Clybourne Park: Behind the Scenes Between the Acts

Friday, January 28, 2011

In Act I of Clybourne Park, the time is 1959 and the place is a charming Chicago bungalow on moving day. In Act II, the time is 2009 and the place is that same bungalow, but you’d hardly know it—the furniture is gone, the windows have been knocked out, and there’s graffiti on the walls. Fifty years of American life and history have passed in the interim. In the theater, though, it’s been 20 minutes.

During the intermission of each performance of Clybourne Park, while theatergoers stretch their legs, use the bathroom, and/or buy drinks, monumental changes take place behind the lowered curtain on the A.C.T. stage. Furniture is removed, rugs rolled up, wallpaper stripped, and wood paneling moved in, all to create the illusion of long-term degradation. The illusion is crucial, and the payoff when the curtain is raised on the second act, priceless. But the transformation itself is fascinating, and something of a show in its own right, so we’ve decided to give you a (literally) behind-the-scenes look at what happens between the acts of Clybourne Park. (If you want to learn more about what went into designing and creating the Clybourne Park set, check out the interview with scenic designer Ralph Funicello in Words on Plays, available at the theater and online.)
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Video shot by A.C.T. Scenic Design Associate Kevin McPherson
Edited by Marketing Fellow Christine Miller

Even the Sky Is Not the Limit: The A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program Sky Festival, Part 2

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

posted by Dan Rubin, Publications and Literary Associate

Last week, Publications and Literary Associate Dan Rubin introduced us to three of the projects in A.C.T.’s brand-new Sky Festival. During the month of January, an eclectic array of A.C.T. M.F.A. Program students, faculty, and core company actors have been collaborating on passion projects of their choosing, putting together fully realized productions in just two weeks. Midway through the intensive rehearsal process, Dan checks in with three of these extraordinary ventures.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Day 7 • 10 a.m. to 12:50 p.m.Project: The Wild Goose
Director: Marisa Duchowny (M.F.A. Program Class of 2011)

“I like the messier shirt. The shaggier one,” Marisa tells second-year student Alex Crowther. “I want both men to be in whites and blacks—neutrals—so that she’s the splash of color.” The color comes from first-year Rebekah Brockman’s flamenco skirt, which she’s borrowing from the costume shop. She’s paired it with a black dress and a black corset, and she looks like she belongs in some badass western. Alex and Ethan Frank (also a first-year) are in jeans and t-shirts with suspenders; they’re experimenting with bowler hats.

Marisa has set up the room before we arrive. The stage takes up most of it. Stage right, there’s a mountain of studio blocks. Stage left are two benches and a piano abstractly covered in black plastic chairs. The slanted back wall of the studio, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, is clearly the intended backdrop. The visible skyline is why Marisa chose this room for her performance. (Later, when Alex’s character, Jameson, follows the flight of the wild goose—that symbol of “nameless longing”—he gazes out the window. I imagine that magical possibility: what if a goose were to fly by the window at this very moment?). Marisa hands Alex a small plastic gun, and rehearsal begins.

This is the final day of blocking. The actors are basically off book, but they call for lines occasionally and refer to their scripts for longer passages. They’re at that point of not knowing the words perfectly, but they don’t want to be encumbered by pages in their hands. Much of the first half of rehearsal is devoted to the burial of Ramona, Rebekah’s character. “I’ve loved the Sky Festival,” Rebekah tells me after rehearsal. “You get a chance to see all of the sides of theater and what goes into making a show.” She mentions the wish lists Marisa had the actors bring to the first rehearsal. “She was really open with letting us bring in something we wanted to do, other facets of theater that we’re passionate about, and working them into the show.”

Alex and Ethan take the plastic chairs from the piano in the back of the room and strategically place them over Rebekah while singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” They play with different variations of stacking, careful not to make it uncomfortable for Rebekah, who will have to remain still beneath them. Once they have that blocking down, they practice their processional to and from the piano. At first Marisa wants them to take their time, because both men have lovely singing voices; then she changes her mind, worried it’s slowing the play down too much.

Comparatively, the remaining two pages of text are easy to block, and it’s done—the first draft of the show is complete. Tomorrow at the first run, they will see the culmination of all they’ve created up to this point. “It’s been great,” Marisa tells me. “And I’m so excited by the possibility of what it will become. We have all the pieces now. Tomorrow we get to put them all together.”

The chair burial in The Wild Goose: director Marisa Duchowny (L) watches (L to R) 
Rebekah Brockman, Alex Crowther, and Ethan Frank.

Day 7 • 2 p.m. to 4:50 p.m.Project: Happy to Stand
Director: Domenique Lozano (Actor, Director, Translator, A.C.T. Associate Artist, and M.F.A. Program Faculty)

Marisa’s set for the surrealist Wild Goose spans the width of one of our largest studios; Domenique’s claustrophobic scenic design, on the other hand, traps her actors in a box even smaller than the 78-square-foot tenement apartment the family in Happy to Stand inhabits. At times, there are as many as five actors crammed into the space, along with the furniture. This apartment will seem even tighter when there’s an audience surrounding them on three sides.

The cramped Happy to Stand set

“It’s been going really well,” Domenique tells me. “It’s been good not having a lot of time or stuff. You get to what’s important faster.” Faster is not to be confused with rushed. That much is clear from the bit of rehearsal I sit in on, during which the seasoned director massages the two major monologues of Happy to Stand’s first act. First she works with Bay Area actor Barbara Oliver on Gram’s prologue—or, I guess, it’s Barbara’s prologue, as she has not yet taken on the role of Gram. Or, rather, it is both Barbara and Gram’s prologue, because we watch the actor become Gram before our eyes. It is the refining of this nuanced transition that is the most fun to watch. Barbara dons a wig with the help of “the theater’s hairdresser” (played by Marisa Duchowny, who will later play Gram’s granddaughter, Jenni) as she quickly recaps the final events of The Finnhorse, the prequel to Happy to Stand. As soon as this arming-of-the-hero is complete, the hairdresser is dismissed, and, as the stage direction reads, “the actress takes on her role; it is raining.” Barbara transports us from the theater to Gram’s rainy, autumn afternoon in a Finnish ghetto.

Conservatory Director Melissa Smith and third-year Richardson Jones (Rob) arrive, and Domenique jumps to the final scene of the first act—the final moment of what she will be presenting. This scene builds up to a beautifully rambling monologue from Melissa’s character, Aili, the divorced and unemployed 58-year-old mother who lost her farm and now lives here with her elderly mother. The first time we run through it, we stop before the monologue takes off. Something is missing. Domenique reminds her cast, “By this point, we are carrying all the disappointments and jealousies and anger—all of that. You guys could just go at it!” And suddenly the pace is faster; the words are weapons; the room is a dangerous thunderstorm. This momentum carries Melissa into her frantic attempt to catalogue what’s solid about Aili’s life. We do it again. Each time we work this, Melissa digs deeper into the desperation of this woman’s struggle to build something, to reclaim something, to find hope in . . . anything. It’s pretty incredible to witness.

Then the scene continues. Domenique does not tell them to continue; there just seems to be some unspoken understanding: “Yes. That’s it. That’s what it should be. We can move on.” And on we go to the end of the act.

Day 8 • 2:30 p.m. to 4:50 p.m. • Project: Thieves
Director: Matt Bradley (M.F.A. Program Class of 2012)

Yesterday Rebekah was buried beneath a pile of chairs in Marisa’s Wild Goose rehearsal. Today in Matt Bradley’s Thieves, she will have her heart broken. She plays Kate to first-year Titus Tompkins’s Hal—Matt’s reimagining of Lady Percy and Prince Henry from Henry IV, Part 1. “Thieves shows so many different colors to these characters,” Rebekah tells me about Thieves’s take on Shakespeare’s villainous crew. “You love and hate and disrespect and admire them, all that they are, every side of them. And that’s what Matt’s been able to pull out—that relationships are complicated. There is a difference between what’s a superficial relationship and what’s a deeper mating of souls.”

Rehearsal begins with the Space Ballet I had heard about the last time I sat in on rehearsal. As their warm up, Rebekah and Titus go through the ballet’s routine of weight-sharing exercises. There are flips over shoulders. They do that hands-free airplane move, with Rebekah balancing on Titus’s feet. They make me wince with worry that someone is going to fall on their head. Matt has seen these acrobatics before and is less awestruck: “We need to make our storytelling clearer,” he tells his actors. “So it’s more than just pretty.”

Despite it’s funny name, the Space Ballet has seriously romantic underpinnings. It’s a dream sequence in which Hal realizes that he is falling in love with Kate. I soon realize that Matt’s a choreographer, helping the dancers “find the rise together” and create “the smallest movements” to show how sweet and off-balance new love is, how exciting it is to discover the touch of new skin and the brush of new lips. “Alright,” Matt directs. “Let’s take it from the whoosh.”

But it’s just a dream. Love is never quite so, well, choreographed. We move on to the “morning after” scene. Kate and Hal have just had sex after a drunken night of partying. “How can we create a 180-mile-an-hour version of that awkwardness? It’s weird, but it’s also really cute. How do we amp that up?” Matt asks. Vague apologies lead into the first confessions of affection. They tentatively size up each other’s love—and their own. There is a lot of saying the wrong thing and more than a few accidental kisses. “Make the awkwardness the obstacle that you always have to overcome. Smash into each other with your awkwardness” After half an hour, it’s become a lovely beginning.

Which makes the final scene of rehearsal all the more devastating. “We’re going to take the blue mats out and we’re going to do the sadness,” Matt says. We begin and suddenly Matt’s colloquial modern-day mash up of dialogue flows effortlessly into Henry IV, Part 1, act 2, scene 3:

Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war
And thus hath so bestirr'd thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;
And in thy face strange motions have appear’d,
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest. O, what portents are these?
Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,
And I must know it, else he loves me not.

It’s the breakup scene, when Hal tells Kate he does not love her. The emotions escalate until the actors are wrestling on the ground (thus the need for blue mats), screaming at each other, hitting, pleading, crying. I’ve only lived with this couple for an hour, but watching their destruction hurts. After a few times through, we’re all a bit overcome. “This is what I am talking about,” Matt says with unusual quietness. “Words. The basic things you can say: ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Come with me.’ Basic. But it has the possibility to be about . . . you were fighting, but I didn’t care about Rebekah, Titus, Kate, Hal. It’s just all transcendent. I want to keep that recklessness. That rawness. There’s even more to mine out of our hearts, our own capacity for feeling. And let’s go away on that.”

Director Matt Bradley (R) watches Rebekah Brockman and Titus Tompkins.

An Actor Reflects: The Intricate Choreography of Colonial Hong Kong

Friday, January 21, 2011

posted by Anna Ishida, Bay Area actor and Shotgun Players ensemble member 

In December, First Look, A.C.T.’s program for new-play development, hosted celebrated director, choreographer, writer, and multimedia artist Ping Chong for a workshop of Bright Eye of the Moon, a new theater piece commissioned from Chong by A.C.T. A theatrical adaptation of a short story by 20th-century Chinese writer Eileen Chang (also author of the story that inspired the film Lust, Caution), Bright Eye follows Ge Weilong, a teenage schoolgirl in colonial Hong Kong, as she is led by her decadent Aunt Liang into a world of extravagance and vice.

Chong rehearsed his script with a cast of local and out-of-town actors that included A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis, Conservatory Director Melissa Smith, and second-year M.F.A. Program student Christina Lorenn Elmore. The cast delved into the intricacies of the script, with Ping revising the text each night based on the day’s work and on discussions with A.C.T. Resident Dramaturg Michael Paller. Under Chong’s direction, the actors also explored the rich physical life of two key scenes: a moment early in the play when Weilong (played in the workshop by Zoe Chao) petitions her estranged aunt (played by Jade Wu) for help to stay in Hong Kong when the rest of her family moves to Shanghai, and a later sequence in which Weilong surrenders to the seductive affections of George (played by Dion Mucciacito, who appeared at A.C.T. in Boleros for the Disenchanted), the layabout son of an influential family.

The four-day workshop culminated in a private presentation for A.C.T. staff, trustees, donors, and a delegation from San Francisco’s Asian American Theater Company. Bay Area actor and Shotgun Players ensemble member Anna Ishida played Aunt Liang’s scheming maid Ying Ying; we asked her to tell us about working with Ping Chong at A.C.T.
— The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

In early December I got the news from [A.C.T. Artistic Associate] Carly Cioffi that I’d been cast in the workshop of Ping Chong’s new play Bright Eye of the Moon at A.C.T.

Upon entering A.C.T.’s sixth-floor 99-seat theater, I was greeted warmly by fellow actors I'd seen or worked with in my years here in the Bay Area and by new faces from places such as San Diego and New York City.

Ping sat at the head of the table in an unassuming grey hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing beautiful, slender forearms and fingers that conducted his ideas to the group as he spoke. On the second day of the workshop, [Artistic Director] Carey Perloff stopped by to give Ping a vigorous hug and several rubs of his closely shorn head—a very sweet moment.

Ping had created a rich and complex world for the actors and the audience to enter into. To get a “feel” for the era in which Bright Eye is set, he showed us movies that featured family politics and class/status in a “traditional” 1930s–1940s Hong Kong home, as well as cultural and societal dynamics in the Shanghai public/private sphere.

Bright Eye is adapted from a short story written in the ’40s by Eileen Chang called “Aloeswood Incense.” It was interesting for me to work on a piece that is adapted from a piece of literature, and interesting to think about the difference between an Asian piece written by an Asian playwright and an Asian story told in a Western voice. Ping’s direction was very much like intricate choreography: “Light the cigarette and take a long drag before you give the other character your decision,” or “Turn your body a quarter turn before you proceed with the next line.” His stage directions paint lush environments in Hong Kong, which was at that time under British occupation and soon to experience the upheaval of war.

In the work of Wilde, Shaw, and Austen, societal constructs/constraints are often the source of conflict for the protagonist. Ping’s work similarly gives audiences a vivid perspective of Hong Kong during a time of huge cultural divergence: metropolitan/cosmopolitan Western influence vs. the traditional/conservative “Chinese way.” The generational differences of womanhood and self-reliance are beautifully played out between the young female lead character and the ostracized auntie she solicits for help.

The audience at the final reading very nearly filled the house. I had to leave immediately as the applause ebbed to catch the BART back to Berkeley, in order to make the call time for the show I was performing in—but still it was a lovely, lovely experience. Merry Christmas to me!

Actors read a scene during the workshop's final presentation: 
(L to R) Nonoko Sato, Christina Lorenn Elmore, and Anna Ishida.

Jade Wu (center), as Aunt Liang, lingers over a cigarette during one of the presentation's 
staged scenes. Behind her, (L to R) actors Dion Mucciacito, Keiko Carreiro, and 
Michael Uy Kelly follow along in their scripts.

Dion Mucciacito (George) and Zoe Chao (Weilong) play their love scene.

Photos by Zach Moull

Even the Sky Is Not the Limit: The A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program Sky Festival, Part 1

Thursday, January 20, 2011

posted by Dan Rubin, Publications and Literary Associate 

For most of January, all of our students and faculty are in one place, creatively speaking. This may not seem all that notable (we are a school, after all), but consider: the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program is divided into three years, and each year has its own densely packed, carefully constructed curriculum. Although there is some overlap, for the most part the students in each year take different classes with different teachers, and perform in different shows in different venues. They even have different vacation schedules. And every minute of every day (okay, they’re allowed a few hours to sleep each night) is dedicated to some pedagogical activity intended to make master theater artists out of these young actors, leaving little time for personal creative expression. But this month, the entire A.C.T. faculty and student body are deeply engaged in one theatrical endeavor: the Sky Festival.

The Sky Festival is a logical extension of The Leap, two days of collaborative creation that begin each A.C.T. school year, involving students, faculty, and members of A.C.T.’s artistic staff. “The Leap generated such a sense of community,” explains Conservatory Project Coordinator Rebecca Nestle, “that we wanted to expand on that by letting people work together longer and more in-depth.” For the Sky Festival, students, faculty, and core acting company members submitted proposals for projects they were personally passionate about. Thirteen of those projects—ranging from self-written and -devised work to movement-based interpretations of printed texts and conventional explorations of “straight” plays—began rehearsals on Monday, January 10. Two weeks of intense rehearsal and exploration will culminate in two days of in-house presentations to the A.C.T. conservatory community in late January.

We cannot follow all 13 projects (and still do our day jobs), so we asked Publications and Literary Associate Dan Rubin to choose just three and report on what he discovers while visiting the beginning, middle, and end of the Sky Festival process.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Day 1 • 10 a.m. to 12:50 p.m.Project: The Wild Goose
Director: Marisa Duchowny (M.F.A. Program Class of 2011)

“The first time I read this play, I was laughing out loud every couple lines,” Marisa Duchowny tells me when I ask why she chose John Patrick Shanley’s delightfully jarring 13-page play The Wild Goose as her Sky Festival project. “I was taken with how odd it was and yet, at the same time, how deep and meaningful it was. It’s like the line from the play: ‘You got through to me. You were right there heading for gibberish, but the meaning got through.’ Things didn’t make sense until they made sense.” A longtime fan of Shanley’s “risky” and “complex” work, Marisa found the play when she was looking for showcase monologues and thought, “This play can change the air in a room. People have to pay attention to it.”

Marisa thrives on collaboration. She asks her cast to bring a lot of themselves into the room, and for the first rehearsal her three actors—second-year student Alex Crowther and first-years Rebekah Brockman and Ethan Frank—bring in wish lists, things they, as performers, want to explore during their two weeks of rehearsal. One cast member wants to try singing in three-part harmony; another wants to work on embodying a Tasmanian devil; the third wants to tap into the power of silent film actors. “I want to put the actors at the edges of their own talents, push them to their maximums,” the director tells me. Marisa also finds inspiration in movement and music. She has brought in video clips of the Parisian street Apache dance and is interested in playing with reverse stop motion (à la Ace Ventura) and shadow work. It is a room of experimentation and possibility.

Marisa begins her first rehearsal by reading an email from Shanley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Doubt: A Parable: “I want you to make the play what you think it should be. Express yourself,” he tells her. “As for what it’s about: it’s about theater. Happy New Year. Love, John.” This is just what the director was hoping to hear. “No one is reviewing this. If we feel like we have accomplished our own desires and wishes, then I’ve met my goal. The fact that the Sky Festival has given me this opportunity to work my own imagination and my creativity and say this is mine and this is ours—that feels like I am renewing a part of myself.”

Image research for The Wild Goose

Day 1 • 2 p.m. to 4:50 p.m.Project: Happy to Stand
Director: Domenique Lozano (Actor, Director, Translator, A.C.T. Associate Artist, and M.F.A. Program Faculty)

After the lunch break, I follow Marisa into Domenique Lozano’s first rehearsal of Happy to Stand, by Finnish playwright Sirkku Peltola. Domenique is working with her own Americanized version of a British translation of a play that is the follow-up to Peltola’s 2005 play The Finnhorse. After we begin, Domenique shares with us her love of Finnish theater. In graduate school, she studied under renowned Finnish director Mikko Viherjurri, whom she visited in Finland. She explains that she adores Happy to Stand in part because the story is told from the perspective of two storytellers Americans don’t hear from often: Aili, a down-but-not-out mother in her late 50s, and Gram, a vivacious grandmother who, according to her less-than-certain physicians, is between 80 and 100 years old. The two women live together in a 78-square-foot tenement apartment after losing the family farm. By way of telling us why she chose this project, Domenique reads from the Sky Festival proposal she submitted, interjecting at times:

Happy to Stand reveals in a dark, yet funny way, a family in crisis. Because the landscape of Finland is foreign to us, we are able to see this family, their traumas, their quirks, their flaws, and their ferocity to survive, unfold in a unique way. Unique expectations, a lack of entitlement, and searing, yet safe truth telling . . .”—Which I love. People tell the truth in this play. There’s no stuff tucked away in the corners. It’s out.—“. . . makes this story unfold in irresistible, fresh, and powerful ways. What it has to say about the strength of family, the will to survive . . .”—I think Gram says in the play, “A family could live in a foxhole if they had to.”—“. . . the need to find hope, real, true, and powerful hope—is, I believe, tremendously valuable, and something worth experiencing.”

Because the Sky Festival lasts only two weeks, Domenique—who just directed her sixth production of A Christmas Carol for A.C.T.’s mainstage and recently starred as Beatrice in Cal Shakes’s Much Ado About Nothing—will present just the first act of the play, but it is clear she is working within the context of the two-play cycle. She pulls out her dramaturgy binder: “There are a lot of little things (definitions, references) and some bigger things, like the geography of Finland and places Gram talks about in her stories from when she was a little girl.”

Marisa is one of five actors working on this project, along with first-year student Tyee Tilghman, third-year Richardson Jones, Conservatory Director Melissa Smith, and local actor Barbara Oliver (the only actor in the Sky Festival not directly associated with the school). Tyee isn’t at rehearsal when we start: Domenique is sharing him with another Sky Festival project, “Which is fine,” she says. “The Sky Festival is about saying, ‘Yes!’ to everything. This is going to be down and dirty. The one prop I’ve asked for is a television set, but if we don’t get one, we’ll be okay with a box. That’s the water we are swimming in right now—tell the story with what we’ve got—which is really great.”

Day 2 • 2 p.m. to 4:50 p.m.Project: Thieves
Director: Matt Bradley (M.F.A. Program Class of 2012)

I walk into Matt Bradley’s second rehearsal of Thieves not knowing what to expect. The project is Matt’s “liberated” arrangement of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part I, to which he has added stolen and original writing in order “to piece together the fresh and compelling tale of the Thieves of Eastcheap.” I open the rehearsal room door to hear Green Day’s “I Walk Alone” blasting from a stereo. When we begin, Matt pauses the music. “In the spirit of yesterday, just to keep up the momentum, find a line of your character’s that you like; let the music inform how you approach finding a physical gesture or series of actions that represent a want that your character has; and then we are going to fuse the line and the action with something I’ve invented called the Rock Star Runway.” Green Day comes back on. The actors move around in their own spaces for few minutes, and then Matt tells them to find partners: “Touch. Get physical. Get tactile.” It gets rowdy. After a couple of minutes of this, Matt lines them up on either side of a makeshift catwalk, and one by one, the actors rock their way down the runway and perform their lines—all the while, their collaborators call to them. “Make them feel like gods,” Matt directs his mosh pit.

Director Matt Bradley (left) with Thieves cast doing the Rock Star Runway

And then the music goes off. The warm up is over. Matt gets down to business. He releases most of his actors—a collection of students from all three years, plus an artistic intern—for the first hour, because he wants to focus on just one scene between second-years Jessica Kitchens and Jason Frank. Given the mood of the room up to this point, the move is, well, surprising. I realize Matt knows exactly what he wants to get done today. As two actors leave the room, he shouts after them, “I’m going to save the space ballet for last today.”

This juxtaposition comes to define the rehearsal. This movement-oriented process is as much a part of Matt’s Sky Festival project as the script. He wrote in his proposal that the text is only half the project. “The other half is to generate a method of exciting physical storytelling to frame the drama and incorporate live music to keep the beat. The aim of the project is to present a fast-paced physical exploration of an original story from a classical text in the traditions of Shakespeare and Shepard.”

Matt follows his impulses, as well as the impulses of his cast. Jessica tells Matt that she thinks the sister-brother relationship between her character and Jason’s is similar to that of wolf cubs wrestling. “Great,” Matt says. “I’ll find some wolf cub music.” And he does. As the brats paw at each other, the ridiculousness is mediated by Matt pausing and rearranging the two actors, telling them to raise the stakes of a given moment. “Alright, Jason, now try to give Jessica a wet willy—and Jessica, don’t you let him.”

The trick gets some impressive results.

The Rings of the City: On Class, Race, and the Urban American Landscape

Friday, January 14, 2011

Issue-rich plays like Clybourne Park—which deals with such fraught subjects as gentrification, race, and the flimsiness of liberal sentiment—tend to throw the dramaturgy and publications departments at A.C.T. into a gleeful frenzy of research, fact-finding, and heated debate. For the past two months our offices have been littered with maps of Chicago (where Clybourne Park is set), statistics about the racial makeup of the Bay Area, photos of old Chicago bungalows and high-rise housing projects, and YouTube videos showcasing the race-based humor of Dave Chappelle, Dick Gregory, and Richard Pryor (the play is a comedy, after all).

To bring some of that research and debate to our audience, A.C.T. has arranged a new discussion series, Experts Talk Back, during the Clybourne Park run. Five experts in various aspects of urban development will participate in postperformance in-theater conversations about some of the provocative issues raised by the play.

This week, A.C.T. Publications Intern Emily Hoffman trekked over to Berkeley to do some in-person investigation with one of those experts, UC Berkeley Professor Richard Walker. Professor Walker teaches in the geography department, specializing in economic geography, regional development, capitalism and politics, cities and urbanism, resources and environment, class, and race. His books include The Capitalist Imperative: Territory, Technology, and Industrial Growth and The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled City at Bay: The Making of the San Francisco-Oakland Metropolis. He shared with us his passionate views on class and race and how their intersection shapes the geography of modern urban life.

If you would like to discuss these issues with Professor Walker in person, make sure to stop by Experts Talk Back at the American Conservatory Theater after the 8 p.m. performance on January 27.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Clybourne Park is a play about gentrification, but it really uses gentrification as a vehicle to talk about race, or to talk about how we can’t talk about race. What does gentrification have to do with race?
Gentrification is primarily about class, actually, because it’s about the money in your pocket. And the loans you can get that allow you to go in and buy old houses and fix them up. It’s also about the problems that poor people face in trying to maintain housing, maintain their position in the city. At the same time, there’s also gentrification that moves into emptied-out manufacturing districts where it doesn’t displace much of anything—like North Oakland, the uptown district, was parking lots. That is gentrification, but it’s not displacement. You can’t lard everything onto that word. Gentrification can also be improvement.

But it can certainly have racial implications. We know that race and class often align. Although they are different, and they don’t align exactly as the old Left thought they did, they do align a lot. And race can give gentrification an inflection that’s often meaner or nastier. In the Bayview [neighborhood of San Francisco], you have a process of gentrification where you see some real displacement: black people just can’t afford to stay there anymore. They’re selling out—often because their house is their only asset—and they’re moving to the ’burbs. Also, young black people don’t have the money to compete in the San Francisco housing market. So you’re seeing a really dramatic decline of African Americans in San Francisco.

It’s interesting what you say about class, because class isn’t something that’s explicitly talked about in the play.
Race is hard to talk about. The disjunction between the obvious of what people look like, which is race in gross, and our desire to overlook the specific effects of actual discrimination makes the issue extremely tense. Class isn’t tense, because no one talks about it. We all just say “the middle class.” That’s the great American myth, that everyone’s middle class: it’s bullshit. I guess the only good news of this last horrible decade is that people are kind of willing to talk about the super rich again, often critically. But there’s a lot of confusion about who that is, and that’s a confusion that the Republicans and the Right exploit very well. They tell the people in Kansas, “It’s those queer theater people in New York who are oppressing you,” which is simply not true. On the other hand, the liberals don’t want to face up to it either. They don’t want to cop to the fact that to be a lawyer or a doctor or a professor is to be a part of the elite. Class is complicated, and class is ugly, and class is ill-considered, and we don’t even have a language, we don’t even have terms with which to discuss it. In Europe, class is easier to talk about. The discussion doesn’t necessarily make for a revolution, but at least they talk about it. We [in the United States] don’t even gather data about it. In France, they don’t collect data on race. We have great data on race, but we have crappy data on class. They actually have data on class.

As a geographer, how do you see class struggle play out in the landscape of a city?
A lot of my writing about cities, and what geographers write about cities, is about struggles over space. Fights over the urban landscape. What you see and what you get today is a result of decades and decades of struggle over various spaces. Some of the successful struggles have left you with bits of the urban landscape that you find “charming” or “lovely,” like historical preservation struggles or battles over restricting downtown development and saving Chinatown or North Beach. Even today, just to say, “Let the market decide, people who have the money can live where they want,” is simpleminded. You also have the right to fight that, to say, “No, the market is not God, it doesn’t have the right, and people with money don’t have the right to make all of the decisions.”

What sorts of data do you collect for your writing about cities?
Almost anything. We [urban geographers] are pretty eclectic. You can use census-type data, like a social scientist; you can use archives, like a historian; you can do interviews and ethnography, like an anthropologist. Some of the evidence we use that no one else uses is the physical landscape. We use buildings and street patterns. I try to teach the students in my urban field class to look at a map and say, “Wow, that kind of a street pattern is weird. How did that happen? It must be a sign that this was a new development that was stuck onto the older city.” It’s using all that cartographic and physical evidence, literally the landscape we look at. If a plaster front on a building is being torn down and I see a brick wall exposed, I can see, “Oh, that was actually a brick warehouse.” I can look at the brick and tell you if it was pre-industrial brick, 19th-century brick, or 20th-century brick. Cities are like trees—you can read the layers like tree rings.

We printed out racial demographic maps of Chicago and San Francisco for the walls of the Clybourne Park rehearsal room, and they’re fascinating.
All you have to do is throw up a map of where people live by race, and segregation and inequality are just obvious. Then I throw up a map about life expectancy. There’s a nice one that the Alameda County people did, in the East Bay, and it’s stark. Or you do income and race, and you see that the upper-income people are white.

Mortality Rate by Census Tract, Alameda County. 

That’s not enough, of course, because you can lie with maps just like you can lie with statistics, just like you can lie with words, and you can lie with plays. They can be very revealing and they can mask the truth, too. A lot of people think that maps are the objective truth. But there’s a whole history of people writing in geography about how maps are instruments of power. The whole history of mapping going back to the European conquest reveals that maps are literally a tool of conquest. That’s why governments always send the military guys out to map territory. That was one of the first things the Europeans did [in the Americas] so they could suppress the Indians, draw their boundaries, allocate the land, sell it off, and say, “This is our national territory—don’t step on it.” Maps have a very dual life.

Where is gentrification taking us? What does the future look like for American cities?
This gentrification discussion needs to be put in the context of how cities are essentially transformed every generation. In every new era of capitalism and modernity we shift the things we want. Take electronic infrastructure: we want Wi-Fi everywhere now, which means rewiring the city. Whereas in 1900 creating infrastructure meant getting sewers and fresh water supply, and digging up everything to do that. Every new generation redoes the city. When you’re young, you think, “Oh, this is the city. This is what cities look like. I know what New York looks like.” But you’ve got no idea! My New York and your New York and the New York of my parents are three radically different spaces.

As Marshall Berman famously pointed out in his book All That Is Solid Melts into Air, it’s our cities that are our greatest monuments to modernity. And the remaking of the physical landscape is often the way we see, interpret, and talk about modernity.

Shades of Laughter

Friday, January 7, 2011

posted by Beatrice Basso, Dramaturg 

Rehearsal for Bruce Norris’s incendiary comedy Clybourne Park is in full swing at A.C.T., and nervous laughter is already reverberating in the halls. The play, a send-up of white middle-class liberal mores, relies heavily on humor to explore such loaded issues as gentrification, class, and “racial sensitivity,” but, as production dramaturg Beatrice Basso illuminates below, the humor is anything but comforting. As Ben Brantley wrote in his review of last winter’s New York production of Clybourne Park, Norris “sprinkl[es] the theatrical equivalent of itching powder on his characters and on us.” Audiences in New York, Washington, D.C., and London have loved the itch, though, and so does Basso.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

“Let’s have ‘We are the World’ as the initial song in the play,” jokes Clybourne Park director Jonathan Moscone. In a play that’s all about the persistent conflicts and embarrassments of race relations, a play that’s both a tragedy and a satire, that would be ridiculous. The whole room laughs. These kinds of moments happen a lot these days: silliness and laughter are encouraged as we work on this play that sets out to expose our missteps and foibles. And yet I am finding more and more in this rehearsal process that laughter is not a simple phenomenon, particularly when we are confronted with situations or topics that we find charged, that we find shameful.

As the production dramaturg, you have the privileged and strange position of being able to walk in and out of the rehearsal studio, based on the demands of your own schedule and your assessment of when your research or feedback will be most useful. So I enter the room late in the afternoon today after hours of office work: the big C-word joke in the play is underway. It’s a pretty offensive joke. I haven’t been present for that section before, and I freely laugh at the punch line. The rest of the room—director, assistant director, stage management team, cast members not involved in the scene—however, remain dead quiet. Is it because they’ve already heard the joke a number of times and numbness has set in, as often happens in a rehearsal process? Or am I the only idiot who doesn’t have the grace to privately (rather than publicly) laugh? Thank god this is a joke made at the expense of white women, and I am one, I think. I console myself with just that: “Relax, you basically laughed at yourself.” Still . . .

We go back a few pages. Now a white character makes a joke about a stereotypical view of black men in prison. The joke is meant to be delivered in a way that is awkward rather than funny, and it’s the character’s awkwardness that elicits full and general laughter. I experience that sense of freedom and relief that comes from a shared reaction. So much better than laughing alone. One feels justified and almost dutiful as laughter feeds laughter: “Look, he’s laughing, too.” But, because we are complicated animals, there’s also a little aftertaste: an awareness of something besides the awkwardness that is funny, which stems from an impulse that is more dubious, perhaps even racist.

Delivering this same joke later in rehearsal, the white actor puts on a stereotypical “black voice.” I have the total impulse to laugh at that—the actor is being very funny—and yet I stop myself. I really don’t know if laughing is appropriate; there are African American actors in the room; I tell myself that I should wait for others to laugh, as one can’t write explanatory footnotes to justify a burst of laughter. Maybe in the anonymity of a larger room, when we’re all in the theater, I might find myself laughing there, too, aftertaste and all . . .

Too much second-guessing, I know, and yet this play does that to you. We laugh our heads off one minute, surrounded by a general roar, or possibly completely alone, but we laugh; the next moment we may find ourselves questioning the very source of that instinctual reaction. It’s like a game, and we can only play along, willing to let go, to embarrass ourselves, to then think about it, maybe forget, and then laugh a little more—in recognition, mixed with distancing, mixed with delight, mixed with embarrassment.

ABOVE Beatrice Basso, production dramaturg, in rehearsal for Clybourne Park. Photo by Jonathan Carpenter.)

Live from Krakow

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

posted by Carly Cioffi, A.C.T. Artistic Associate 

Situated on the banks of the Vistula River in southern Poland, Krakow is one of that country’s, and Eastern Europe’s, cultural centers. Dating from the seventh century, the city wears its history on its opulent sleeve: Renaissance, Baroque, and Gothic buildings fill the Old Town; venerable churches and museums abound. With a number of prominent universities, theater companies, and countless festivals, Krakow is an artistic and intellectual haven.

In 2009, San Francisco (another artistic and intellectual haven) and Krakow were named sister cities. Ted Taube, head of Taube Foundation, and Christopher Kerosky, Polish consul in San Francisco, travelled to Krakow on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s behalf to sign an agreement intended to open the road for business, cultural, and civic exchange between the cities. A.C.T.—which already sends two of its M.F.A. Program students to San Miniato, Italy, to train each summer and collaborates with theaters in England and Switzerland to develop work for young actors through the Young Conservatory’s New Plays Program—immediately began investigating this new opportunity for increased international exchange.

In December (during a snowstorm so severe in Poland that it made the local news here in San Francisco), that investigation bore fruit: A.C.T. Artistic Associate Carly Cioffi and M.F.A. Program Head of Physical Theater Stephen Buescher travelled to Krakow as A.C.T. emissaries, charged to take in as much of Krakow’s flourishing theater scene as they could in a whirlwind three days. With support from Taube Foundation and The Polish Cultural Institute in New York, Cioffi and Buescher were able to attend the third annual Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival and to visit Krakow’s foremost actor-training program, the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts. Cioffi gives us a glimpse of thriving Krakow culture.

–The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

I am writing from the Steigenberger Hotel Franken-Langen, down the freeway from the Frankfurt airport, where Stephen Buescher and I have been shelved by Lufthansa after our plane was delayed and rerouted due to some crazy winter storms over here. We have been in Krakow this past week checking out the local theater scene. It has been a whirlwind trip, clouded slightly by jetlag and fierce weather, but fascinating and awakening all the same.

As some of you know, San Francisco and Krakow agreed to be sister cities beginning in 2009, and from the outset A.C.T. has been hungry to establish a connection between the two cultures via theater. Poland as a whole has certainly been very influential in the theater world for many years, but Krakow, specifically, has many great artists that call the city home, as well as many it can claim through history. It also has arguably the best advanced actor and director training program in Poland [the Ludwik Solski Academy]. It is also one of the most spectacular and unique cities I have ever seen, as it has maintained much of its original design and architecture, dating from the 14th century. No modern buildings, no traffic-filled streets. The city is designed around a gorgeous stone plaza surrounded by centuries-old buildings. Lots of long, narrow, cobblestone streets, underground restaurants and bars, and tiny old shops.

All of this, however, just proved to be a gorgeous background to the true discovery, which was the voracious and vibrant Krakow/Poland theater community as experienced via the Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival. The festival is running Dec 2–12 this year and is made up of performances by established Polish artists (to be judged for the festival prize), along with works by some young up-and-coming Polish directors, as well as many panels, talkbacks, discussions, and celebrations. Attendees of the festival included national and international artists, critics, and representatives of theaters and festivals primarily from Eastern Europe, but also from the U.K., Colombia, the U.S., and others.

We saw lots of interesting work, but the standout showing for me was a piece called Anhelli. The Calling, which was created by a company called Teatr ZAR from Wroclaw, who are new to me, but have performed fairly widely globally by now, which is impressive as they are only ten years old. The piece was extremely physical and full of music made vocally by the performers. It was directed by the artistic director of the company, Jaroslaw Fret, who is also the current director of the Grotowski Institute in Poland. The piece was short, only 50 minutes. It is the third installment in a triptych by the company called, in full form, Gospels of Childhood. I will save major details as we’ll all get a chance to see the full triptych in May 2011, when it’s brought to the San Francisco International Arts Festival!

Amid many other great experiences, the other huge standout was the opportunity to observe class at the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts and see the fourth-year students present two different versions of Hamlet (one working from a linear cut of the text, performed by the drama students, and another devised version of the text performed by the dance-drama students), which serves as their thesis towards receiving diplomas. Both shows were performed together in one four-hour evening, which we discovered didn’t cause the average Polish theatergoer to bat an eye (cut to Stephen and me staggering down the street, bleary-eyed, frantically searching for a taxi to get to our next play of the evening!). Seeing all of these committed students doing such bold work amidst this rich theatrical community reminded me in many ways of our own community here in San Francisco, and it is wonderful to think of the stakes each of us is putting down in our own corner of the globe!

Seeing so much work over these few days and having the chance to discuss it with artists from other parts of the world raised lots of interesting questions about what is universally true about theater, versus what is true about theater right now, versus what is true about theater from region to region.
Finally, you all should know how welcomed we were by the organizers, artists, and guests of the festival. A.C.T. has such a wonderful reputation, and we were received with much gratitude and respect. It was also such a gift to share the story of our own rich, inspiring, committed community with all of these new minds.

(L to R) Guide and translator Mateusz Mondalski with A.C.T.’s Stephen Buescher and
Carly Cioffi in the lobby of the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts

Director Jerzy Jarocki (center) in a postshow discussion of his production of Tango at
the Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival. Photo by Tomasz Wiech.

A scene from Krzysztof Barbaczewski’s adaption of The Odyssey, Odyseja,
at the Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival.
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