Tiny Tim & Co.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

This week, A.C.T. Artistic Fellow Jonathan Carpenter tracked down Christine Plowright, the “performance monitor” (a.k.a. kid wrangler extraordinaire) for A Christmas Carol, to get the inside scoop on life backstage with the brood of young actors that grace the A.C.T. stage each December.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

One of the most exciting things about A.C.T.’s annual production of A Christmas Carol is that it gives us a chance to feature actors from our Young Conservatory on the mainstage. This year, the cast includes 19 young actors, ages 8 to 13, playing almost 50 roles. The kids are incredibly cute, and they provide some of the show’s most memorable moments. While they more than hold their own with the Master of Fine Arts Program and professional actors with whom they share the stage, they’re still kids, and when the full cast of 40 actors is assembled, a little chaos seems inevitable. That’s where Christine Plowright comes in. As the performance monitor for A Christmas Carol, it’s her job to keep the YC actors in line from first rehearsal to final curtain call.

Christine has been involved in A.C.T.’s A Christmas Carol for five years, and, as you might expect, she has her fair share of stories. “I did have a Tiny Tim one time…” Christine muses. “It was a Tuesday performance, so we had been gone [from the theater] for a bit of time [since the Sunday matinee performance]. During the show, all of a sudden he showed up backstage with this hamburger from a take-out restaurant, and he was eating it. He had found it somewhere backstage, and it was left from days before. He didn’t get sick, but that’s the sort of thing that happens. All of a sudden there’s a kid eating a hamburger, and it’s like, ‘Where did that come from?’”

Another perennial source of stories is intracast conflict. “We did have an incident where word got back to me that so-and-so had bitten a fellow cast member. I had to pull that person aside and talk to her about it. She swore up and down to me that she didn’t bite her. And the next day, the kid that had been bitten brought the girl who bit her little wind-up chatter teeth. It was so funny. But then [the alleged biter] saw me, and she knew she had been caught.”

Christine is quick to point out, however, that for the most part the Carol kids are actually very well behaved. “We do quiet things [backstage]. We do puzzles, we get into a mellow routine. They come up through the Young Conservatory, so they know how things are around here. They’re serious about it.” Essentially, the YC actors are like a group of seasoned professionals. So instead of goofing off backstage, they find fun in annual traditions like the dressing room decorating contest. “They get very excited about that. One time we had an entire menorah made out of poker chips. One year, we had a group of boys who didn’t want to decorate, so they just did Christmas carols. Whenever people walked in, they sang.”

Christine’s very best story shows just how professional (and precocious) these young actors can be. “One of the younger female members of the YC and Tiny Tim had been getting to know each other throughout the production. One night they were sitting backstage, and I walked by and heard one of them say to the other, ‘So, do you work out?’ Tiny Tim brought her flowers on opening night; he was six. That sort of stuff always just tickles me.”

The Young Conservatory actors in A Christmas Carol: (front row, L to R) Caroline Pernick, Samantha Martin, Samuel Joseph Berston, Alexandra Lee, Shelby Lyon, Bonnie Castleman, Eva Huzella, Alan Frenkel-Andrade, Matt Avery; (back row, L to R) Rachel Share-Sapolsky, Ashley Baker, Tony Sinclair, Sadie Eve Scott, Tobiah Richkind, Ella Francis, Penelope Devlin, Emma Draisin, Julian Carlo Santos, William David Southall (photo by Kevin Berne)

“You’ve Got to Solve That”

Friday, December 10, 2010

An Interview with A.C.T. Conservatory Director and Head of Acting Melissa Smith 

To begin one’s life as a first-year acting student in the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program is to cultivate the virtue of patience. These young actors, some of whom have already performed professionally, spend their first three months in class, returning to the basics through improvisational exercises and scene study, before they get a chance to work on a play at the end of their first semester. And it’s not until the second semester that they get to perform in front of a public audience.

This week, the class of 2013 will present their work on their first play—a condensed version of American playwright and performer Deb Margolin’s Bringing the Fishermen Home— for an intimate audience of friends and family. Performances are open only to the A.C.T. community, an effort to create something of a protective cocoon in which the students can safely explore and take creative risks while testing their newly reinvented skills.

You might recognize Margolin’s name from news reports about a controversy that arose recently over her portrayal of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in a new play, Imagining Madoff. In the play, Margolin depicts an invented encounter between the notoriously crooked Bernie Madoff and moral pillar Wiesel, who was one of the many victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, trying to tease a kernel of understanding and meaning out of Madoff’s deceit. After Wiesel objected to Margolin’s portrayal, she was forced to rename the Wiesel character, though his attributes remained largely the same.

Choosing to write about difficult characters like Wiesel and Madoff is par for the course for Margolin. In her plays, the audience has access to the thinking of all of her characters: each of them has at least one long, juicy monologue—protagonists and antagonists alike. In Bringing Home the Fishermen, a surreal meditation on the doctor-patient relationship, we hear from, among others, the terrified patient, the doctor who tries to wall himself off, the old man who is perpetually sitting in the waiting room, and the maddeningly bureaucratic receptionist. This makes Bringing the Fishermen Home an ideal ensemble piece for the first-year actors: each performer gets to sink his or her teeth into a meaty role; no one actor alone carries the piece.

The play was selected by A.C.T. Conservatory Director and acting teacher Melissa Smith, who is for the first time directing the students she helped select for the program during their audition tour last spring. We sat down with Smith to talk about Margolin’s play, storytelling, and how to get young actors to think outside of themselves.

—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

What is Bringing the Fishermen Home about?

It’s an exploration of the doctor-patient relationship. There’s a Baudelaire quote in the middle of the play that says it’s not unlike the executioner-victim relationship, and that all love relationships follow that pattern. There’s always one partner who’s more self-abandoned, the victim, and another who’s more the executioner, someone who’s crueler and more in charge.

“I believe I have already set down in my notes that Love greatly resembles an application of torture or a surgical operation. But this idea can be developed, and in the most ironic manner. For even when two lovers love passionately and are full of mutual desire, one of the two will always be cooler or less self-abandoned than the other. He or she is the surgeon or executioner; the other, the patient or victim.”
—Charles Baudelaire

Margolin really gets at the utter vulnerability of the patient in the hands of doctors, and the detachment doctors must achieve to be good at what they do. She’s exploring questions about boundaries, about patients’ desire for doctors to be more available, more personal, when doctors are trying to keep that kind of personal touch at bay because, if they get involved personally, they can’t do what they need to do. Particularly, say, a surgeon; particularly people in emergency situations. But life itself is an emergency.

What makes it a good first piece for the first-year students to work on?

The language of the piece is quite wonderful: it’s lyrical; it’s juicy; it makes me want to listen. So I responded to it both aesthetically and pedagogically. It’s useful for our training purposes in terms of asking the students to grab hold of words, to engage with juicy text. It’s not Shakespeare; it’s contemporary language, but it has great images. It’s an imagistic text.

We’re not doing a full production; we’re working on it as a classroom project. We open up the room for A.C.T. staff to watch, and I create the barest of environments for it. It’s a kind of expanded scene study, if you will, and an exercise in, an exploration of, storytelling and the actor’s role in storytelling.

Tell me more about storytelling.

We’ve had a lot of talk in the faculty about storytelling. One of the things that happens in acting, because you’re using yourself as a tool, is that actor training can become very self-referential. You’re very much in a bubble looking at yourself, at what your voice is doing and what your body’s doing: “I’ve gotta this,” and, “I’ve gotta that.” I, I, I, me, me, me. And you can lose sight, when you’re in rehearsal, of the need to play and the need to make things happen. You’re telling a story in time and space; you’re playing. That’s what a play is!

I’m having the actors share roles for this piece, and I think that’s very useful. If you share a role with another actor you have to be both subjective and objective: you have to keep backing up from the canvas, as it were. You have to pay attention and be willing to say, “What he’s doing seems to be working. Maybe I need to have more of that.” It also makes you realize that there’s more than one side to a character. I think young actors often get hold of something and get one dimension, but they don’t tend to think of other dimensions. This [split casting] forces them to think, “Oh, there’s more there than I thought.” My hope is that, if they can discover that by working with another actor, then when they have a role to themselves they’ll be reminded of the greater possibilities.

Obviously you have a lot of pedagogical goals for the production. What is it like to be both a teacher and a director at the same time?

I have to wear different hats. It’s natural for young actors to look to a director the same way they look to an acting teacher. So it’s natural for them to expect a director to solve things for them the way an acting teacher helps them solve things in class. But that’s not a director’s job; the director’s job has to do with the bigger picture. Part of my job [in this project] is to help them, because they are still learning, but at other times, I have to say, “You know what? You’ve got to solve that. You’ve got to figure out how to make that bigger. You can figure out how to make that real; I need you to cross to stage left.”

The A.C.T. M.F.A. Program class of 2013 and their fearless leader before a dress rehearsal of Bringing Home the Fishermen: (front row, L to R) Rebekah Brockman, A.C.T. Conservatory Director Melissa Smith, Titus Tompkins; (back row, L to R) Allegra Edwards, Nick Steen, Victoria Barabas, Tyee J. Tilghman, Raymond Castelán, Ethan Frank. Photo by Emily Hoffman.

“I Have an Orchestra!”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A.C.T.’s M.F.A. Program Students Discuss Every Good Boy Deserves Favour 

Tom Stoppard and André Previn’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour premiered in London as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s 1977 Silver Jubilee. Stoppard’s political play about government repression of free speech isn’t exactly jubilant, but it does have a certain majesty. EGBDF (the title is a mnemonic device for remembering the notes of the treble clef on a musical staff) calls for an onstage orchestra that is an integral participant in the performance; the original production featured Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, John Wood, and the entire London Symphony Orchestra.

The play’s protagonist, Alexander Ivanov, has published allegations that the Soviet government imprisons its political enemies in mental hospitals; for this, he is “diagnosed” with paranoid delusions and sent to a mental hospital himself. His cellmate, also named Alexander Ivanov, is genuinely ill; he thinks he has his own orchestra, in which he is the triangle player. The coup de théâtre of the piece is that this “imaginary” orchestra actually exists onstage, interacting with Ivanov and playing aloud the music that he hears in his head. So when the hospital’s doctor forces Ivanov to declare that he has no orchestra, the hypocrisy of the system is cleverly revealed to the audience—we can, in fact, see and hear Ivanov’s orchestra for ourselves.

Since EGBDF employs an orchestra in such a theatrical manner, it was an ideal choice for this year’s collaboration between the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) Program and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The eight members of A.C.T.’s class of 2012, now in their second of three years of intensive training in our M.F.A. Program, joined an ensemble of some thirty SFCM students to present the play-with-orchestra recently. As part of their “theater marketing for actors” curriculum, the cast members were asked to write about the process of staging this challenging and unusual piece.

—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Jessica Kitchens (Ivanov)
Ivanov is a schizophrenic with a personality disorder that makes him think he has an orchestra with him at all times—so he’s a large task for an actor. But I realized I was lucky: while most actors who get cast in delusional roles have to create their own alternate reality, I was actually going to have an orchestra with me onstage.

Once we started weaving the acting and the music together, it felt like my role began to bloom. My character speaks as much to his “imaginary” orchestra as he does to anyone else—I finally had my scene partner. When I chastised the cellos for their performance, they answered me with a sullen moan; when I mocked the horns, they squawked back at me. I developed specific relationships with the different musicians—intimate relationships, since they are my character’s best friends and worst enemies. This piece fluidly combines theater and live music; I’m fortunate to be playing the one character that lives in both worlds.

Maggie Rastetter (Doctor)
I’m no stranger to orchestras. During my teens, I was in the pit with the basses, violins, oboes, and bassoons as a vocalist for the Oregon Ballet Theater in Portland. This early experience gave me not only a deep love for classical music, but also a reverence for those who can play it. I don’t define myself as a musician any longer, though. In the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program, I’m learning how to define myself as an actor. At first, each new play and new discovery in this process can feel foreign. But Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, a play with an orchestra, was a beacon of familiarity!

Once we started rehearsals with our charming-British-gentleman director, Giles Havergal, I realized how intricately woven this script is. The music and the action have to be timed perfectly. I didn’t feel entirely confident when I walked into our first rehearsal with the live orchestra.

And there they were—these young musicians, at around the same point in their studies as we are, handling their roles like pros! These students. Were. Impressive. I felt like I was stumbling through the show, trying to get the timing right. But then I realized, “Oh, I still have to think like a musician. I have to know my rhythms, know my pitch, and play my part in the ensemble.” The musicians, too, had to think like actors; in this play, they are storytellers just as much as we are. I felt as if I had unlocked a little secret about this show—the music and the drama don’t just fit together, they carry each other!

During this challenging time in my training, this show reminded me that I am not simply one thing or another. As an actor, I’m defined by all of my former experiences—including my time as a musician.

Jason Frank (Doctor)
I was thrilled by last year’s [A.C.T. and SFCM] coproduction of [Igor Stravinsky’s] The Soldier’s Tale; the combination of actors and orchestra created a kind of life and energy onstage that I had never experienced before. I got another taste of this when we read Every Good Boy Deserves Favour aloud for the first time, listening to the orchestra tracks on a stereo in between scenes. Even hearing Previn’s music through tiny speakers gave me clues about the size of this performance piece, the magnitude that Stoppard’s text requires.

Then, when we had our first rehearsal with the full live orchestra, I was simply blown away. The last time I’d heard orchestral music played by people my own age was when I was in eighth grade and I played B-flat clarinet. Needless to say, the [SFCM] students were much more impressive than my eighth-grade band. As I watched the violinists’ bows fly up and down, tried to keep pace with the fingers of the woodwind players, felt the vibrations of the timpani in my bones, and stared in amazement as the harpist found and perfectly plucked each string on her beautiful instrument, I felt like I understood the combined potential of this play of Previn’s moving music and Stoppard’s wry text.

Alex Crowther (Teacher)
As I write this, we are less than four days away from the opening (and closing) night of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. The show’s two-week rehearsal process is one of the shortest I can ever remember having. Somehow, though, the lines are memorized, the scenes are blocked, and now we are working towards integrating ourselves with the beautiful 30-piece orchestra that plays with us throughout the piece. Last week we were rehearsing by ourselves, trying to learn our cues by speaking over a recording of the original production . . . but the play becomes a different experience when the music is live and surrounding you. It’s bigger, more powerful, and the presentational style of performance that we’ve been developing makes more sense to me. I’m also thankful for no longer having to compete with the voices of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen . . .

Christina Elmore (Sacha)
Rehearsals are the key to any production. What the audience sees as magic onstage is a result of the actors, directors, and the ever-so-important stage managers spending hours, weeks, and sometimes months trying to conjure and bottle the magic that we hope to pour out during performance. In the rehearsal room, we have the freedom to play, take risks, fail, and try again. Generally, rehearsals last for four or five weeks—and that never feels long enough. That’s probably a good thing; we should always want to dig deeper. But the longing for the safety of rehearsals never does go away.

So when we were told that we would have only two weeks to rehearse Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, I was nervous to say the least. Would we really be able to pull this off, or would we have to rely on the brilliance of the orchestra to drown out our shortcomings? How would we not only learn the lines, blocking, and cues, but also grasp the meaning of this precious piece? These questions haunted us before we began. But by the time we auditioned, got cast, and started our first rehearsal (all within 24 hours), we realized there would be no time to dwell on them. We had to get to work.

It’s been a whirlwind. We’ve just tried to walk into each rehearsal and seize the opportunity to make bold choices—and trust that the magic will happen.

Jessica Kitchens (with triangle) as Ivanov and Matt Bradley as Alexander, with members of
the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's New Music Ensemble

Maggie Rastetter and Jason Frank as the Doctors, flanking Jessica Kitchens

(Foreground, L to R) Jessica Kitchens, Matt Bradley, and Ben Kahre (as Vladimir Bukovsky), 
with cast and orchestra members holding photographs of Russian dissidents in the background

All photos by Timothy Faust

Scrooge on Ice

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The holiday season starts early at A.C.T.; we began rehearsing our annual production of A Christmas Carol at the beginning of November. As a sponsor of the Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square, we’re sharing our anticipatory cheer with the city. Below, Scrooge (A.C.T. Associate Artist Anthony Fusco) announces the opening of the rink on Wednesday, November 10. He’s joined by dignitaries, figure skaters, and . . . Mr. Peanut?
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Photos by Randy Taradash

"The Secret of the Sweets": An Interview with Marcus's Richard Prioleau

Friday, November 19, 2010

Third-year A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program actor Richard Prioleau is a busy man: he’s in rehearsals for A Christmas Carol and going to class in A.C.T.’s studios each day, while playing the title role in Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet on the mainstage each night. Still, last week he found time to sit down with A.C.T. Dramaturgy Fellow Zachary Moull—who worked as assistant director on Marcus—over lunch (salad and noodles) to talk about the urgency of Marcus, the joys and challenges of acting in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, and the musical proclivities of its cast.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Your lunch looks very healthy. Do you have any routines or strategies for keeping your energy up?
No, I just have to remember to drink lots of water. I stopped going to the gym regularly because of the time constraints. But Marcus is 16, and he shouldn’t look like a football player, anyway. I do have preshow rituals: get there an hour before curtain, make sure I shower and warm up, and then go and talk to Shinelle [Azoroh, who plays Osha] and Omozé [Idehenre, who plays Shaunta Iyun]. Talking and laughing with them is imperative for me. I usually make an excuse to go see them, but it’s just to laugh.

What was the first thing that grabbed you about Marcus?
The wonder, the seeking. He’s on a quest, an underdog Odysseus-like wandering. He’s trying to figure out the answer to something that is missing within him. I think anybody can identify with that.

Tell me about developing Marcus’s physicality. It was a gradual process?
[Director] Mark [Rucker] kept encouraging me to be freer. I knew that my weight was a little heavier than the Marcus I have in my mind, so I wanted to find the lightness in [the character]. [I’m telling the physical story of] Marcus trying to be free. I couldn’t do that work until I was off book [knew all the lines by heart], until I knew what the play was, until I felt comfortable with everyone in the room. I wanted to give myself the time to do that, and Mark was great about it. He let it arise, instead of having me forcing some physicality on the play before I knew what it meant.

You’ve been performing publicly for two weeks now. Marcus speaks his lines out to the audience a lot. Has the character changed now that you’re actually in front of an audience?
He’s more fun. I think I discovered the humor in it, in interacting with the audience, more than I ever did in the rehearsal room. Especially last night, when [Shaunta Iyun’s] sandwich rolled off the stage.

What’s it like to be onstage during a moment like that?
When the sandwich fell off the stage . . . [laughs] Those moments are the reason why we do theater. In that moment, nothing is planned. We just have to react to what the audience is doing. Because if we ignore the moment, there’s a falseness.

And you didn’t ignore the moment. You both thanked the gentleman in the front row who tossed it back up to you. And then Omozé changed her exit line to, what was it?
“Damn, boy, made my sandwich roll right off the stage.”

Killer line.
Audiences choose theater because it’s live. The audience and the actors are living and breathing together. [When these accidents happen], we become more attuned to the fact that we’re all doing the same thing, all seeing the same things. We’re all here in the same space, and nobody knows what’s going to happen. Nobody can control when a fake sandwich will roll off the stage.

Speaking of unpredictability, have you been surprised by any of the audience reactions you’ve seen so far?
They’re so different from night to night. Each audience is like a different person. So I’m having the same conversation, but with a different person. That makes it fun for us, because we don’t know how this “person,” as a whole, is going to react to the story we’re telling them. It means that I’m never the same from the afternoon to the evening performances, or from one day to the next.

Tell me about the stage directions that you speak to the audience.
It’s hard, because as an actor you want to be in the moment from moment to moment. But Tarell wants you to stop, face the audience, highlight the moment, and then go back into it. You tell the audience, “Hey, look at this! Look what I’m about to do!”And then you do it. The flow of that is jarring at first. You have to really stop and take your time. Now, because we have it in our systems, it helps us make moments land. And it makes us have to deal with the audience right away, which is scary for us and for the audience. But when we enjoy those moments together right from the start, it builds a connection.

A broader question now: Why is Marcus urgent?
I think it’s urgent in light of all the [recent LGBT-teen] suicides, the bullying, the crisis with Proposition 8. The lives of gay men, black gay men . . . they’re not brought to the surface at all. I think it’s important that everyone hears [Tarell’s] voice. Hears that there is a cry, that there is a need to hear and listen. People struggle with their sexuality because it’s not being talked about, and that can be traumatic. So Marcus challenges its audience to see things that they might not usually see or talk about. It also brings in young people, which is wonderful. That’s our next generation of theatergoers.

How would you have responded to this play if it had existed when you were 16?
Oh my gosh, just to have seen people that were like me onstage, it would have . . . I don’t know. It’s such a blessing to have right now. I spent a lot of time not knowing [that plays like Marcus] could exist, wanting to see more people who looked like me and behaved like me on the stage. Maybe I would have pursued theater more quickly? Maybe more people of color would be on the stage? I mean, I’m here, so something happened somewhere. But I think if more plays like this had been done longer ago, it might have changed how we see people.

You’ve been doing a lot of interviews recently. What questions would you like to be asked more about your work?
What it’s like to work with the other cast members. The ensemble is so important for this piece.

Tell me about that.
For me, this has been—by far—the most joyful experience I’ve had working on a play. By joy, I mean the laughter, the smiles, the insights, how we respond to each other. I trust that each person has me, so being Marcus doesn’t feel daunting. We’ve all taken on this beast together. It’s really easy to get up onstage when you have that kind of support.

You’re a very close group. I’ve noticed that you break into song a lot . . .

Why do you think that is?
Because there’s music in the show. But even if there wasn’t, we’d probably do it anyway. It’s useful, because you can listen to a song and it brings you back to when you were 12 and you first heard it. None of us in the cast are 16-year-old kids, but we all have those markers in our lives that we draw upon. Like in the play: Ralph Tresvant, Usher . . . music sets off a trigger, takes you back to who you were.

If the cast was a band, what would you sing?
We would be a Michael Jackson cover band. Old-school Michael Jackson. With harmonies. A cross between Michael Jackson and Boyz II Men.

What would you call this band?
The Sweet. The Sweets. No. Yeah. “The Secret of the Sweets.”

Marcus and his “best” backstage: (L to R) Omozé Idehenre, Richard Prioleau, and Shinelle Azoroh

An Actor Reflects: Living the Brother/Sister Cycle

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

posted by Jared McNeill, cast member of Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet

Jared McNeill’s role in Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet may not be huge, but his onstage presence is enormous. As Terrell, the obnoxious-but (in McNeill’s hands)-loveable dude who follows Osha and Shaunta Iyun around in the first act, McNeill has the audience in stitches, especially with his bit about white chicks in horror films. This is not McNeill’s first time charming audiences in a Tarell Alvin McCraney drama. In fact, he has appeared in all three of the Brother/Sister Plays. After playing Oshoosi Size in City Theatre’s production of The Brothers Size in Pittsburgh, PA, and Elegba in In the Red and Brown Water at Marin Theatre Company (MTC), McNeill has the unique perspective of having lived and breathed McCraney’s entire cycle. Below, he describes that experience for us.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

The Brothers Size was my first show coming out of Fordham University, and it came after a good deal of kicking around doing odd jobs and such in NYC. I remember I was having difficulty deciding what I wanted, where I wanted to go, and what I was gonna do when I got there. I say that not to imply that I’ve made any sustainable progress in those areas, but rather to say that the search for identity in a larger world—the desperate yearning that Oshoosi Size exhibits in that play—was very present for me then, so I was able to exorcise some very immediate demons in working on the piece.

The cast of The Brothers Size at City Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA: Jared McNeill as Oshoosi Size (seated, right), 
with Joshua Elijah Reese as Elegba (standing, left; he later played Ogun Size at Magic Theatre in San Francisco) and 
A.C.T. M.F.A. Program alum Albert Jones as Ogun Size (photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons).

What I loved about playing Elegba [in In the Red and Brown Water] was the challenge of growing throughout the piece, of vacillating between high comedy and dramatic work. I thought then, and now know, that it takes a lot of control and trust to play “unhinged” to any degree, and when I was at MTC I was ready to at least try to find that. I figure, if you know what challenges you want to conquer going after a role, it’s easier to come somewhere close to what you imagine, even if you never quite get there.

(L to R) McNeill as Elegba, with Dawn Troupe, A.C.T. M.F.A. Program alum Lakisha Michelle May, and 
Daveed Diggs, in Marin Theatre Company’s In the Red and Brown Water (photo by Kevin Berne)

It’s proven to be quite a remarkable opportunity to work on the third play [Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet at A.C.T.] and finish out my experience with the cycle, because, besides being part of an amazing and rare force of cooperation and collaboration here in the Bay Area, I find that these plays, in general, carry with them and inspire something very special that isn’t found everywhere: an inherent sense of community among the acting company, a sense of group and individual self-reflection, and a simultaneous sense of play and importance and immediacy. I say this because I’ve been able to work on all three plays, and all with different companies at different times, and the result has been that same magic of truth and poetry and dreamscape and hyper-realism. All of these things could, if crafted less expertly, present a mash of contradictions; but they don’t. It’s nice, as an actor, to sit back and relax into McCraney’s words. It’s almost like you don’t have to find them on any given night. You just let them funnel up and out as they choose.

I feel closest to whatever character I’m portraying at the time. I think we actors all have a bit of the folk we play inside us. Who we are today is just a collection of who we’ve been up ’til now, so whoever it is in me that speaks to a certain role at that time is what comes bubbling to the surface. I think that speaks to the power of these plays to evoke very human, very connected parts of ourselves.

Though the [theater] spaces are very different and present various challenges in staging and voice and intimacy, the directors I’ve worked with on these plays [Robert O’Hara, Ryan Rilette, and Mark Rucker, respectively] have been very aware of that. There are many ways that the three directors have been different, but where they all align is in their permissiveness in the rehearsal room with regard to experimentation and exploration. Basically, nothing is so damn dumb that you can’t try it once. Sometimes twice. That’s a really freeing and engaging way to work, and, especially working with language that can sometimes be very open to interpretation of rhythm and play, it makes for a unique show that really belongs to the company.

The best part of it all for me has been to watch and learn from amazing actors weaving action through the poetry of the language. You can do a scene from these plays 10 times in a day and come to 100 new revelations. The joy for me is definitely in the playing, but in the long run I think I’ve gotten more out of the watching.

McNeill (far right) as Terrell, with A.C.T. M.F.A. Program alum Tobie L. Windham (far left) and A.C.T. M.F.A. Program 
student Richard Prioleau as Marcus in A.C.T.’s Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet (photo by Kevin Berne)

Marcus: The Poster, The Process

Monday, November 15, 2010

posted by Amelia Nardinelli, Senior Graphic Designer at A.C.T.

You may not have seen A.C.T.’s production of Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet yet, but odds are that you’ve noticed a certain mysterious, enigmatic image following you around town. In your newspaper, on BART, or in a shop window, a young black man with an otherworldly glow about him and a heart-shaped explosion of water over his chest stares back at you. His eyes are full of something. Maybe his gaze unsettles you. The man is Richard Prioleau, member of the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2011 and star of Marcus, and the poster design is by Amelia Nardinelli, senior graphic designer at A.C.T. The poster has such an iconic presence it takes a moment to remember that it was created by a particular person. But created it was, and below Nardinelli lets us into the world of her process.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Mythical. Gritty. Sexual. Urban. Southern Gothic. Lyrical. Wet. Humor. Katrina. Raw. Louisiana bayou. Community. Dreams. Yoruba deities. Sweet.

I always begin the design process with a brainstorm, or in the case of Marcus, a brainhurricane, of things I associate with the play. What are the underlying themes, who are the characters, and what kind of environment do they live in? I speak with the marketing team and the director, I look at set and costume designs, and I do a lot of sitting and staring out the window, thinking about how I can get a three-dimensional world full of people, sounds, and shifting light onto a piece of paper.

For the design of Marcus, I decided to start by focusing on two elements: Marcus (the main character) and water. I imagined those elements coming together to tell the story of Marcus’s self discovery. I wanted to express shyness and vulnerability, mixed with intense release. I also wanted the viewer to feel a hint of discomfort, as if they’d walked in on someone experiencing a very personal thing, like praying or looking in a mirror. Tall order.

With New Orleans’s Rebirth Brass Band blowing through my headphones, I looked at paintings, photographs, textures, type, ephemera: anything that supported any of my keywords. I looked at Robert Mapplethorpe for his arresting, sexual, black-and-white portrait photography; Lewis Watts for his raw, documentary-style photos of African Americans in New Orleans. I looked at Kehinde Wiley’s urban, poetic paintings of young African American men in wifebeaters and stiff-rimmed baseball caps standing in front of delicate floral prints. I decided that a striking portrait of Richard Prioleau, the actor who plays Marcus, was the way to go. [Amelia gets excited, nervous.]

Images that inspired the Marcus poster design, by: (top row, L to R) Kehinde Wiley, Robert Mapplethorpe; (second row, L to R) unknown artist (www.welovetypography.com), Robert Mapplethorpe, Brandon Nichols; (third row, L to R) source unknown, Lewis Watts (Treme 2008), Gaffera (www.istockphoto.com); (bottom row, L to R) Brandon Nichols, and HBO.

Now, how would I incorporate water? Is he soaking wet? No, too sexy. Is it raining? No, too hard to photograph. Is he floating in water? Too morbid. Water, water . . . how else could I incorporate water? More sitting and staring out of the window ensued. I thought about vehicles that water travels in: hoses, buckets, balloons. A water balloon hitting his chest? With excitement, and a little skepticism, I looked up water balloon photographs on Flickr and was overjoyed to see that many people had captured water balloons mid explosion, giving the water a dynamic, ethereal quality.

I threw together the elements I had come up with so far and presented my concept to Janette Andrawes, A.C.T.’s director of marketing, and to the director of Marcus, A.C.T. Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker. They liked the tone and felt that it represented the integrity of the play. [Amelia exhales, smiles.]

First draft of the poster for Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet: portrait of a man from
www.fffflckr.com; frame and water balloon from www.istockphoto.com.

Janette and I art-directed the photo shoot. Richard Prioleau brought vibrancy, charm, and a photogenic quality that even Tyra Banks would appreciate. Kevin Berne, our photographer, lit the room perfectly and captured a wide variety of expressions and poses.

Actor Richard Prioleau and designer Amelia Nardinelli at the Marcus poster photo shoot. 
Photos by Kevin Berne.

Back at the computer, I purchased a water-balloon-bursting image from an Italian photographer on Flickr and manipulated it in Photoshop to look like a heart (a last-minute decision), echoing Marcus’s quest for self-acceptance and love. I laid it on top of the chosen shot, and there it was: Mythical. Gritty. Sexual. Urban. Sweet. Lyrical. Wet. Raw. Dreams. American. Ten out of fifteen ain’t bad.

Imagining Despair

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Last month, students in the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program classes of 2011 and 2012 took a dramatic step that would intimidate even the most experienced of actors: they publicly performed Chekhov. In The Three Sisters, Chekhov’s masterpiece about missed opportunities and dreams stifled by stagnation, the Prozorov sisters fervently dream of returning to the Moscow of their youth but somehow cannot manage to walk away from their small village and lives they cannot but see as dreadfully prosaic. Three Sisters director Marco Barricelli, former member of A.C.T.’s core acting company (he played Vershinin in Carey Perloff’s 2003 production) and currently artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, took on the challenge of helping these aspiring young actors—in their second and third years of A.C.T.’s three-year training program, respectively—tackle Chekhov’s iconic turn-of-the-20th-century tale of midlife misery. Below are excerpts from a conversation with Barricelli that took place just after rehearsals had begun.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Marco Barricelli on The Three Sisters:

On the first day of rehearsal I told the cast: “Look, this is a mountain you’re never going to scale. You’ll never get to the top of this thing. Frankly, though, professional actors don’t ever scale this thing either; it’s about the journey, and the effort to get there.” I’m asking these students to imaginatively inhabit a frame of mind that they have very little connection to. I mean, these characters are stuck in a life they can’t break out of. All of the characters get to a certain point in the play—different points for each of them—when they say, “What happened to my life? How did I get here? This isn’t what I meant to do.” These kids [the M.F.A. Program students] are still early in their trajectory; when you’re in a training program, one of the top training programs in the country, and Bill Irwin is working in the company, it’s exciting! Everything is possible. They’re all “going to be stars.” So getting them to make the imaginative leap to these characters is really my challenge. You have to have been slapped around a little in your life to get this play. For an actor, you have to get to that point where you realize, “Gee, I’m not going to be the next Laurence Olivier or Leonardo DiCaprio or whatever, so what am I? Is this really what I planned to do?” But they’re young. Christ, there’s a 21-year-old kid playing Chebutykin, who is 60. I mean, come on!

My strategy for helping them do that? I’m going to be kind of . . . mean. [Laughter] Not in an arbitrary way. I told them yesterday, “You know, I’m really going to push you guys, because otherwise this is just bulls**t, all it is is a bunch of f**king acting M.F.A. students memorizing something that Chekhov wrote a hundred years ago and then getting up there and reciting it. That’s worthless. It’s got to cost you something, and you better put something on the line here, otherwise it’s a waste of time.” The point is for them to close this production just ever so slightly better actors than they were at our first read-through. If we can do that, then, okay, we’ve accomplished something. It’s a pedagogical experience for them. I’m using this play, which has a very unique force for actors, to teach them something about themselves as actors. It’s not even about them succeeding in their roles. It’s about: right now they can go from point A to point B, and maybe by the time we’re done with this process they’ll be able to go from A to B and a half. And that’s good. That’s what it’ll be.

There is something profoundly truthful about Chekhov’s plays that is . . . it’s raw truth. It’s different from the way Shakespeare is truthful. Shakespeare has a scope that is somehow more historical. Chekhov is . . . the detail of it, the nuance of the pain, the self-loathing and self-questioning and inability, the juxtaposition of having the real capacity to dream and imagine and fantasize about what should be while being utterly incapable of actually doing anything to get there. You get to a certain point in your life and you realize, “Oh yeah, I get that.” There’s an element to all of Chekhov’s plays—I’ve done The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya as an actor—where there’s that “there but for the grace of God” feeling. The feeling, “Oh, that could so easily happen to me.”

The A.C.T. M.F.A. Program’s three sisters: (L to R) Irina (Courtney Thomas),
Olga (Christina Lorenn Elmore), and Masha (Jessica Kitchens).

Members of the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program classes of 2011 and 2012 in The Three Sisters

A Wild Ride with the YC

Friday, November 5, 2010

posted by Naomi Kunstler, A.C.T. Young Conservatory student 

A.C.T. Young Conservatory students are sharp. We’d heard it from everyone: YC Director Craig Slaight; Karen Hartman, author of Wild Kate (a new play commissioned by the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program and YC); the M.F.A. Program students who’ve worked with them on conservatory coproductions and in A Christmas Carol. So when we knew they were in the building rehearsing Wild Kate, we didn’t want to miss the chance to let them weigh in on young actor training and the dark hilarity of Wild Kate’s nautical adventures. Naomi Kunstler, a junior at Convent of the Sacred Heart high school, pulls us into the nitty gritty of rehearsal as only a true actor could.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

The first day of rehearsal I’m sitting in my chair during our line-through and I can barely stay in my seat I am so excited. The room is packed with the cast, crew, playwright, director, lighting designer, sound designer, choreographer, etc., and I am already so thrilled to be part of a production like this. I skip to the bus stop, and the second I get home blurt out to my parents all the exhilaration that I can no longer contain.

This may seem like the sort of enthusiasm that would be short-lived, but it has lasted through the whole rehearsal process. All of the students in the Young Conservatory cast have discussed our impatience every day as we sit in our classrooms at school and count down the number of hours, minutes, and seconds until we get to leave classes and go to rehearsal.

It is rare that young actors of our age are given the opportunity to work with older and more experienced artists. In addition to YC students, the cast of Wild Kate includes students training to get their master of fine arts degrees. Collaborating with the M.F.A. students and working with a professional director like W. D. Keith for the first time has most definitely boosted my creativity. Their professional and life experience has given them the ability to imagine ways to add to productions, ways that someone with less exposure would never come up with.

Wild Kate, based loosely on Moby Dick, takes place on a small boat. My character, Nia, is a pregnant 17-year-old. Pregnant and seasick is really not a pleasant combination. Giving the illusion that the whole play takes place on a moving boat may seem simple; however, this is in no way the case. First of all, you can’t just start moving along to the motion of the boat when you happen to think of it; you have to do it constantly, no matter how absorbed you are in the scene. One of the main struggles was making sure that everyone was swaying the right way. If even one person is off the viewer is no longer convinced that we are on a boat. So we spent hours rehearsing this, picking one person in each scene to lead the wave action and scaling the intensity of the wave action for every scene on a scale of one to five. We even had a choreographer come in and work with us multiple times, because in addition to staying in sync we also had to make sure that we weren’t anticipating the waves, but that they were really throwing us off balance.

In the peak scene of Wild Kate we are in the middle of a vicious storm. While staying in the intensity of the scene, we violently throw our bodies around and grab onto whatever we can find to “maintain balance.” This took a lot of work; however, the second that we got into the Zeum Theater and saw the set, everything felt real. I still feel the thrill we got when we first laid eyes on the mock boat that up until then had only existed in our imaginations. Like four-year-olds, the whole cast started jumping up and down, and we had to contain ourselves to resist running onto the set before we were permitted. We later found out that the set was even designed to make squeaking noises when certain planks were stepped on, in order to make it sound like an old boat.

Of all the shows I have been in, what makes Wild Kate unique is that we are the first people ever to perform this play. When I am asked what show I have been working on, shudders of excitement run through me as I say, “Wild Kate: it’s a world premiere.” Being the first ever to rehearse Wild Kate means that I am the first ever to play the character of Nia, as is the case for the rest of the cast and their characters. There is no way I could fall into the trap of being influenced by the choices of another actor taking on the same role, so my creativity is at its sharpest. At first glance one might see my character—as well as all the other struggling teenagers who have embarked on this boat because they can no longer handle their lives at home—as comical and shallow. In reality, though many of the characters have humorous sides, these teenagers are here because they are deeply troubled and unstable. We had the incredible chance to embrace and dissect characters that had never before been touched.

In the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program/YC coproduction of Karen Hartman’s Wild Kate,
Nia (YC student Naomi Kunstler, right) gives a report about navigation while Mariana
(YC student Anya Richkind, left) and Romare (M.F.A. Program student Joshua Roberts) listen.

A New Audience for Marcus

Thursday, November 4, 2010

posted by Zachary Moull, A.C.T. Dramaturgy Intern

A.C.T.’s dramaturgy intern, Zach Moull, one fourth of A.C.T.’s blog quadrumvirate, has been doing double-duty, serving as the assistant director for Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet in addition to his literary duties. He’s been privy to some of the amazing outreach events that a play like Marcus can facilitate, including a recent presentation to at-risk teens. Enjoy his description of the day, and check out the photos by former A.C.T. Marketing Intern Timothy Faust below!
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

A couple of weekends ago, the cast of Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet welcomed an audience into the rehearsal room for the first time since the production's opening rehearsal, when we welcomed a group of LGBT teens to an early read-through of the play.

Four weeks into the rehearsal process, the play was up on its feet and on its way to the stage. But Marcus is filled with moments that call for the actors to connect directly with the audience: the characters soliloquize, they announce their stage directions, they let the house in on private thoughts, jokes, and feelings. Such moments simply cannot become complete and meaningful in a closed rehearsal room. So the cast jumped at the special opportunity to play to a full house while the production was still taking shape.

The particular audience made the day even more exciting. Randy Taradash, associate director of marketing and promotions at A.C.T., arranged for five community groups to bring some 35 at-risk teens from all over the Bay Area to our rehearsal studios for the afternoon. For most of these teens, who face challenges like poverty, abuse, gang violence, and unstable living conditions, this was their first trip to the theater. They were shown the first act of Marcus up close in our cozy studio. Then they had a talk-back session with the cast, asking thoughtful questions about the creative process, the world of the play, and the emotional journeys that the actors had to travel. Afterwards, they met with Randy and their own group leaders to discuss what they had seen more intimately. (They’ll be back after opening night to see the whole show in the American Conservatory Theater.)

As the assistant director for Marcus, I'd seen the scenes that were performed on Sunday more times than I can count. But I hadn't yet seen performances so fresh, so detailed, and so alive. The cast opened up their performances to the whole room, engaging the audience and channeling their energy into the work. It made me excited to think about how the show would grow to fill our enormous theater space after we made the move down Geary Street to begin previews.

Marcus isn't only a coming-out story, though it certainly is a beautiful one. We've learned over the past weeks that Marcus deals with so many of the challenges of growing up: How do we sort through the influences that surround us? How are relationships redefined on the brink of adulthood? How do we find our place within a community? This is a play that speaks honestly about a difficult time in anyone’s life. So we were thrilled to have the opportunity to show Marcus to an audience that might understand it most.

Richard Prioleau (as Marcus) performs for at-risk teens.

The cast of Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet (backs to camera)
face high school students for a talk-back session.     

Ogun Size (Gregory Wallace, left) and Marcus (Richard Prioleau) 
share an intimate moment.

Osha (Shinelle Azoroh) and her best friend, Marcus (Prioleau).

Tobie L. Windham opens the show as Oshoosi Size.

Director Mark Rucker addresses the group (dramaturgy intern 
and assistant director Zach Moull sits at his right!).

Let's Go Giants!!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


And welcome home! What better way to celebrate Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet day (as today was proclaimed by the Mayor’s office), than a citywide parade! Here are some photos of the festivities from the roof of our administrative offices/school. Unfortunately, it does not quite catch the uproarious hurrahing or the continuous horn blowing, but still . . .

Marcus opens tonight, and we’re all in quite the festive mood!

An Understudy’s Dream

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

posted by Richardson Jones, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2011

If you were at the October 2 matinee of Scapin, then you were lucky enough to catch third-year M.F.A. Program student Richardson (aka Rob) Jones performing in the role of Sylvestre, Bill Irwin’s lovable sidekick. If you didn’t catch him: Rob is tall as anything, rail thin, with a deep baritone voice and a killer deadpan. We were dying to know what it was like for an understudy to finally get onstage—and next to Bill Irwin (intern crush!)—so we tracked Rob down and he told us: it was awesome.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

When I heard that Bill Irwin would be casting M.F.A. students in his production of Scapin, I wanted so badly to be a part of it. I’ve loved his work since I was a child and knew that if I could get in the room with him it would be the greatest professional and learning experience of my life. I couldn’t have been more right.

During my first year in the M.F.A. Program, Bill Irwin did a reading of Scapin that had me, and the entire room, in stitches. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much. I left the reading full of joy and went to a rehearsal of the one-act we M.F.A. students were working on: Almost, Maine, directed by René Augesen. Just as we were about to go into my scene with Stephanie DeMott, a scene rife with physical comedy, in walked Bill Irwin. I was exhilarated and terrified. Lucky for me, and for everyone, Bill is one of the kindest and most supportive men in the industry.

During the entire audition and rehearsal process for Scapin, Bill kept a presence of warmth that made working a total joy for everyone. The way he works with such brilliant ease makes every tiny movement—the smallest eyebrow lift—absolutely hilarious. It was astonishing to watch. It also didn’t hurt to be around people like Geoff Hoyle [former member of San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus and the actor playing Geronte], Kimi Okada [movement consultant], Anthony Fusco [A.C.T. core acting company member and assistant director of Scapin], Kimberly Webb [stage manager], and the brilliant company of actors, musicians, designers, and stage managers. Such pros! It was a dream!

An understudy has his or her own set of responsibilities. I knew that I would be going on, but I also knew that the hilarious Sylvestre that was coming forward in the rehearsal room was not mine, it was Jud Williford’s. It was my job to give Jud’s Sylvestre life, even though he and I are very different actors. At first I didn’t know what to do, so I looked back on my training. One of the major points of training that A.C.T. has instilled in me is to be present and to show myself: I am the one up there onstage, and there’s no way around that. (It sounds simple, I know, but opening up and showing myself has been one of the most difficult things for me to learn.) In the end, I decided that I would just do everything that Jud does, but do those things the way my Sylvestre would. Jud was so great to watch. He was always pushing things forward in the funniest ways. He was also incredibly supportive and offered a lot of guidance and insight into the role.

The day I performed the role on the stage of the American Conservatory Theater was wonderful; I’ve never had so much fun. I think the beard trick was my favorite part of performing the role. Everything about that scene is so outrageous, and being able to play in such an out-there way while still being closely connected to Bill was stupendous. Also, taking a huge sword to your own face is surprisingly fun onstage. Being on that gorgeous stage with Bill Irwin, a man who has more gifts than I can name, was the greatest thrill of my life. I was in brilliant hands; the entire company was absolutely fantastic. And there was finally that last and vital element: the audience! With their laughter and their silences they told us exactly what the rhythm of the comedy needed to be, and they became the legs to stand on. All the work that we put into comedies is never really realized until the audience shows up.

(L to R) Bill Irwin (Scapin), Richardson Jones (Sylvestre understudy), and Jud Williford (Sylvestre)

Summer Reminiscences

Monday, October 25, 2010

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

A.C.T.’s artistic director, Carey Perloff, had the most incredible summer. We are wildly jealous of her, but she was extremely generous in sharing these juicy tidbits from her journeys. A.C.T.’s season may be well underway, but we just couldn’t pass up the chance to share them with you now. Gives an intern something to dream about! And plenty to think about . . .
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

It was an incredibly peripatetic and mind-opening summer that took me from the TCG National Conference in Chicago to the Aspen Ideas Festival on top of Aspen Mountain to The Cape Cod Theatre Project in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and finally to the Getty Villa in Malibu, where I directed a major production of Sophocles’ Elektra. At the same time, we were preparing for the arrival of our new executive director, Ellen Richard, at A.C.T. and continuing discussions about the future of our facilities. Needless to say, a whole host of ideas swirled around my mind all summer.

At the heart of the TCG Conference was talk about transparency and participation: how can we create a theater environment in which more people feel engaged with the actual creation of the work and understand that it is happening locally, organically, in their own communities? Having just come off the incredible experience of creating The Tosca Project here at A.C.T., it was clear to me what happens in a community when a piece of work is made that grows directly out of the mythology of a particular place and time . . . which was an interesting starting point for me in trying to envision, or return to, a model of nonprofit theater that is really grounded in a core of artists in a particular place, rather than in the Broadway tryout mentality that has infected so much of the American regional theater.

When I got to the Aspen Ideas Festival (a collection of the most mind-blowing people, in the most beautiful place on the planet), we all gathered in a big tent the first night to listen to 20 people in three-minute bursts deliver some “big ideas.” A few really popped for me: the extraordinary Somali feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali made an impassioned cry for western democracies to take bigger responsibility for delivering a message of female education and individual rights to Islamic youth at risk of being co-opted by the jihad. NPR CEO Vivian Schiller spoke of her excitement about the rise of “public media” and alternative sources of financial support for journalism (since the marketplace can’t pay for it, even though the culture needs it). Almost everyone spoke of creating institutions and behaviors that are somehow “sustainable” in a choking world.

Playwright John Guare and I met at 9 a.m. the next morning to answer the question, “Is there a future for the live theater in America?” in front of 250 people. We could have just said “no” and called it a day, but I attempted to put all of these ideas together and paint a picture of a sustainable and vigorous theater. This kind of theater would be embedded in a particular community and take responsibility not only for keeping great works of literature alive but also for training the next generation of actors to perform them, and for educating new audiences to experience them. Rocco Landesman from the NEA was in the front row; he’s been promoting the creation of art zones in blighted American neighborhoods, so we all riffed on the Tenderloin in SF and on how the creation of transparent arts spaces in the center of that kind of neighborhood could be a catalyst for a much bigger urban conversation. It was fabulous to see so many Bay Area friends and philanthropists in the audience: Lisa Pritzker, Randy Fisher, our own Jeff Ubben, Janet McKinley, etc. I could go on and on about the remarkable scientists who spoke about breakthroughs in stem cell research, or the education track (led by NYC’s inimitable schools chancellor, Joel Klein) wrestling with literacy and falling standards, or our own Anna Deavere Smith [an A.C.T. M.F.A. Program alumna] wading into the ever-murkier waters of race in America, not to mention all your favorite New York Times columnists (Tom Friedman, David Brooks, etc.) giving pithier versions of a month’s worth of columns. Then there was hanging out chatting in the food lines (the fact that the air is thin in Aspen and the food was hugely abundant and incredibly good was real fuel for the headiness of the ideas) . . . Suffice it to say my mind was cracked open about ten times a day and I met people who rendered me absolutely speechless (and you know how rare that is).

A week later I was with playwright Nilo Cruz in Falmouth, MA, working on his new play The Color of Desire. The Cape Cod Theatre Project is run by beloved Andy Polk (of Speed-the-Plow and November fame), and I loved watching him play “producer” for the summer. He was so nurturing of the playwrights and artists who came up to that gorgeous corner of the cape to develop new work. Nilo and I got our best ideas while floating on our backs atop the gentle swells of the very warm Atlantic Ocean, talking about Cuba after the revolution and other such things.

Two weeks later I dove into the heart of vendetta-land with Elektra. We started rehearsals around Olympia Dukakis’s dining room table in Lower Manhattan with the incredibly fierce and fabulous Annie Purcell (Elektra) and Teresa Wong (cellist), carving out the choral odes of the play. Then we relocated to the Getty Villa in LA to dive in with the rest of the cast. What an incredibly rich, complex, heartbreaking, and timeless look at memory, family, revenge and love . . . and so wild to stage it in the Getty’s outdoor amphitheater surrounded by Roman gardens and statues, against the façade of the museum that houses one of the best antiquities collections in America. Every inch of the place helps fuel one’s imagination and becomes part of the play; it was hot and blue in the afternoons but by nightfall when we started staging things outside, the stars were shining and the breezes were coming off the ocean. It was mysterious and quiet and all we heard were the cries of Teresa’s cello and the sounds of human emotion against a vast landscape. A true invitation to think in a bigger way about one’s existence . . .

Annie Purcell as Elektra (right) and Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus Leader. 
Photo courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum.

Watch videos of Carey Perloff, actor and A.C.T. Trustee Olympia Dukakis, A.C.T. Associate Artist Manoel Felciano, composer/cellist Bonfire Madigan Shive, and actor Pamela Reed talking about their experience creating Elektra at the Getty Villa:

Elektra Director and Cast on Working in the Villa’s Outdoor Theater

Olympia Dukakis and Carey Perloff on the Making of Elektra

Manoel Felciano on Playing Orestes in Elektra

Pamela Reed on Working with Carey Perloff and Olympia Dukakis

Bonfire Madigan Shive on the Music for Elektra at the Getty Villa

Interns in the House!

Friday, October 22, 2010

posted by Emily, Jonathan, Zach, and Christine—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

It’s fall in San Francisco, the 2010–11 season is steaming ahead, and it’s back-to-blog time for us here at A.C.T. So much is happening that we want to share with you; the building is packed with artists darting in and out of rehearsal rooms, and we want to grab each one of them, plop them down at a computer and say, “Write! People are listening!”

But who is this “we”? Who are the new helmsmen of the A.C.T. blog—the voracious chasers of information, actors, directors, free pastries? Enter the interns: Emily Hoffman, Jonathan Carpenter, Zach Moull, Christine Miller—publications, artistic, dramaturgy, marketing.

This intern quadrumvirate will be your eyes and ears backstage at A.C.T. The people we meet! The things we see! You’ll get it all, and without having to do any of the photocopying or coffee-fetching (just kidding—A.C.T.ers get their own coffee).

Each week, we’ll bring you the voice of someone from the A.C.T. family (like Carey Perloff, our intrepid leader; Richardson Jones, a third-year student in the M.F.A. Program, who got to play opposite Bill Irwin in a matinee of Scapin; and someone special from the cast of Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet, just to name the first few posters we have on deck). But first, so you know who’s talking to you, some introductions:

EMILY (PUBLICATIONS) is a New Yorker, born and bred, who’s come West in search of greener pastures. She graduated last spring from Yale, where she concentrated in English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and directed a number of plays, her favorite of which was The Hamletmachine by German playwright Heiner Müller—a six-page, practically unstageable adaptation of Hamlet which Müller called “the shrunken head of the Hamlet tragedy.” At A.C.T., she writes articles for mainstage programs and Words on Plays, helps out with literary management and new play development, and collects millions of bios.

Favorite plays: Hamlet (Shakespeare), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Albee), The Bloodknot (Fugard), Blackbird (Harrower), and Major Barbara (Shaw).

Why theater? “It gives you license to stare. More seriously, though: it’s live. It’s a fiction, of course, but there are real live people standing there in front of you doing things to each other. It’s that double layer—the artifice, and the real, living beings underneath—that, in my mind, makes theater so radical. Especially in a world of increasing mediation and isolation. It’s why I can’t turn to the movies, even though they’re so seductive in their own way.”

ZACH (DRAMATURGY) took the long road from Toronto to San Francisco, having spent six years in Halifax on the far coast of Canada. He studied philosophy and theater at the University of King’s College, and then worked variously as a theater bartender, a teaching assistant, and the production manager for a local opera company. But he spent most of his time, really, making sketchy plays with wonderful people. Not wanting to cross the continent all at once, he stopped over at the University of Chicago last year, where he took part in playwriting and solo-performance workshops while writing about modern-day adaptations of Greek tragedy.

Favorite plays: Biography: A Game (Frisch), Radio Rooster Says That’s Bad (O’Donnell), The Seven Days of Simon Labrosse (Fréchette), Never Swim Alone (MacIvor), and Poor Boy, Zuppa Theatre’s rock-opera retelling of the Orpheus story.

Why theater? “To the question ‘What are poets for in a destitute time?’ the German philosopher Martin Heidegger once answered that poets are ‘the sayers who more sayingly say.’ I know that I will never know exactly what he means by this. I would venture, though, that on its very best nights the theater helps us more livingly live. Poetry pushes past the limits of language to more urgently express our condition; we can do something like that but on our feet. I doubt I’ll ever know exactly what I mean by this either. But knowing would be less fun.”

JONATHAN (ARTISTIC) had never lived outside of New England before starting at A.C.T. but is happy to find that San Francisco already feels like home. He graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a degree in organismic and evolutionary biology but maintained a strong connection to the arts. He spent much of his time at Harvard singing with the Din & Tonics and rekindled his passion for theater in his senior year, when he directed I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Before coming to A.C.T., Jonathan worked in the development office at M.I.T. while continuing to act and direct in the Boston area. Jonathan’s work at A.C.T. will expose him to a wide variety of the artistic department’s endeavors, from casting, to literary management and new play development, to assistant directing. He also tweets for A.C.T. under @ACTBackstage (http://www.twitter.com/ACTBackstage)!

Favorite plays: Macbeth (Shakespeare), Angels in America (Kushner), A Streetcar Named Desire (Williams), The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde), Into the Woods (Sondheim), Six Degrees of Separation (Guare), and The Marriage of Bette and Boo (Durang).

Why theater? “I’ve always had an innate, unshakable drive to see and be involved with as much theater as possible. I’ve tried to pinpoint that impulse as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve found that it has to do with theater’s power as a tool to investigate our world. Each new script raises new questions that artists get to explore in the rehearsal room. Then, performances open up the line of inquiry to a larger audience and help to test out our theories. The questions we can ask are limitless, as are the techniques we can use to answer those questions. There’s always room to learn something new.”

CHRISTINE (MARKETING) is a Bostonian who thought a year without snow might be a nice change of pace. Fresh from an exciting season at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, she is looking forward to exploring the similarities and differences of theater on the West Coast. In 2009 Christine graduated with a B.S. in public relations from Syracuse University, where she learned that it can snow in May and became passionate about helping artists fulfill their wildest theatrical dreams by getting great press and putting butts in seats. At A.C.T., Christine is responsible for a variety of projects, including managing all Tales of the City marketing initiatives.

Favorite plays: The Phantom of the Opera (Webber), The Crucible (Miller), Angels in America (Kushner), and Once on This Island (Ahrens).

Why theater? “Theater is, and always has been, an important part of our society. The cast, staff, and crew become a sort of family when working on any storytelling medium, like television and film, but in a theater the audience can, for a few hours, become a part of that family too.”

That’s us! More soon . . .

The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate: (L to R) Jonathan Carpenter (Artistic), 
Christine Miller (Marketing), Emily Hoffman (Publications), and Zach Moull (Dramaturgy)
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