Listening to History

Monday, June 28, 2010

posted by Elizabeth Brodersen, A.C.T. Publications Editor and a research dramaturg on The Tosca Project

Listen to an excerpt from Carey Perloff and Elizabeth Brodersen’s interview with Tosca Cafe owner Jeannette Etheredge, who describes her decision to buy the bar and honor its rich historical legacy. (5.6 mb)

Listen to an excerpt from Valerie Hart’s interview with Vesuvio Cafe co-owner Janet Clyde, who describes her early memories of Tosca Cafe. (2.2 mb)

On any theatrical production, it is typically the dramaturg’s job to collect research that will help the playwright, director, and performers create, shape, and authentically realize the story that will unfold onstage. Developed organically in a series of improvisatory workshops, based on real people in a real place over a 90-year period, and conceived without a conventional script, The Tosca Project presented a particularly complex challenge. What kind of information would be most helpful to the process? Where could we find it? How could we make it accessible to the cast and creators?

In addition to collecting documentary and visual research into the cultural and social history of 20th-century San Francisco—most of which ended up push-pinned to the rehearsal room walls to help keep the performers immersed in the world of the piece—we decided to go straight to the source. A team of interviewers—including dramaturgy intern Valerie Hart, dramaturg and A.C.T. Artistic Program Consultant Beatrice Basso, cocreator A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff, and myself—sallied forth into North Beach to interview an eclectic cast of local characters to give us firsthand testimony about the bar, the neighborhood, and their extravagant past. Bar owners, tenders, and regulars—from the octogenarian daughters of one of Tosca Cafe’s original founders to “Specs,” feisty owner of 12 Adler Museum CafĂ©—shared with us their memories of North Beach, in general, and Tosca, in particular. Meanwhile, Jeannette Etheredge, the current owner of Tosca Cafe and keeper of its legacy, told us profoundly moving stories about her mother, Armenian refugee Armen Baliantz, their mutual love of ballet and ballet dancers, and her experiences in and around the bar.

The audio recordings of these (hours and hours of) oral history then became part of the development process, as the creators and performers listened to them again and again, working out the nuances of movement and character, step by step, story by story. At one point, the audio even became part of the performance piece, played as voiceovers during a workshop presentation in 2007. As the storytelling evolved from the literally personal to the archetypally universal, however, the recordings fell away, but the essence of the stories and the rhythms of the storytellers’ voices remained in the performers’ psyches and bodies. What you now see onstage is the embodiment of almost a century of San Francisco history, caught on tape and released from the memory of the people who lived it.

Graduating to The Tosca Project

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

posted by Kyle Schaefer, cast member of The Tosca Project 

Kyle Schaefer, who graduated from the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program in May, writes about his experience performing on the A.C.T. mainstage and the joy of working with the artists of varied backgrounds who make up the ensemble of The Tosca Project.

The Tosca Project is my first job as a professional actor out of school. It feels oddly like home, however, and I think I’ve been realizing how prepared I am for the nuts and bolts of this profession. In many ways it has felt like any other production I’ve been involved with: get together in the room, rehearse, take breaks, rehearse again, argue a point, take direction, joke around, work hard, get frustrated, have fun. I’m certainly familiar with life at 30 Grant and the American Conservatory Theater.

However, there are also many firsts for me in this new world of postgraduation life. I don’t take it lightly that I am employed directly out of school on a world premiere at A.C.T. with seasoned actors, dancers, clowns, directors, and designers from all around the world. This has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And I fit right in.

I don’t feel like an actor, or a dancer, or a clown. I feel like a collaborator. As a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none, I have had to dig down into every corner of my artistic toolbox to help tell a story being discovered in the room. We are constantly reminded that the piece is bigger than the sum of its parts; and there are many parts! But with such a talented and diverse group of people, it is easy to trust the ebb and flow of the process. This trust and ease has been the surprising factor for me. I knew that I graduated as a skilled actor, but was unsure whether my experience would add up to being more than just a “green” actor with a lot to learn.

Of course I still have a lot to learn, but I will be able to hold my own through the early stage of building my career. So, this is why I have been training at a conservatory affiliated with a professional company! Instead of graduating as a cookie-cutter actor doing “everything I’m supposed to,” I have been allowed by my A.C.T. training to grow into an all-around artist. I am acting and dancing with some new faces, but also with people who have been my classmates, teachers, and directors and actors in projects I’ve directed. In short, this company is a community of artistic peers and creators breathing life into our love letter to San Francisco.

I’ve been somewhat self-involved and thoughtful about my personal life recently: What happens when I move? Will I get an agent? Where will I live? How am I going to make ends meet? Will I be artistically fulfilled? How awesome will it be to have a social life? How will I be able to sustain it?

But with Tosca, I just show up and get to work with an amazing group of people on a project with a lot of question marks. My training, my own life filled with question marks, and this eclectic group of bright and passionate individuals form the ideal environment in which to jump into the unknown. Much like my character at the top of the piece, I am myself embarking on a whole new life filled with surprises. The main difference is: I don’t have a mustache.

Kyle Schaefer in The Tosca Project (l to r): as the young Italian Bartender who founds Tosca Cafe in 1919 upon his arrival in San Francisco; as a sailor returning from World War II in the 1940s, with Sara Hogrefe; as a disco-dancing boy in the 1970s, with Pascal Molat. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Home Away From Home

Monday, June 7, 2010

posted by Brian Jansen, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2011 

I found this picture and wanted to share it with the A.C.T. community. It is trustee Dianne Hoge and her husband Ron with three Master of Fine Arts Program students—myself (on the right), Sara Hogrefe ’10, and Matt Bradley ’12. Clearly, we are having a ball.

Diane is one of the members of the Board of Trustees who act as a “Trustee Host” for M.F.A. Program students. What does this mean? Well, every student-trustee host relationship is different, but the general idea is that board members take a particular student or group of students under their wing. They are a familiar face at opening nights and the annual gala events; they attend our shows, cheer on our progress, and help with networking and general support during our three years here.

Dianne and Ron are incredibly gracious hosts. We get invited over to their house a few times a semester for drinks and dinner. Often they invite other artists or young people for networking, and the Hoges’ place can be something of an artist’s “salon.” We have passionate discussions about theater, A.C.T., what’s on the mainstage, and student productions. We trade ideas and stories and perspectives—and leave feeling recharged.

The Hoges have been hosting students five years in a row, so now I’m part of something of a “Trustee Host family” with Sara, Matt, and graduates James Bigelow ’09 and Jeff Irwin ’08.

The Trustee Host Program brings together two sides of the A.C.T. community that wouldn’t normally interact—the generous benefactors, who make much of the work we do possible, and us students in the trenches of training. For M.F.A. students, it’s an exhilarating addition to the experience at A.C.T., and provides something of a “home away from home.”
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