Another Layer: Euripides’ Ion and the 1950s

Thursday, April 28, 2011

posted by Jessica Kitchens, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2012

For the past four weeks, the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program class of 2012 has been in rehearsals for Euripides’ Ion. The production, directed by Barbara Damashek, opens at Zeum on Thursday, April 28th for its one-weekend run.

Ion is a strange animal. Written in the fifth century B.C.E., the play is nominally a tragedy—but it seems to have a happy ending. It also defies our contemporary expectations of these ancient plays by telling a very intimate story. The title role is a young man who doesn’t know who his parents are; the play’s other main character, Kreousa, is a mother who had to abandon her only child. So while preparing to direct the play, Damashek went beyond the usual sources. She found one contemporary book that seemed particularly meaningful: Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, a collection of testimonials from young women in the 1950s and ’60s who gave up children from unplanned pregnancies for adoption. In the rehearsal room, the cast was struck by the resonances between these women’s stories and Kreousa’s ordeal in Ion, written 2,500 years ago.

The staging and design you’ll see at Zeum evoke the turbulent and transitional post–World War II period, a time in America when gender roles and power dynamics were beginning to shift away from orthodoxy. By connecting the ancient play to a more familiar context, the production hopes to bring out for a modern audience the innate humanity of Euripides’ original text. One of the most immediate results of this decision is an extra challenge for our M.F.A. actors: we asked Jessica Kitchens, who plays bereft mother Kreousa, to tell us about tackling two time periods at once.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

As an actor, the crux of my job is to imagine and embody a human being who is other than myself. This requires massive amounts of research and daydreaming, especially when the world of the play lies outside of our contemporary one. I need to gather information about the era in which the play takes place in order to steep myself in those imagined circumstances: social dynamics, political atmosphere, gender relations, economic conditions, etc. So, how do I prepare for a play that was written in one period but which we’re setting in another?

In our final production of the year, we, the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts class of 2012, are staging Euripides’ Ion. It is a play that was written in the fifth century B.C.E. and we are staging it in the realm of the 1950s. Now this is not to say that we’re throwing all the Greek stuff out—that would be impossible and undesirable; so much of the play is about religion and ritual and the ways that the gods interfere with human life. It’s more like adding in the aesthetics and dynamics of the 1950s as another layer to the puzzle.

I’m playing the role of Kreousa, a woman of the royal family of Athens, who travels to the temple at Delphi to get some answers from the gods. When she was a young woman, she was raped by the god Apollo, had his child, and then abandoned it. Now, years later, she and her husband are unable to have children and she lives with the secret of this lost child and all of the agony and guilt that comes with it. Part of the inspiration to set this play in the 1950s came from that era’s history of surrendering unwanted children. In the years before Roe v. Wade, women who found themselves with an unplanned pregnancy had few options—many women died or were severely wounded by poorly-performed illegal abortions, and many women were forced to give their children up for adoption.

I began by reading first-hand accounts of what it was like, in that era, to surrender a child: to carry it to term, give birth to it, hold its little hand for a few days, and then never see it again. The memoirs were very powerful. These women lived in a society that was not very approving of single mothers having children out of wedlock. There was a lot of shame, a lot of worrying about one’s future. There is something in these stories from the mid 20th century that I connect to as the actor playing this fifth-century woman. I can hear the voices of my mother’s generation in them. They open up a pathway of understanding and raw compassion that feed my development of the character. And they are representative of a piece of the larger picture of what life was like at that time; an investigation of that larger picture will lead to more richness and complexity in the performance as a whole.

Sometimes it feels like classic plays are set in different eras at random and one ends up wondering what the Wild West has to do with Romeo and Juliet. And sometimes an incredible connection is made and the added layer actually heightens the piece and allows for a greater connection between the performers and the audience. In the case of Ion, the latter is true.

Jessica Kitchens in rehearsal for Ion with (L to R) Courtney Thomas and Maggie Rastetter.

No Exit: Out of the Mouths of Babes

Friday, April 22, 2011

Want to know what No Exit is all about? Check out this video report by Evelyn, distinguished five-year-old theater critic and daughter of Miguel Ongpin, head carpenter at A.C.T.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

Video courtesy Miguel Ongpin

Capturing No Exit

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

posted by Nina Fujikawa, Graphic Designer 

How do you get people to see a show? This question, like it or not, lies at the heart of the theatrical creative process. Theater can’t exist without an audience. And as much as we who make live theater like to grumble about the lengths we have to go to to attract patrons, there’s a lot to be learned from asking: What is this show about, and why would someone want to see it? In this visual post, A.C.T. Graphic Designer Nina Fujikawa gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to distill an hour-and-a-half theatrical experience into a one-page poster that expresses the essence of The Virtual Stage and Electric Company Theatre’s live-cinema interpretation of Sartre’s existential classic No Exit.
—The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

No Exit opens at A.C.T. this week, the culmination of a many-months-long (years for some) creative process that I, in a very small but visible way, got to be a part of. I was charged with creating the show art for the U.S. debut of this voyeuristically re-imagined production from Vancouver, Canada.

My part in the process began months ago in a team meeting with Kim Collier, the director of the production. I took lots of notes, and from those notes certain “creative drivers” began to pop off the page. These words drove the conceptual process, providing inspiration and point of direction.

Fortunately for me, No Exit also came with some pretty stunning photography from previous productions, which provided another great source of inspiration.

On screen: Andy Thompson and Laara Sadiq. Onstage: Jonathon Young. Photo by Michael Julian Berz.

Now the fun part: getting visual ideas down on paper. Once I’ve got a good slew of thumbnail sketches to work with (or once I start drawing the same thing over and over again), I move to the computer to flush out three concepts.

A sample from Nina’s sketchbook

Concept one was rooted in the show’s cinematic storytelling style. The moody, film noir look speaks to the emotional and psychological drama of the play.

Initially, the idea was to create a series of posters featuring each of Sartre’s three
hell-bound characters and display them as a triptych in front of the theater.
Ultimately, due to logistics, this idea was abandoned.

Concept two subtly evoked the mystery and historical period of the piece (mid 1940s), while showcasing the striking photography from the Vancouver production. You could also say this was the keep-the-cat-in-the-bag option—not giving away the technical “live-cinematic” aspect of the production.

Concept three came directly from those early creative drivers of division, intersection, and interaction. After a design presentation, this concept got the green light from Janette Andrawes, A.C.T.’s marketing director, and was approved by the show’s Canadian producers.

The final three-sheet

After the three-sheet (a very large poster displayed in front of the theater for each show) is complete, the artwork gets adapted for various formats and sizes. This “business end” of the process is less exciting because it’s more technical and less creative (at a certain point we briefly joked there was no exit from No Exit), but the satisfaction of seeing the final product is well worth the time spent with spec sheets and measuring margins.

The No Exit three-sheet and 9x2 sign in front of the American Conservatory Theater

No Exit posters on an SF Muni train (left) and in a BART station

Pursuing Pinter

Friday, April 1, 2011

For those of you whose interest was piqued by our last post, you can now listen to the “Pursuing Pinter” panel discussion online! Just click here (and scroll down to the bottom of the screen).
— The A.C.T. Intern Blog Quadrumvirate

“Pursuing Pinter” panelists, March 20, 2011: (L to R) A.C.T. Resident Dramaturg Michael Paller,
KQED Forum’s Michael Krasny, A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff, and Columbia University’s
Austin E. Quigley. Photo by Tom Chargin.
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