Hearing in a Deaf World: An Actor’s Clybourne Park Lesson

Friday, February 18, 2011

posted by Emily Kitchens, cast member of Clybourne Park 

Every performance of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park has been met with laughter of all kinds, from boisterous to embarrassed. As production dramaturg Beatrice Basso recently described, the play’s humor can be uncomfortable and charged. Norris’s writing strips away the veneer of political correctness; we laugh at things that we know shouldn’t be funny, and then we question ourselves for doing so. This is perhaps nowhere as overt as with the character of Betsy in the play’s first act. Betsy is deaf, and the playwright makes jokes at her expense. And every night, by Norris’s design, the audience laughs along.

Betsy is played in our production by Emily Kitchens, who graduated from the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program last year. We asked Emily about the challenges of presenting this character; she tells us below about the serious inspiration for her comic role.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

It always feels so personal to talk about my process as an actor before the play has closed, as if I might forfeit some of the character’s soul if I release the sacred bond between me and her into the universe too soon. As I write that, though, I feel like it’s weird or sensitive or shy of me to feel that way. But I’d use each of those words to describe myself anyway—so I guess it works.

There are some things that I will always respect about my process, in spite of (or perhaps reinforced by) Clybourne Park’s call to satirize myself. I am a spiritual person and that must be a part of my work. Do I believe the work I do as an actor has the power to help people? Absolutely. Do I believe in the power of laughter and love to heal people? I must. Do I believe that I have a voice, a soul, a light—something to give to this world? I’m trying. These mantras might “type” me as youthful or naïve or self-absorbed (or just as an artist) but I value bringing them to the work I do.

I believe that my characters always have something to teach me. Betsy in the first act of Clybourne Park is resilient, joyful, funny—and deaf. In preparation for this role, I had the privilege of getting to know two of the coolest girls I’ve ever met: Claire and Nikivia.

Last November, I spent some time in Leesburg, Georgia—my hometown. My mother connected me with two girls at the high school where she teaches. These charming, gifted, and articulate young women are Deaf. Not lower case “deaf” or “hearing-impaired.” Deaf—with a capital D. They see their nonhearing not as a disability but as something to be embraced. Nikivia will graduate and go to nursing school in northern Georgia, and Claire will go to the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. They are achieving their dreams and creating happy lives for themselves. Claire told me that if she had the choice to be hearing or Deaf, she would choose to be Deaf because it gives her a special perspective on life. After spending time with these amazing high school seniors, I chose to make that special perspective on life my starting place for Betsy.

When I first read the play, before I met Claire and Nikivia, I thought, “Woah. A deaf woman. I have to be really careful here.” I was nervous about putting something inaccurate—or even worse, inaccurately offensive—into my portrayal of Betsy. Of all the things to worry about in this play, right? To portray a real, live person with integrity in my own work, I needed specificity. I worked very delicately with my speech patterns. It was just like studying a dialect, learning the sound changes. It is hard work to listen without hearing onstage. I try to gain information about the dialogue through people’s body language and facial expressions, purposefully trying not to hear their language. For example, if somebody is behind me talking, how would I know to turn to listen to them if I were deaf? If other characters that I can see have given their focus to that person, that’s helpful. Things like that. I have to admit, it feels good when people say after they’ve seen the show, “At first, I thought you might be really deaf.”

I don’t know if audiences laugh at Betsy’s deafness, her voice, some of the timing with other characters (like the “Lutefisk, I like lutefisk!” joke), or her own sense of humor. One thing that is really great is that she’s an alive, full, funny person with a great sense of humor—especially about her deafness (with lines like “Even I heard that!” when the trunk falls).

Betsy had me learn sign language, meet people from a culture I knew nothing about, “listen” in a different way onstage, and entertain the idea that who I am is lovely and different and absolutely laughable. She is a lovely young pregnant wife who happens to be deaf in Clybourne Park in 1959—a world where that perspective might be a huge gift.

Minister Jim (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano, left) and Beverly
(A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen, second from left) make light conversation
when neighbors Karl (Richard Thieriot) and his deaf wife, Betsy (A.C.T. Master of Fine
Arts Program graduate Emily Kitchens), drop in. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

Revolutionary Comedy: Laughing at Archangels

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

posted by Emily Hoffman, Publications Fellow

Last week, the Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2012 opened Dario Fo’s Archangels Don’t Play Pinball, directed by A.C.T. Head of Movement Stephen Buescher. The play, a zany satire of political bureaucracy, follows the tough-but-tender underdog Lanky from rags to riches and back to rags again. (Check out a plot description here.) Publications Fellow Emily Hoffman served as assistant director for the production, and tells us what it was like to build a physical comedy like Archangels. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can buy tickets for the remaining performances here.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

There’s a reason Dario Fo’s Archangels Don’t Play Pinball doesn’t get performed much. It’s long, sprawling, and unwieldy: the action travels from a bakery to a bar, to a streetwalker’s apartment, to a pension office, to a dog pound, to a first-class train car, to the presidential suite of a hotel, back to the bar, and ending back at the streetwalker’s apartment—with only a tenuously thin thread of logic for guide.

But logic is not why you perform Dario Fo. Logic is about as far from Fo’s theatrical vision as you can get. In 1997, after more than 40 years of authority-defying, politically-biting, commedia dell’arte–inspired theater-making, the Italian playwright and performer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature by a committee who dubbed him an artist “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.” For Fo, the script is a vehicle—for political commentary (he is a virulent anti-Fascist and has been arrested and censored countless times in Italy and abroad), for physical comedy, and for a sort of ebullient, even life-affirming, absurdity. The script and even the plot are secondary to the life of the play in performance. The M.F.A. Program production treats the Archangels script in much the same way. And this is how Stephen works best.

I am hard-pressed to imagine a more valuable experience in the theater than watching Stephen take a few lines of text, or a one-sentence stage direction, and draw from it an entire physical world.

When Lanky, our protagonist, goes to the pension bureau in Washington to get his VA benefits (he’s been wounded in—where else would a comedian get wounded?— the coccyx), there are some stage directions about clerks’ windows closing and Lanky getting cut in line. Stephen knew that these stage directions were only a shadow of what existed in the play’s first performance in Milan in 1959. And so he came in with a set of stanchions (the red velvet ropes and brass poles that are used to make lines at the movie theater), two short staircases, two identical suitcases, piles of paper, a paper shredder, and an unbearably awful Muzak rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema” by Kenny G. Then he set the cast loose. After a lot of playing, and a lot of polishing, we ended up with a highly-choreographed, wordless, 10-minute send-up of bureaucracy. Waiting in line at the DMV will never be the same.

The never-ending staircase. (L to R) Matt Bradley, Alexander Crowther, and Ben Kahre.

Lanky in despair. Courtney Thomas and Alexander Crowther.

The clerks in terror after Lanky snaps. (L to R) Matt Bradley, Jason Frank, Christina Lorenn Elmore,
Maggie Rastetter, Ben Kahre, and Alexander Crowther.

It may seem extreme, but so is the play’s absurdity, as seen in the moment following Lanky’s epic queuing. Finally getting the attention of the clerks, he learns that, due to a bureaucratic mix-up, the government thinks he is a dog—a labrador retriever, to be exact. And in order to fix this mistake, Lanky must spend three days, as a dog, in the local pound. Unsurprisingly, there are some surprises in store there.

The dogcatchers get hit with their own dart. Maggie Rastetter and Matt Bradley.

Lanky in the cage. (Front to back) Alexander Crowther, Jason Frank,
Matt Bradley, and Maggie Rastetter. 

This is the kind of theater that reminds us why theater is its own, distinct art form, different from any other. Don’t get me wrong, theater can be literature. I’m not one of the theater absolutists who thinks you can’t study Shakespeare in an English class—you can, and there’s much to be gained by doing so. But with a play like Archangels, you’ve got to experience it. This play doesn’t live on the page—it lives in the bodies of the actors as they flip over tables, ricochet off the walls, get sunk in dog cages, and lose their pants (you’ll understand when you see it). And it couldn’t possibly live on a screen—this is the kind of comedy that only works in the flesh. It’s about spectacle. It’s about something happening right here right now in the theater. It’s about who will flub a line tonight and who will catch that flubbed line and run with it and get an even bigger laugh. It’s about energy, timing, commitment. It’s about laughter. And I think I can say without overreaching, that it’s about laughter as power. As a tool of the disenfranchised. Fo’s vision is a comic one, but it’s a revolutionary one too.

What’s your take on this kind of theater? Do you have a favorite physical comedy experience? Click on “Comments” at the very bottom of the post to leave a comment.

All photos by Ryan Montgomery.

Even the Sky Is Not the Limit: The A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program Sky Festival, Part 3

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

posted by Dan Rubin, Publications and Literary Associate

What happens when you give talented people access to other talented people, space, and time? If you’re dealing with 38 theater folk and give them two and a half weeks, seven studios, and $25 per project, the result might look something like the Sky Festival, which recently culminated in two days filled with 13 fully (well, mostly) staged, one-hour productions. It was a magical whirlwind event (“Isn’t this like Edinburgh?” people were saying in the hallway, “Isn’t it sort of like Cannes?”), leaving us awestruck by the amazing people we have the fortune to interact with on a daily basis. We were there to support A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program students and faculty, but we were also there for ourselves to witness examples of what theater looks like when its makers are at their most raw and passionate. While the directors had to negotiate with next-to-no budget and competing demands for actors and space, they did not have to compromise their visions—in this consequence-free zone, they could take whatever creative risks they wanted to. And they did.

Core acting company member Manoel Felciano gave a beautifully insightful interpretation of Harold Pinter’s The Collection, while co-head of voice and dialects Nancy Benjamin staged Aphra Behn’s bawdy and raucous The Rover, updating it so that the lascivious men are not welcomed back with matrimonial arms. Third-year student Shinelle Azoroh directed a bare-bones production of In the Continuum, by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, a haunting tour de force about being a woman with AIDS in Africa and black America, and acted in her one one-woman show, Cinnamon, about being a woman of color working in the theater. We were treated to third-year Brian Jansen’s solo performance of Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel (directed by co-head of voice and dialects Jill Walmsley Zager), one man’s quest to track down the mythical Wandering Jew, and third-year Richard Prioleau transformed one of our larger studios into a bar for his production of Tennessee Williams’s The Confessional. Third-year Josh Roberts staged his compelling documentary drama, Red State/Blue State Project, based on interviews he conducted with columnists, statesmen, activists, and ordinary people just before entering the M.F.A. Program; and second-year Jason Frank explored the ridiculousness and wisdom of childhood in his dramatic adaptation of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip series. The two-day event was capped by A.C.T. Dramaturg and Head of Humanities Michael Paller’s nuanced staging of David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre and second-year Alex Crowther’s production of the crime thriller The End of Civilization, by Canadian George F. Walker.

And then, of course, there were the three projects that A.C.T. Publications and Literary Associate Dan Rubin has been following. Enjoy his Sky Festival wrap up, below.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Day13 • 2:00 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.Project: Thieves
Director: Matt Bradley (M.F.A. Program Class of 2012)

As the audience crowds into Matt Bradley’s Thieves—the fourth production on this day of seven back-to-back shows—smiles spread across their faces as they see the drum kit set up in the back of the room. This clearly won’t be an ordinary King Henry IV, Part 1. After we settle into our seats, Matt himself comes out and sits down on the drum throne. He strikes a beat as his guitarist strums a rock ’n’ roll riff, and out come the rowdy drunken thieves of Eastcheap—that villainous band of rogues Prince Hal hangs with before “breaking through the foul and ugly mists / Of vapours that did seem to strangle him” to reclaim his position as heir to the throne. Their partying quickly becomes political with shouts of “Fuck the king! Fuck the king! Fuck the king!” and a speech from their leader, John (Sir John Falstaff):

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.

It’s Prince Hal’s famously heroic St. Crispen’s Day speech from Henry V, spoken here by a supposed ne’er-do-well. And here we first see the question Bradley’s Thieves poses. Through this raucous, glam-rock, music- and movement-oriented interpretation of a Shakespeare’s classic, Matt is asking, How much good do we take away from those bad elements in our lives? As first-year Rebekah Brockman told me a week ago when I asked her about Thieves, relationships are always complicated. We cannot write any of them off.

Over the course of an hour, we come to adore these miscreants and hate Hal’s father, the king (who, for one thing, sodomizes Hal with a drumstick the first time we meet him), and the establishment that will tear apart these friendships. This was Matt’s intended effect. The cast gathers together—still in character, but perhaps not—and announces that there had been a tenth scene which showed Hal crowned king and the thieves chased away, but they “didn’t have the heart to stage it.” Instead the show ends with the disheartened band saying, “Goodbye. Remember us. For we too have lived, laughed, and loved.” Matt closes with a military roll on his snare.

The thieves of Eastcheap raise a toast: (L to R) Jason Frank, Jessica Kitchens, Tyee J. Tilghman, Zachary Moull, Titus Tompkins, and Rebekah Brockman. Director Matt Bradley watches from his post at the drum set, while the king (Dan Clegg) looks on disapprovingly through the window.

Day 13 • 5:15 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.Project: The Wild Goose
Director: Marisa Duchowny (M.F.A. Program Class of 2011)

The first day of performances ends with Marisa Duchowny’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s The Wild Goose. Outside the studio windows, the sky is fading into a rich twilight blue, giving the low-budget floor lights Marisa has set up maximum effect. Projections on a side wall introduce the players in silent-movie fashion, and the show takes off. I happen to be sitting near Marisa, and it’s as much fun to watch her as it is her actors. She’s all smiles, and she beams with adoration for her cast. She’s enjoying herself too much to be nervous—or maybe she just hides it well. This one-time performance is still a process of discovery, and she laughs gleefully as her actors find new moments onstage. This is the joy of the theater—the perpetual newness.

The piece has so clearly come together through two weeks of saying, “Yes!” Yes to a silent-movie motif. Yes to ghostly makeup and ragged clothing. Yes to choreographing a suicide dance to the street music of The Blasting Company. It is a physical collage of colorful ideas, given cohesiveness by a powerfully absurd script and the gentle wrangling of its director. And why can everything that happens onstage happen? “You’re in the theater!” Ramona (played by Rebekah Brockman) shouts at Jameson (second-year Alex Crowther), apropos of nothing. He fires back:

JAMESON: The churches are dead! The schools are burning! And I’m in the theatre! . . . Once the gods abandon a place, they never return! Once the gods abandon a temple, a church, a grotto, they never return to that place. That is the historical truth of unrecordable experience.

RAMONA: Have the gods left the theater?

JAMESON: You know, I don’t believe they have.

And then Renaldo (played by first-year Ethan Frank), who was dead, jumps up, perfectly alive. This is the magic of theater: anything can happen if you believe it can happen. So long as people have faith in the theater, the theater will continue to be a place where we can “scrape together . . . communal feeling,” even when the rest of culture has collapsed.

The play ends with another resurrection. The titular character—that is, the wild goose—played by Marisa herself (in a fabulously inventive getup), plummets onto the stage with a bullet through its heart. Out of their despair, the characters concoct plan borrowed from the near-death experience of Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell: Romana pleads with us to muster “enough brotherly, sisterly trust to sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ and resurrect this holy goose!” They begin singing. We begin singing. We begin singing because we want that goose to come back to life. We begin singing because we who have been taking in and soaking up miraculous, soul-stirring theater all day want so badly to give something back, something more than just applause. So we sing perhaps the most rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” that has ever been sung outside a baseball stadium. And the wild goose comes back to life.

“Who knows,” Jameson asks us as Ramona and Renaldo embrace the bird, “what else may yet jump up from being dead?”

The wild geese: (L to R) Ethan Frank, Alex Crowther, Rebekah Brockman, and Marisa Duchowny

Day 14 • 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.Project: Happy to Stand
Director: Domenique Lozano (Actor, Director, Translator, A.C.T. Associate Artist, and M.F.A. Program Faculty)

Domenique Lozano’s staging of Sirkku Peltola’s Happy to Stand starts the second day of performances for us. When I last spoke to Domenique, she’d worried about being able to fit the entire first act of the play into the one-hour slot she’d been allotted, so I wasn’t surprised to see that she’d had to make some hard choices—one of which was losing Gram’s prologue. Instead of hearing Gram’s introduction about living in a 78-square-foot apartment with her daughter, Aili, we are immediately sucked into and trapped in that oppressive tenement, which is surrounded by the audience on three sides, with a wall on the fourth, and packed with a couch, a makeshift kitchenette, and a shower.

And yet, is their living space really that small? Even when Aili’s two rude children unexpectedly return home on the same day, and Gram’s secret friend, Iraqi immigrant Hamed Sahel, pays a visit, is it really that small? Hamed politely puts their situation in perspective: “You have a warm room, clean water, electricity, and a bed. . . . Where I come from there can be ten people in a small mud hut, lots of people, lots of love.” Meanwhile, Aili is unraveling: “Is it possible for a rewarding existence to rise out of the daily tedium which inhabits and overwhelms me?” Perhaps this is why she is attracted to Hamed. Perhaps this is why, by the end of the play, she invites him to join her in her crowded home. Because Hamed’s answer to her question would be, yes, a rewarding existence is always possible.

In fact, most things seem possible after the Sky Festival. There was an unspoken hopefulness in the 13 projects that this happy band of 38 brothers (and sisters) put on. Sometimes this hopefulness came out in the themes of the projects themselves, but even surrounding the more somber pieces there was the buzz of optimistic energy. “We did it,” the casts silently expressed. “They did it,” the audiences silently agreed. “The imagination runs on electricity,” Gram tells her granddaughter in Happy to Stand, but the imagination also creates electricity—we felt it, all day, for two days straight.

Cast members of Happy to Stand take their bows: (foreground to background) 
Tyee J. Tilghman, Marisa Duchowny, and Richardson Jones

Harold Pinter, Carey Perloff, and A.C.T.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming begins rehearsal at A.C.T. this week with Artistic Director Carey Perloff at the helm. This is not the first Pinter-Perloff production, not by a long shot. Perloff’s relationship with the Nobel Prize–winning British playwright began in 1988, when she staged The Birthday Party for Classic Stage Company in New York. Pinter was so impressed by the production that he invited Perloff to direct the American premiere of Mountain Language at CSC soon after. She went on to direct a 1990 Mark Taper Forum production of The Collection, a 1998 A.C.T. production of Old Times, and a 2001 A.C.T. production of The Room and The Celebration (another American premiere), which had its first preview performance, a profoundly moving experience for all present, two nights after 9/11. A.C.T.’s relationship goes back even further—to 1984, when A.C.T. founder William Ball directed Old Times.

When Pinter died in 2008, Perloff wrote a moving essay about Pinter and his legacy for the San Francisco Chronicle. She nevertheless remained determined to find a more visceral, theatrical way to celebrate her friend and collaborator and to honor his stature among the most important dramatists of the 20th century. She ultimately chose to direct Pinter’s masterwork of family menace, The Homecoming, a play that is elliptical, dangerous, filled with non sequiturs and maddeningly secretive characters, deeply unsettling, and sometimes uproariously funny. In other words: it’s classic Pinter.

Knowing all this, we still wanted to know more about Pinter, Perloff, and A.C.T., so we decided to do some rooting around in the archives. We found a treasure trove of photographs and musings by Perloff on Pinter and his plays. We’ve included a few highlights below.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

George Deloy and Barbara Dirickson in the 1984 A.C.T. production of Old Times
directed by William Ball (photo by Larry Merkle)

“Pinter’s characters are as complex as the human beings we meet and wonder about every day. In drama, we tend to simplify characters and their motivations so they can be safely labeled: this is ‘the battered wife,’ this is ‘the aggressive man,’ this is ‘the nymphomaniac.’ As Pinter says, we want to put them on a shelf out of harm’s way. But he finds human experience much more richly ambiguous, because he’s interested in the unverifiable past, whether it’s the past of five hundred years ago or of five minutes ago. If you ask a group of people in a room to describe what happened five minutes ago, they’ll each tell a different tale, and that’s what he finds fascinating. So memory in Pinter’s plays becomes a weapon, an active tool in staking a claim to the present. His plays are so actable because they’re incredibly, vividly, moment to moment. And the ambiguity comes from the impossible challenge of attempting to understand human behavior.”

(L to R) Michelle Morain and Pamela Reed in the 1998 A.C.T. production of Old Times
directed by Carey Perloff (photo by Ken Friedman)

“Pinter had immense respect for the mystery, the privacy, the ‘unknowingness,’ of the people in his plays. This is rare in a writer. Pinter knew that his characters were hidden, silent, often lying, always evading. His job was to listen acutely to what they were willing to say, and wait for the moment when their masks would drop.

“‘Between my lack of biographical data about (my characters) and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is not only worthy of exploration but which is compulsory to explore,’ he said in a 1962 speech. Perhaps this is why Pinter’s plays don’t date. It’s like a conversation overheard on a bus: We catch glimpses of lives being lived, and we long to know more.

“Pinter understood in a profound way that humanity is an immense mystery and that his job as a playwright was not to provide answers but to strip everything away until, unexpectedly, something is revealed.”

A.C.T. core acting company members René Augesen and Anthony Fusco in the 2001 
A.C.T. production of The Room, directed by Carey Perloff (photo by Kevin Berne)

“You have to be religious about the language. Pinter is the absolute master of the menacing pause. Of the filled silence. When you first begin to work on a Pinter script, you won’t know why the silence is there. So you simply honor that silence and hold it until it begins to fill. It’s in those silences that you realize the depth of the characters’ loneliness, their need for love, their realization that their marriages are over. It takes weeks of rehearsals to fill those silences, but you have to honor the pauses, Pinter’s famous punctuation. Like Beckett, Pinter is a writer of enormous precision: most of his rewrites involve editing, stripping text away so that each moment has incredible resonance. So you have to listen to the soundscape of it very carefully.”

(L to R) Steven Anthony Jones, Marco Barricelli, and Diane Venora in the 2001 
A.C.T. production of The Room, directed by Carey Perloff (photo by Kevin Berne)

“Working with Pinter in rehearsal was like being with a conductor searching for the exact note to be struck; he adored actors, being one himself, and knew what could happen, for example, when you let a complex performer have a moment of true silence onstage. . . .

“He loved acting with his back to the audience, just to raise the stakes. He loved changing the names of his characters halfway through the play. He loved double negatives that made the audience stop in its tracks, as when the best Jerry can say to his lover, Emma, in Betrayal is, ‘I don’t think we don’t love each other.’”

Jason Butler Harner and René Augesen in the 2001 A.C.T. production of The Celebration
directed by Carey Perloff (photo by Kevin Berne)

“I first sat in a rehearsal room with him [in 1988] . . . just after I had given birth to my daughter, Lexie. I was directing the American premiere of his Mountain Language, a play about a political prisoner who has never been allowed to see his own baby. The presence of my own tiny child sleeping in the dressing room added an eerie reality to the proceedings. Pinter never allows you to be sloppy. His work is about being alert to the wonder and terror of each moment of life. It is filled with detail, precision, clarity, and surprise. It is unapologetic and unsentimental. And hugely exhilarating.”

The cast of the 2001 A.C.T. production of The Celebration, directed by Carey Perloff: 
Anthony Fusco (standing), Peter Riegert, René Augesen, Marco Bariccelli, Diane Venora, 
Gregory Wallace (standing), Jason Butler Harner, and Joan McMurtrey (photo by Kevin Berne)
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