The Reality of Theater

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

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

One night last month, Thursday, October 17, San Francisco was marking just another night of theater being performed on stages throughout the city and the Bay Area.

On that night the American Conservatory Theater was in an extended run of full houses for the Kneehigh Theatre production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter. This fusion piece set in England during World War II told us of unfulfilled love and escape in a tumultuous time. Next door at the Curran Theatre, the touring company of Rent, with Anthony Rapp (original Mark) and Adam Pascal (original Roger), was sold out, with a raucous crowd watching the La Bohème story, told through Jonathon Larson’s characters, about poor, HIV/AIDS–infected, starving artists in New York City. They sang of the hope of dying in dignity with others caring about their plight. Across town another sold-out war-themed show was turning away people who wanted to see the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific—another love story, set in the islands of the South Pacific with war raging all around them. On the other side of the Bay, Berkeley Rep was extended with standing-room-only audiences eager to see the rock opera American Idiot. Green Day’s musical rant against war, government oppression, big-government mismanagement, and societal pressures caught fire and enraptured the audience for 90 minutes of nonstop push. Back in San Francisco, the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program students, under the direction of Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of Cal Shakes, were presenting Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play Her Naked Skin, about women’s rights and the struggle for suffrage in turn-of-the-century Britain. This play was the first by a woman playwright to be presented on the National Theatre’s Olivier Stage in London. This moving work reminded us that human rights advancement is a contemporary issue and we still have a long way to go until all are treated equally. Another National Theatre production was in town that night, as well. There was a simulcast screening of their All’s Well That Ends Well at the Sundance Kabuki film theater. On top of all of the live theater in town that night, a few hundred people were taking in Shakespeare through the cinema screen, in an effort by the National to build better relations with the American audience.

I know I have missed at least another half dozen to a dozen other plays that were running on that night, as well. There is always much theater in our town on any given night.

But on that night the theater became reality as at the same time that curtains were rising across the Bay Area, just over in Union Square, at the St. Francis Hotel, the first sitting U.S. president to visit San Francisco in nearly a decade was speaking live. President Obama turned out thousands of supporters to hear him update them on the issues of our time, issues that were all around him that night in the theaters of the Bay Area: war, health care, human rights, the social-class divide, international relations, the economy in the context of the financial crisis, and government’s role in all of this. President Obama didn’t need to look much further than the scripts and librettos of the theaters around him that night to find relevant substance for his speeches.

We go to the theater to suspend our disbelief and to experience the stories of others so we connect and feel. We use the theater to wrestle with the issues that are our own. We sometimes find what is true reality being no further away than just on the stage before us.

On this one night in San Francisco in October of 2009, the theater was as real as it gets.

A Winter Ritual

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

posted by Michael Paller, A.C.T. Dramaturg and Director of Humanities

I miss the seasons in San Francisco. Growing up in the Midwest and then living for over two decades in New York City, the seasons were markers of time: a return to either school or work accompanied by falling leaves in autumn; holidays marked by singing and an abundance of lights and genuine good cheer all over the city, followed by what seemed like endless cold and snow in the winter that made arriving at one’s final destination all the more rewarding; warmth and greenery in the spring; hot days and long vacations in the summer. Each season heralded something both new and familiar. You could count on these things; there was comfort in the cyclical nature of the world and in the annual rituals we create to mark them.

As far as I can tell, there are no seasons in San Francisco. People tell me that they exist, but I don’t believe them, unless fog is a season, in which case there’s one. Eight leaves on the ground in front of my building? Oh, fall has arrived. Two hot days (meaning over 75 degrees) in a row? It’s summer. Unless it’s late September. Or October. It all runs together.

And so in November it’s a great pleasure to go upstairs to the William Ball Rehearsal Studio and see 40 people at work on our fifth annual go-round of Carey Perloff’s and Paul Walsh’s A Christmas Carol. This annual ritual says winter to me, although this year, the season will have barely begun when the last chorus of “Look Up!” fades away into the American Conservatory Theater’s dome at about 7:30 p.m. on December 27. It’s not just that the story takes place at the winter solstice (do we have that out here?), or that Dickens’s story embodies what’s coldest and warmest about the season. It’s the ritual that we at A.C.T. enact each year, when our core acting company mentors our third-year M.F.A. students, each of whom has a role, while they, in turn, mentor the many cast members who train in our Young Conservatory. The ritual has a new twist this year: more of the core company is appearing in the show than ever, as René Augesen and Gregory Wallace join the cast as the Cratchits, mère and père, alongside Jack Willis as the Ghost of Jacob Marley. Steven Anthony Jones will be pitching in at certain performances, as well. And other adult members of our cast are back, as regular as a snowless San Francisco December: James Carpenter as Scrooge, Sharon Lockwood as Mrs. Dilber and Mrs. Fezziwig, Jarion Monroe as Mr. Fezziwig, and BW Gonzalez as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Just as each winter is different from the last but still winter, each year’s Christmas Carol is both familiar and new. The story’s the same, and while the lines come one after another in a reassuringly recognizable way, the third-year M.F.A. students who say many of them are new—and yet familiar to those of us who have taught them for the last two years. Watching them rehearse the party scene at the home of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, on Christmas Day, the outlines of the scene are the same as always—young, exuberant people living fully in their enjoyment of each other and the season—but the details are fresh, invented anew, moment by moment, by this young cast and our director, Domenique Lozano.

By the end of the rehearsal, although I’ve heard the ending of the “Yes and No” game more times than I can count over the years, I’m as delighted as if it’s brand new—which it is—and cozily familiar—which it also is. Which is what a holiday ritual should be.

Inspired By Turkeys

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

posted by Manoel Felciano, A.C.T. Core Acting Company member

When I learned I was going to play "A Representative of the National Association of Turkey and Turkey By-Products Manufacturers," I was a bit baffled at first. Who is this mysterious, bespectacled, mustachioed man with a few anger management issues? In David Mamet's play November, this hapless fellow has earned the great privilege of introducing the president of the United States to the two turkeys that ceremonially get pardoned every Thanksgiving. I imagined this was one of the highest honors that a "Turkey Guy" could get, and he's been preparing for this moment for months, if not years, and can't wait to shake hands and get a picture with the POTUS himself. Unfortunately for our intrepid hero, he can't even get his first words out before he is cut off, and things go rapidly downhill for him throughout the rest of the evening.

So how to find this character? I looked in the dictionary under "hapless" expecting to find a picture of myself staring back at me, but no luck. So I went right to this guy's passion, his livelihood, indeed his very raison d'être: TURKEYS. I got lost in the fascinating and sometimes terrifying world that is the turkey industry in this country largely through their advocacy organization, The National Turkey Federation. This is where I discovered their, I mean my, motto: "Turkey: The Perfect Protein." That's where our costume designer, Alex Jaeger found the pièce de résistance of my costume, a pin featuring a gold turkey in relief, flying, claws extended over a waving star-spangled banner. I read up on the myths that continue to spread the malicious belief that turkeys are dumber than rocks—that turkeys will stare up in a thunderstorm, mouths open, until they drown. Or that you have to put colored pebbles in their drinking water so they think it is food and peck at it, otherwise they will die of dehydration. Hmm . . . my Representative was not the sharpest guy either, a bit slow on the uptake. OK, good to know.

I learned that Minnesota has one of the highest number of turkey farms in the country, so suddenly my Turkey Guy was from Minnesota. Somehow I had decided he was named Herb, and since he was now from Minnesota, he might have Scandinavian heritage, so I named him Herbert Blomstedt, which may ring a bell to longtime SF Symphony fans. Finally I watched a lot of YouTube videos of actual turkeys and their physical behaviors. I tried to incorporate how they turn their head sideways to look at something, since they can't use both eyes to focus on anything. Of course I watched their "gobbler" and finally put to good use the double chin I've been self-conscious of for years. Various bits of head bobbing and weaving slowly started to creep into Herb's physicality. Most of all, I kept in mind that my character was always one step away from disaster, from being shipped off to a military prison in Bulgaria, or from the president potentially wrecking the turkey industry's annual Thanksgiving Day windfall. I found the perfect metaphor for this in a video of Sarah Palin after pardoning a turkey, giving an interview while one of the turkey's less fortunate brethren is unceremoniously thrust into a grinder in the background. Herb's mantra became: Avoid the grinder. Avoid the grinder. Avoid the grinder.

Needless to say I will sit down to Thanksgiving Day dinner this year with a whole new perspective. Gobble gobble!

The West Coast Premiere of David Mamet's November at A.C.T. continues its extended run through November 22.

A Unique Collaboration

Friday, November 13, 2009

posted by Gillian Confair, stage manager of The Soldier’s Tale 

A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Marisa Duchowny performs with
the New Music Ensemble of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Four members of the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2011 are in rehearsal for Stravinsky’s groundbreaking theatrical piece The Soldier’s Tale, produced in A.C.T.’s first-ever collaboration with the New Music Ensemble of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. A.C.T. Associate Artist Giles Havergal and New Music Ensemble Artistic Director Nicole Paiement lead the unique joint venture. Stage manager Gillian Confair—who recently completed a year-long internship at A.C.T.—describes the unique experience of working on this unusual multidisciplinary project.

I find myself in the rare and difficult position of having to stage-manage a show that is not, by its basic definition, a show at all. If you were to call this piece anything, perhaps a “concert” would be the word to describe it. More likely than not, “performance” is the word that would give it its due. It’s an interesting piece, at the junction of two separate but equally wondrous branches of the arts. The Soldier’s Tale contains the elegance and beauty of the symphony, and the joy and passion of the stage, slotted together in one cohesive, intricate piece. They are, indeed, strange bedfellows, but their commingling creates a rare and interesting work.

During our first rehearsal, Giles Havergal, our fearless director, spoke to the actors about what place this piece has in their education. He talked to them about the academic challenge of a work like this, and about The Soldier’s Tale as an exercise of their vocality and physicality as performers. It’s a challenge they have certainly risen to. Because of the atypical nature of this piece they find themselves without the limitations of staged drama or comedy.

The realm The Soldier’s Tale resides in requires an entirely different approach to characters and to storytelling. The challenge doesn’t fall on the actors’ shoulders alone. I can honestly say that this is one of the most difficult pieces I’ve had the opportunity to work on. Coordinating with the Conservatory of Music, overseeing rehearsals, and preparing for performance are only the beginnings of it for me. This piece marks the first time I’ll be calling a show from directly onstage. It also marks the first time that I will be combining the skill sets I’ve acquired through theater and dance work. Instead of tracking cues through words I’ll be reading measures of music, following along in a score while quick changing actors into and out of coats and cueing light changes. It is a bit daunting. It’s also extremely exciting for me. The Soldier’s Tale is stretching my skills and knowledge, testing my problem solving, and keeping me on my toes in a way that I enjoy.

Rehearsal has been entertaining, watching the actors learn dance choreography, me juggling a script, a score, and a combined master copy, watching them create grandiose characters, bobbing and weaving through chairs that mark the place for orchestra members, laughing and working our way through complicated pieces. It promises to be an amazing show, and a unique theatrical experience. I count myself lucky to be a part of it.

The Soldier’s Tale performs at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Saturday, November 14, 2009, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For more information, please visit

Who Wants to Be a Psychoanalyst?

Friday, November 6, 2009

posted by Linda Lagemann, Ph.D., Wendy Stern, D.M.H., and A.C.T. Group Sales Manager Edward Budworth

The fifth season of the wildly successful Theater on the Couch program at A.C.T. started off running after the performance of Brief Encounter on Friday, September 18. Dr. Linda Lagemann and Dr. Wendy Stern of the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis were the panelists. Cast member Joseph Alessi joined in and brought many insights into the characters he portrays.

In this production, boundaries were broken. As cast members appeared in the audience and live characters entered movie scenes, the production created in us the feelings that the two protagonists, Laura and Alec, have as they breach boundaries. Fantasy and reality were also blended—aspects of the play were structured like a dream. The visual images projected on the back wall and the music expressed the unconscious feelings of the characters bubbling up. A perfect vehicle for a lively discussion!

From a psychoanalytic standpoint, Brief Encounter posed the common dilemma of any era: how does one have more than just a brief encounter with the passions of life? Other themes that came up during the discussion were loss, limitations of reality, integration of suppressed feelings and split-off aspects of the self, impossible love, and suppression of life dreams.

To make the event truly interactive, and since vignettes from the play can be analyzed like a dream, the panelists stimulated discussion by playing “Who Wants to Be a Psychoanalyst?” with the attendees.

You, too, can play along with these questions, but don’t let the answers provided limit your thinking:

Question 1. A patient tells you, “I had this dream: it was in my living room, but it was like in a black-and-white movie, and there were two empty chairs in the room.” What hypothesis do you have?

A. The dream reveals your patient secretly wants to apply to be on the reality show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
B. A couple of vibrant throw pillows would really punch up the look and take this room from drab to fab.
C. Clearly this dream image represents two people having wild sex.
D. Neither your patient nor her husband is really “present” at home. They each have so much of their self repressed or split off that all that is left in the marriage is dull and colorless. Their marriage is static, not alive.

Question 2. A patient tells you, “I had a dream I had something in my eye: I couldn’t see clearly and I was in pain. Then this man helped me.” What does it mean?

A. The dream is a premonition of an impending eye injury.
B. Through complex unconscious symbolism, the dream is communicating that your patient has something in her eye, is in pain, and needs to see an optometrist.
C. Your patient has not been able to see the barren state of her life and marriage. The pain of her life has become unbearable. This is triggered by the encounter with the man.
D. Not enough information to know.

(This is a trick question. While answer “C” is compelling and is a theory that could fit, “D” is the correct answer and serves as a reminder to all psychoanalysts, official and honorary, that while we may have knowledge of how the unconscious works, it is only in a collaborative process with the patient and their associations that meaning is uncovered.)

Question 3. A patient tells you, “I had a dream I was at a train station, Milford Junction, talking to a man I met about a time when I was more alive and adventurous. Then a powerful wave swept over us.”
What hypothesis do you have?

A. Your patient should avoid the train station today as there will be a tsunami.
B. She has unresolved feelings from age 5 about her first “boyfriend”, named Milford, who loved Thomas the Train more than her.
C. Her unconscious mind is telling her that she needs to wake up and go pee.
D. She is at a junction in her life. Big emotions, long repressed, are sweeping over her like a force of nature.

Our regular “Couch” groupies tell us that these sessions are enlightening and entertaining and that they gain a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the show they have just seen.

We hope you will join us for these upcoming Theater on the Couch discussions:

Phèdre (January 22, 2010)

Vigil (April 2, 2010)

Round and Round the Garden (May 7, 2010)
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