Celebrating Harold Pinter

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

posted by Zachary Moull, A.C.T. Dramaturgy Fellow 

The late, great Harold Pinter, Nobel laureate and one of the 20th century’s most influential playwrights, died of cancer in 2008. Since then, A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff has been searching for the perfect opportunity to commemorate Pinter, with whom she worked closely for many years. On March 20, during the run of her own production of Pinter’s play The Homecoming, the A.C.T. community finally came together for an event that became known internally as the “Pinter Celebration.” Our goal was to create a space for theatergoers and -makers in the Bay Area to gather together and share their appreciation for the life and work of this extraordinary artist.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

The celebration began after the Sunday matinee performance of The Homecoming with “Pursuing Pinter,” a roundtable discussion among Perloff, Michael Krasny of San Francisco State University and KQED’s Forum, and noted Pinter scholar Austin Quigley from Columbia University. Facing a packed house of Pinter aficionados, and led by A.C.T. Resident Dramaturg Michael Paller, who served as moderator, the group enjoyed a lively conversation on the American Conservatory Theater stage about the known, the unknown, and everything in between in Pinter’s work. Then members of the cast of The Homecoming—René Augesen, Anthony Fusco, Adam O’Byrne, Andy Polk, and Kenneth Welsh—were joined onstage by A.C.T. Associate Artists Gregory Wallace and Giles Havergal and A.C.T. favorites Ken Ruta, David Strathairn, and Marco Barricelli to read scenes from some of Pinter’s best-known works: The Birthday Party (1958), Old Times (1970), Betrayal (1978), and—fittingly—Celebration (1999).

(L to R) David Straithairn and Anthony Fusco rehearsing for “Pursuing Pinter” with Carey Perloff

Marco Barricelli and René Augesen in a scene from Pinter’s Betrayal

Ken Ruta performs a scene; Carey Perloff watches.

After a dinner break, we reconvened in the theater building for “Basement Pinter,” a less formal celebration for an invited audience from the Bay Area theater community, as well as A.C.T. staff, students, artists, and friends. On arrival, audience members were sorted into two groups (known only as “1” or “2”) and directed to the Sky Lobby bar, where, after a preshow drink, they were escorted by tersely Pinteresque guides (A.C.T staff and fellows wearing “0” pins) either to the Garret or to the bar in Fred’s Columbia Room in the theater’s basement, depending on their number. Pinter’s The Collection, directed by A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano (a production that originated in January’s Sky Festival), ran in the Garret, while the downstairs audience was treated to “A Collection,” a series of short pieces and excerpts curated by The Homecoming assistant director Michael Schwarz and created by A.C.T. staff, fellows, M.F.A. Program actors, and others. After an hour’s performance, the two audience groups switched locations—after colliding briefly in the Sky Lobby for an intermission drink.

Manoel Felciano’s production of The Collection with (L to R) M.F.A. Program 
students Brian Clark Jansen and Matt Bradley

(L to R) A.C.T. M.F.A. Program students Richardson Jones and Ethan Frank in One for the Road

(L to R) Carey Perloff with one of the “Pinteresque guides,” A.C.T. Artistic Associate Carly Cioffi

“A Collection” began with an excerpt from Pinter’s seminal 1962 speech “Writing for the Theatre,” read by A.C.T. Conservatory Director of Academic Affairs Jack Sharrar. The program ended, though, with Pinter’s own voice—in an excerpt from one of his last public interviews, recorded in 2008. At the end of the clip, Pinter jokingly asks whether it’s time for a drink yet, and then reads from one of his many love poems, “It Is Here”:

What sound was that?
I turn away, into the shaking room.
What was that sound that came in on the dark?
What is this maze of light it leaves us in?
What is this stance we take,
To turn away and then turn back?
What did we hear?
It was the breath we took when we first met.
Listen. It is here.

The audience on tape applauds the reading right away, but down in Fred’s the audience let Pinter’s words linger in the room for a quiet moment, listening to his silence. Then we went upstairs and had a last drink in honor of Harold.

“Basement Pinter” actors listen: (L to R) Beatrice Basso, Nick Steen, 
Jack Sharrar, and Joshua Roberts.

All photos by Tom Chargin

Will on Wheels: The A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program Takes Shakespeare to Bay Area Schools

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

posted by Emily Hoffman, A.C.T. Publications Fellow 

In Shakespeare’s early comic play of mistaken identity, Antipholus and his servant Dromio, in search of their long-lost twin brothers (also, it turns out, named Antipholus and Dromio), arrive in the Greek city of Ephesus (the home, it turns out, of said long-lost brothers), only to be mistaken for the other Antipholus and Dromio (who, it turns out,  are unaware that they have twin brothers). A Comedy of Errors ensues.

This is the complex story that the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2012 has been taking to ten middle and high schools around the Bay Area this week and last, in its fifth annual Will on Wheels performance tour. And, amazingly, the school kids are totally getting it. Shakespeare’s language can be difficult enough to understand even in plays without twins, let alone multiple sets of twins. But thanks to the combination of director Domenique Lozano’s inventive staging and the M.F.A. Program students’ energy, commitment, and clarity, the story is impossible to miss.

At Oakland School of the Arts last Tuesday, more than 70 middle-school-age drama students crowded into a classroom to watch the morning performance. They were attentive, engaged . . . and in stitches. When the performance was over, they were bursting with questions for their older peers: How do you get into character? Is it hard to perform the acrobatics? How long do you rehearse? Do you get paid? The M.F.A. students had a great time sharing the wisdom of their experience and training with their junior cohorts.

Take a look at some great photos of the performance below.

—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

The story begins at sea.

The two sets of twins: (L to R) Ben Kahre (Dromio) and Matt Bradley (Antiopholus), 
with Alexander Crowther (Antipholus) and Jason Frank (Dromio).

Antipholus and Dromio are all tied up: 
(L to R) Courtney Thomas, Jessica Kitchens, Alexander Crowther, and Ben Kahre.
Antipholus and Dromio don’t know what to make of this strange land
where everyone knows their names: (L to R) Matt Bradley and Ben Kahre.

The A.C.T. M.F.A. Program class of 2012 in The Comedy of Errors:
(L to R) Jessica Kitchens, Maggie Rastetter, Alexander Crowther, Jason Frank, Courtney Thomas, Christina Lorenn Elmore, and Matt Bradley. Ben Kahre is the blur running in front.

Students at Oakland School of the Arts question the cast of The Comedy of Errors, while A.C.T. core acting company member and Comedy assistant director Manoel Felciano (standing, right) moderates.

Rehearsing in the Dark

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

posted by Zachary Moull, A.C.T. Dramaturgy Fellow 

Dramaturgy Fellow Zach Moull had the privilege of sitting in on rehearsals of The Homecoming, Harold Pinter’s masterpiece of family warfare, which opens at the American Conservatory Theater this week. The play is thick with sex and menace; to create an atmosphere that would help the actors bring those qualities to life, director Carey Perloff made an unorthodox choice in the rehearsal room.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Preparing Pinter’s The Homecoming

For more than four weeks, the cast of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming rehearsed in the dark. The play, set entirely within the confines of an East London house, calls for little natural light. The action largely occurs in the evening or at dawn, and the central scenes of the first act—in which Teddy and Ruth arrive at the house unannounced— take place in the dead of night. So before rehearsals began, director Carey Perloff asked the stage-management team to hang blackout curtains over all the windows of the William Ball Studio. They also wired several lamps into the space. The result was striking: the studio, ordinarily lit by the ubiquitous fluorescent lights of an office building, was transformed into a shadowy space that came to be known— more or less affectionately—as “The Cave.”

The cast of The Homecoming rehearses an evening scene in lamplight: 
(L to R) Kenneth Welsh, Jack Willis, Adam O’Byrne.

The effect, though, was more than just atmospheric. Since the actors were able to control the lamps themselves, the rehearsal room’s improvised lighting melded with the sparse and precise landscape of Pinter’s play, where every object is significant. Light became another weapon to be wielded in the characters’ contestations over the territory of the house.

The production has since left The Cave and moved into the American Conservatory Theater, where Alexander Nichols’s lighting design balances the charged darkness of the rehearsal room with the need for an audience to see the actors as they perform.

Below are some photos of the first-act scene between Lenny and Ruth, taken on the second-to-last day of rehearsals in the Ball Studio:

Lenny (Andrew Polk) waits by a window for Ruth (René Augesen) to enter the house.

Lenny (Andrew Polk) lurks in the darkness behind Ruth (René Augesen), who is exposed 
by the light of a banker’s lamp. The furnishings are domestic and familiar, but the 
scene takes on the aspect of an interrogation in the unequal lighting.

From his position of power, Lenny (Andrew Polk) reaches into the light for 
the hand of Ruth (René Augesen).

Countdown to Litter: A Timeline of the Birth of a New Play

Friday, March 4, 2011

posted by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, playwright 

In the summer of 2009, A.C.T. presented Bay Area playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb with a challenge: write an ensemble-based play for the 12 actors in our Master of Fine Arts Program’s class of 2011. He considered a number of dozen-character-play ideas, but finally settled on a tale about 12 siblings. Not just siblings, but dodecatuplets. And not just dodecatuplets, but the Framingham Dodecatuplets, childhood stars who have watched their fame fade along with their cuteness as they transitioned into young adulthood. Litter, as the play became titled, was born.

The 36-year-old playwright grew up in Mill Valley and attended A.C.T. productions throughout high school (A Christmas Carol was a memorable favorite). As an undergraduate actor at Brown University, Nachtrieb started writing solo performance pieces for himself. After graduating, he returned to the Bay Area, where he became involved with the sketch comedy troupe Killing My Lobster and began writing full-length plays. He got his M.F.A. in playwriting from San Francisco State University in 2005 and has been earning a national reputation as a darkly witty new voice since his ferociously funny play Hunter Gatherers debuted at Killing My Lobster in 2007. His 2008 end-of-the-world comedy, boom, received 16 U.S. productions last season—making it the most-produced play in the country (other than holiday shows and Shakespeare)—and BOB, one of his most recent works, is being produced at the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville this spring.

Over the past two years, Nachtrieb has been collaborating with the class of 2011 in workshops and rehearsals, shaping the piece around the students’ unique talents and idiosyncracies. With Litter opening this week at Zeum Theater, he found some time to sit down and describe for us the conception, gestation, and birth of his new play.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb as an astronaut
A Brief Timeline of Its Creation

May 2009
I meet with [A.C.T. Artistic Consultant] Beatrice Basso and [A.C.T. Dramaturg] Michael Paller over a semi-decent salad. They ask me if I’d be interested in writing a play. It would need to be an ensemble piece specifically written for the 12 actors that comprise the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program class of 2011. I say yes.

Summer 2009
After several bad 12-person play ideas (A Jury! The Months!), one seems to be sticking. I send Bea an email saying I’d like to write a play inspired by the fascination with huge families and fertility drugs creating large amounts of siblings. The characters would be 12 siblings born at the same time from the same mom. I think the play would mostly take place with the siblings as grown adults. The play could be called "Litter."

Bea likes the idea. It’s on!

September 2009
Bea sends me the headshots of the class. They all have very nice heads.

October 2009
First workshop with the class. Everyone gamely shares a sibling story and also performs a special skill (quite a few members of the group can burp on cue). We discuss what might be the unique predicaments of a 12-sibling group. (Space Management, Individual versus Family Identity, Chaos and Harmony emerge as sticky themes. Large sibling groups may be slightly similar to M.F.A. graduate school classes.) We also do an improv where everyone randomly selects a sibling “type” (The Leader, The Stinky One, The Sick One, The Angry One, etc. . . .) and they are performed to hilarious effect. Quite a number of these randomly chosen characters become the seeds of the fully fleshed ones to come.

April 2010
After a few more workshops, I bring in a sketch of each character, inspired by the energy and style of each actor. Everyone has a name (their birth order), a nickname (sadly cut from the current draft, but they were hilarious), some descriptive adjectives, a special skill, and a short first monologue that was my first hit on each voice. It’s a slightly uncomfortable and vulnerable moment for everyone. I am assigning a bizarre and often very messed-up person to each actor and am essentially saying, “This is what I saw in you!” Awkward. But everyone seems game.

I also bring in the first attempt at a 12-person scene. So much fun to hear, but somewhat overwhelming to write.

May 2010
We get a week to workshop the play together. I bring in about 100 pages of material, and the first semblance of a story and a play emerge. [A.C.T. associate artistic director and director of Litter] Mark Rucker directs the rhythms of the script with the cast, and I often run into the other room to try and write new scenes. The characters continue to develop and mature into bigger people. We see their hit song. We see their struggles with each other and collectively as they try to survive. We see them all try to sleep in a single bed at once.

Our week concludes with a reading for the A.C.T. staff. I feel very good about the characters and a lot of material, but I think the play isn’t messy enough, gritty enough, and is just a sketch of what it could be, so I throw out a lot of crap over the summer and try to mess things up and move things faster.

Fall 2010
As I continue to develop the new version of this script, I pop in a few more times to read drafts with the cast. The story is getting juicier and more fun and crazy. Finally, in December, I get all the way through to a frikkin’ ending. Character arcs are getting stronger and I finally feel like there’s a good play here. Phew! And it’s pretty funny. I still feel bad about the large volume of fart jokes that Patrick [Lane] has to perform. But they are all very important for his character.

February 2011
Rehearsals begin! Over the first week I continue to bring in lots of new pages and refinements and the lovely actors are taking control and making this crazy family come to life. The themes and dynamics we discovered in that first workshop 15 months before continue to be the foundation of the play. Not to mention a great number of their special skills they unwittingly shared (I don’t know if Max [Rosenak] would have shared his “fake ballet” techniques if he knew how that might manifest itself in the play).

I hope audiences find Litter a wonderful salute to this ensemble of actors and that the play adequately showcases their phenomenal talent. These guys are on the cusp of leaving their own little family of the last three years. As they venture into the foreboding world that is the professional acting life, I hope they, like the Framingham Dodecatuplets, all carry a little of each other’s bits inside of them as they go.

The M.F.A. Program class of 2011 in Litter: (standing, L to R) Richardson Jones, Jenna Johnson, 
Brian Clark Jansen, Dan Clegg, Max Rosenak, and Shinelle Azoroh; (seated, L to R) Stephanie DeMott,
Ashley Wickett, Marisa Duchowny, Patrick Lane, Richard Prioleau, and Joshua Roberts.

“Devising” a “Classic”

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

posted by Mark Jackson 

The students in the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program have a lot of resources at their fingertips. Not only are they taught and directed by current and former A.C.T. core acting company members and associate artists like René Augesen, Gregory Wallace, and Marco Barricelli, they also get a chance to work with a rotating set of Bay Area theater professionals who run the gamut from artistic directors to choreographers to performance artists.

This season, the class of 2013 has worked with Erika Chong Shuch, director of the Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project; Dan Wolf of the hip-hop group Felonious; and, now, with Mark Jackson, award-winning director, theatrical innovator, and company member of Art Street Theatre and Shotgun Players.

Al Saiyid, an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid, directed by Jackson and performed by the M.F.A. Program class of 2013, opens this week in A.C.T.’s Hastings Studio Theater. Le Cid, a 1636 French tragicomedy, follows the story of the warlike Rodrigo and his equally blood-hungry lover, Chimène, as their obstinate pride and passion lead them far afield from their love and then back again. Jackson led the first-year students in a process of radical creation, using the script as a jumping off point for a freer, wider-ranging exploration of the story. Below, he tells us what it was like to devise a modern piece from this classic text.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Mark Jackson in rehearsal for The Forest War at Shotgun Players, 2006. Photo by Benjamin Privitt.

These terms, “classic” and “devising,” feel like unfortunate necessities. We need a language to communicate with one another, to differentiate between this and that. But with labels eventually comes baggage and, worse, expectations having to do with the ever-dreaded “should.”

“Classic” can be quite a burden on a good play, and it often seems the classics bear the brunt when it comes to the notion of how plays “should” be done, making it difficult to really feel in any truly alive way what a Vanya or a Juliet or—in the case of Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid—a Chimène or a Rodrigo feels.

“Devised theater” has been in use in world theater for at least a few decades. Before then people called it other things. It’s nothing new. Yet it remains a mysterious term even for many who work in theater. It can mean anything from “dance” to “a play” to “performance art.” In any case, all “devised” essentially means is that the project did not begin with a script written by a playwright in isolation. Rather, the creative team begins with a theme, subject, or idea, then gets in a room together and begins to improvise in one manner or another. This goes on for a time until eventually, voilà, it’s “a show.”

A.C.T. Conservatory Director Melissa Smith asked me if I’d be interested in devising something from a classic play with the M.F.A. Program class of 2013. This past November they and I met nightly for a week. The anchor of our work was Corneille’s Le Cid. The initial question I proposed we deal with was whether or not the outrageous passions depicted in the play were anything one could connect with today. We spent half of each night on our feet using physical improvisations to explore our personal relationships to the play’s themes and characters. For the other half we sat down to read different English translations and discuss them.

By the end of the week we’d identified some scraps of movement, rough dramaturgical ideas, and more specific questions that intrigued us with regard to the play. What might compel our own senses of passion, honor, and duty to the extraordinary extent that these characters feel compelled? Is such commitment even possible in our contemporary culture? Could we handle such intense passions? If not, have we lost anything as a society, or gained? Most specifically, and most horrible to contemplate: could we take, or advocate the taking of, the life of a loved one who had done something so horrible to another loved one?

Those questions formed the basis of our work this past February, when we gathered again for a handful of weeks. Together as a group, we hacked open Roscoe Mongan’s 1896 literal translation, edited, rearranged, costumed, and staged it. As director, I did not arrive with a detailed plan for the actors to execute, but rather with the heap of our initial impulses found during that week’s work back in November.

We eventually came to call what we were making Al Saiyid: An Inquiry into the Primal Senses of Passion, Duty and Honor Found in the Frenchman Pierre Corneille’s Spanish Tragedy or Comedy Le Cid. Draft 1.

This title says a lot about our response to Corneille’s play. His title, Le Cid, is French for el cid, itself Spanish for al saiyid, the Arabic title that the “Moors” in the play would likely have given their conqueror, Don Rodrigo. We wanted to get back to the origins of honor, duty, and passion. The extended subtitle explicitly states the range of what struck us about the play: its themes, clash of cultures, aesthetic contradictions—as well as our impulse to question it.

The short sub-subtitle, “Draft 1,” is a nod to our process, which has been, and continues to be, open and fluid. We’re still making changes and trying new ideas, even with performances around the corner. A monologue was recently scrapped, for example, and replaced with a song. We created choreography for the song but then scrapped half of it. Maybe this will all still be there by opening. Or maybe the monologue will be put back in. We may even continue to make changes during our short performance run.

It’s more work than setting things according to plan and calling it done. But it’s also more fun, I think. And anyway, these actors are quite good at taking it all on, so why not? I have grown increasingly impressed with them over our time together and admit I’ll be sad for it to come to an end. They are doing extraordinary things, and they continually excite me with their inventiveness, openness, and commitment to detail.

As I write this we are going into tech and soon to open. I feel very eager to share with audiences this “draft” of our work. The audience will bring a lot of answers to a lot of questions, and they will elicit new questions. They’ll make us better, completing this process of turning questions into theater, and helping to devise a way to free this “classic” from that label.

I still question if I could handle what these characters try to do. I don’t have that answer yet. I suspect it may be that, no, I couldn’t. My hope is that Al Saiyid helps all of us who experience it, both the artists and audiences, to look our own senses of passion, duty, and honor in the eye—today, before we all become classics ourselves. Life is short. Why wait to burn brighter?
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