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

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.

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