should be straight (not coiled).

8. Thank you for the machete options; however, the actors are concerned for safety and would prefer a machete that has less potential for danger, perhaps made out of wood or plastic that looks like metal?

9. Mr. Owens would like all the visible Jesuses to be naked with genitalia visible.

10. We ordered an inflatable gnome today!

11. We are discussing using food during rehearsal starting next week with banana chips (as tostones), cold cuts (tiger), brown rice and beans (as arroz con gandules), and sliced bread.

12. Specific mentions were made of the cat’s skull, femur, and vertebra as being a part of the bones Bill enters with on p. 63.

13. Michael found some heads at the Mime Troupe that he'd like to discuss having attached to the US [upstage side] of the set.

14. The unfired breakable plate managed to shatter into many pieces AND crumble to a big pile of dust when Mr. Williams hit it with his cane. We would like the plate to break into a few large chunks.

Costumes

1. The two actors playing hermaphrodites requested thongs with “penis pouches.” (I don’t know the correct term for this—sorry!)

2. It may be necessary to shorten the Poseidon flippers.

3. Mr. Wilson will be one of the China silk manipulators. Does he need a cap or other head covering for this appearance?

4. To confirm: Mr. Lee enters shirtless on p. 95.

5. Leanara enters at the end of scene II with her right foot stuck in the Etruscan pot seen earlier carried by The Stage Manager.

6. May we have a spray bottle with vodka water to spritz our rehearsal coats? Some of them are getting a bit rank.

7. The flippers may need dance rubber (noise issue).

8. Let’s discuss Stepanida’s make-up: nose, warts, liver spots, etc.

Lights

1. Pylades ascends into heaven up the house left staircase on p.87. Can you give us something heavenly there? (Haha)
 
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