The Chalk Circle Experience

Thursday, February 18, 2010

posted by Nick Childress, cast member of The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Nick Childress is a member of the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2010 and a member of the cast of John Doyle’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Nick writes about his experience rehearsing Brecht's play for the A.C.T. mainstage.

When I found out that I was cast in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, I immediately shot up to cloud nine and spent weeks up there. Then one day a fellow cast member told me, “You’re going to have a lot of fun.” Now I am blessed to be a member of the M.F.A. Program, which I am very proud of. But I am also coming to the end of three years of having every ounce of work I have done be watched and commented on by a whole lotta faculty members, staff, and peers. So, needless to say, “Fun” is not often a word in my daily vocabulary when it comes to the rehearsal process.

“What? That cannot be right,” I thought to myself. I know what fun is. I mean, I’m 25. TRUST ME, I know how to have FUN. And my idea of Fun isn’t exactly what I equate with the pressure of developing stories in a medium where everyone has an opinion. Now don’t get me wrong, this is an enjoyable profession. But it’s also a job, and people don’t have “Fun” at work. Right? That just doesn’t happen . . . And then I went into rehearsal with John Doyle, Domenique Lozano, the rest of the Chalk Circle creative team, our fantastic stage management team, and this AMAZING CAST and realized that I’ve been incredibly wrong.

What’s interesting is that I have not had this much “Fun” since I was a little kid hopping around the living room in a pillow case dancing to the Monkees. What’s also interesting is that the work I see being done on a daily basis is not only really good, but it’s inspiring for the sheer fact that there is so much creative joy in the room. John Doyle is like a walking artistic bomb shelter: he keeps all of the pressure and danger out of the room, while keeping the good vibes along with the joys of creativity in the room. And the process is efficient, effective, and productive with minimal stress.

Story and the show aside, The Caucasian Chalk Circle experience has taught me that there isn’t anything wrong with having true Fun in the workplace at all. In fact, it makes going to work a breath of fresh air, and it is something I am glad I learned so young and hope I will never forget.

The Process of Devising a Theatrical Piece

Thursday, February 11, 2010

posted by Mark Jackson 

Local director Mark Jackson is creating an ensemble-devised piece with students from the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2010. He writes about his experiences during the workshop that took place in January as part of our First Look program.

I’ve just completed a week of work with the third-year students of the Master of Fine Arts Program at A.C.T. I’d worked with them for two days back in December to get to know them and identify a subject for the piece we are to devise together in April. Unsurprisingly for a group of young actors on the verge of graduating from an M.F.A. program, conflicting thoughts about transition, change, and fame were foremost on their minds. This triad will comprise the subject of our piece.

Picking up the process again in January, we explored our subject further through a combination of activities. We played games emphasizing rhythm in movement and language and analyzed the dramaturgy of our experiences with the games. What are the rules of the game? How do we play them well? How do we play them poorly? A performance is like any sport. The rules don’t change from game to game. But some games are exciting, and some not. Why?

We brought in objects that served as metaphors for our subject. One of the actors held up a wool cap and said, “This is change. It’s reversible. I wanted this change because a woman wanted it.” He then held up a guitar pick and said, “This is fame. It’s easy to lose. I have to buy more fame because I keep losing it.” Another actor held up an empty notebook and said, “This is transition. It makes me feel a little wary. It has many pages to be filled.” We noted the connections between the metaphorical objects and their subject that felt most magical and surprising to us. Perhaps these objects will become props in our eventual piece.

I handed them a long list of seemingly unrelated narrative ingredients and gave them 30 minutes to compose two short pieces. One group told the story of a reporter hiding in a graveyard to snap pictures of a presidential candidate whom he knew was coming to visit the graves of two women he’d supposedly killed. The reporter hoped this story would revive his failing career. But when he witnessed the politician dancing tenderly with the ghost of one of the dead women, his compassion was aroused and he opted not to expose the man. The other group told the story of a theater diva who refused to go on because a certain critic had not yet arrived. When her mousy stage manager insisted the show go on, the diva committed suicide. The director coaxed the now very nervous stage manager into the diva’s shoes, and when she stepped out onstage she blossomed into confidence. These characters and situations are seeds for our eventual piece.

I asked the actors to ask three other people four questions: (1) What was a major transition in your life, from what to what? (2) What was a major change in your life? (3) Who is a famous person you admire, and why? (4) Who is a famous person you do not admire, and why? The answers revealed motifs. Transition often involved travel. The difference between the journey of transition and the destination of change was difficult for many people to discern. Obama was often admired. Paris Hilton was often not admired. Interviewees most relished the opportunity to talk about people they do not admire. We combined the experiences and views of these interviewees with the characters we’d developed in order to give the latter more texture.

In these and other ways, we’re digging up a mound of ideas while sorting through our own thoughts and feelings about our subject. In April we’ll devise a short theater piece from the bits of gold that shine out to us from the pile we’ve amassed.

Devising a piece is the most physically, intellectually, and emotionally demanding way to work, I think, because it asks so much of everyone. As performers we must also be playwrights, directors, designers, critics, and audience. The accidents that surprise us in our work are often the most exciting things, and so we must be open to embracing these “mistakes.” It takes bravery and daring to put oneself out there like that. But isn’t that at least one reason why we make theater? To encourage bravery and daring in the world? To say, “Look. I step out onstage. And I don’t die. Even when I fail. We can do this. Life is possible.”
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