Tosca 2.0

posted by Carey Perloff, A.C.T. Artistic Director

Cocreated by Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli, A.C.T.’s world premiere production of
The Tosca Project played to sold-out houses in 2010. Now it’s on its way to a second life at Theatre Calgary in Canada, where it was been renamed Tosca Cafe. Performances begin September 13 at Theatre Calgary, followed by an engagement at Vancouver Playhouse in October.

Now busily working with Caniparoli to remount and reimagine the show for its Canadian run, Perloff took a quick break to share her thoughts on the show’s journey.

It is a gift to be able to revisit a production a year after its premiere—and amazing the clarity that can emerge after some time away. Val Caniparoli and I have been collaborating on The Tosca Project for over four years. It began as an experiment to see what would happen if we put five ballet dancers and five actors in a room and tried to create something together, and culminated with a world premiere on the A.C.T. mainstage in spring 2010. Over the years, the artists involved in the project became deeply entwined in each other’s work and lives, and all of us began to develop a vocabulary for storytelling that was neither ballet nor theater, but something in between.

Now we are at it again, in Calgary, Alberta, creating the next version of what is now called Tosca Cafe. The challenge of this production has always been what structure to hang the journey on: the piece has always been full of gorgeous dance (like the lovers’ wartime duet to Rosemary Clooney singing “What’ll I Do?”) and hilarious comic moments (like the Businessman, played by über-clown Peter Anderson falling in love with Sabina Allemann’s wacky Ballerina), but the narrative tissue initially eluded us. The first public showing of the piece (a workshop at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2009) involved a huge amount of audio “oral history” as we let bar doyenne Jeanette Etheridge (proprietor of the real-life Tosca Cafe, which inspired the piece) and other North Beach denizens tell the story of their neighborhood on tape. While the research and audio material were hugely invaluable, its use onstage ultimately felt theatrically inert, like a PBS documentary rather than a theater piece. The inspiration for the next version was the opera Tosca itself (we began using the arias as key emotional storytelling points) and an extraordinary San Francisco Museum of Modern Art show of the work of William Kentridge, whose gorgeous videos of a heavyset middle- aged mute man (Kentridge himself) longing for the “ghost” of a woman whose footsteps and fingerprints kept haunting him, became the inspiration for a story about a Bartender and his lost love, the Woman in the Red Dress.

It was this story, which ended with a moving “broom duet” between the Bartender and his love set to Puccini’s “Vissi d’Arte,” that the audience was most gripped by as we traveled through the decades of dance and discovery that was The Tosca Project in 2010. But his companions, a black fugitive played by Gregory Wallace and a Russian woman played by Rachel Ticotin, were still oblique. We had tried to stay as true as possible to the actual life of Tosca bar owner Etheridge, but since she only bought the bar in the late ’70s, we were stuck with what to do with earlier decades of the piece, and how to set up a complex relationship between our three central characters that would pay off at the end.

So when Dennis Garnhum, artistic director of Theatre Calgary, came to Tosca’s opening night, fell in love with the project, and invited us to bring it to Canada, we had a fabulous opportunity to free ourselves from literal history and make up a new storyline in which an audience could really immerse themselves. Since Rachel had booked a TV series in the interim, I invited actress Annie Purcell, with whom I had done Elektra at the Getty Villa last summer, to take on the role of the woman who took over the bar. Based on Annie’s own physicality, I borrowed from Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid to create a story about a scrappy young vagrant who, dressed as a boy, flees into the bar and is given sanctuary by the Bartender. The Kid becomes his pal, his helpmate, his mascot—and then gets dragged off by Social Services and returns in an emotional reunion as a young woman ten years later. She learns to be a girl during the war by dancing with the War Brides (“Kiss Me Once”) and comes of age in the ’50s dancing the Madison with the Musician and the hipsters. She breaks with the Bartender over a violent, intoxicated argument about her own independence, and only returns to the bar after the ’60s, when he has spiraled into alcoholism and despair (“Tre Sbirri” from Tosca scores this dramatic section). Thus, when she takes over the bar with the Musician and makes it her own, we have already had a long history with this character—the cap she wore as a street kid hangs over the bar beside the photograph of the Bartender’s mysterious love, and becomes a touchstone for all the lost souls who find their way to Tosca Cafe.

The new cast of Tosca Cafe in rehearsal at Theatre Calgary.

Annie Purcell is an astonishingly inventive, imaginative actress who is completely at home in the world of “devised” work: she dares to walk into a room with no text and no structure and creates magic. We have paired her with a remarkable Canadian named Dean Paul Gibson (replacing Bartender Jack Willis, who is in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer), whom I had first seen in The Overcoat and who has worked many times with Peter Anderson, one of our key collaborators on Tosca Cafe. So every day for a week in Calgary, Val and I have turned up at rehearsal with our wild eclectic company of Americans and Canadians, dancers and actors, first-timers and long-time collaborators, to peel away the layers and deepen the story of this piece. Replacing beloved SF Ballet dancers Lorena Feijoo and Pascal Molat are two equally compelling but very different Canadians, Cindy Marie Small and Rex Harrington, who are bringing their own unique sensibilities to the dances Val has created. Favorite sections like the “rave” surrounding a dramatic reading of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” or the visceral “Agression Duet” danced to Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” have taken on entirely new weight and meaning in the context of the new story about the trio of misfits (Bartender, Musician, Orphan) who struggle to make this bar a home.

It is a surreal experience to walk to rehearsals through the streets of this Canadian oil town and then enter a room set up exactly like the bar we know and love on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. And it’s an incredible joy to be able to trust the material that we know really works, while feeling free to create whole new sections that stitch it all together. It’s a very free and alive room, in which ideas are ricocheting across the space like wildfire and a lot of crazy images are being pursued with joy and abandon. We hope the story we are telling is rich and sexy and universal enough to appeal to people who have never set foot in our foggy town, but who know what it feels like to walk into a bar full of longing, and to imagine . . .

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