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 (!

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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