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
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