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

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.

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