How I Learned to Juggle

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Posted by Dan Rubin, A.C.T. Publications Manager

As Humor Abuse closes in on its final performance this weekend, A.C.T. Publications Manager Dan Rubin reflects on what he learned while researching the history of San Francisco's beloved Pickle Family Circus. Rubin interviewed several members of star Lorenzo Pisoni's multitalented family for the latest edition of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s behind-the-scenes theater guide. Click here to order a print or electronic copy, which includes 16 of Pickle photographer Terry Lorant's dazzling photographs of the Pickle Family Circus in its heyday.

Humor Abuse
Lorenzo Pisoni's parents, Pickle cofounders Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider, juggle in the Pickle Family Circus.
Photo by Terry Lorant.

San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus would juggle. I am left with many things from my research into this amazing organization—an investigation that led to interviews with the two cofounders, Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider; Peggy's daughter, Gypsy, who was 8 when the circus began; and, of course, their son, Lorenzo, who was literally born into the PFC, started performing at age 2, and is starring in the one-man clown show Humor Abuse, a show about his childhood, on the A.C.T. mainstage now.

My research reminded me of the powerful artistry of talented and inexhaustible young people. It reminded me of what can be accomplished with next-to-no funds if the drive is there. It reminded me of how brilliantly executed ideas will always trump brilliant spectacle. It reminded me of the power of intimacy, of community, of communication, and of carnival food—and how we need events to bring all those elements together. It reminded me that good things don't last forever, that inexhaustible youth become exhausted, and that the 1970s were a long time ago.

It also taught me that there are many ways to parent and that "babies will naturally cling to a trapeze bar if you let them because we are not inherently afraid"; that theater probably has more need for the circus than we realize; that there are circuses around the world (like Gypsy's Montreal-based Les 7 doigts de la main) that are thriving.

I am left with many things, but the takeaway I keep returning to is this: everyone in the PFC juggled. Larry and Peggy began as the Pickle Family Jugglers, passing the hat around Union Square, and the jugglers mentality permeated their circus: every show would end with an epic Big Juggle, involving everyone, even the roustabouts. Backstage and during rehearsals, Pickles would take juggling breaks "like normal people take coffee breaks," wrote one journalist. They would do this to loosen up, to activate their muscles and their minds, and to connect with their fellow Pickles, for the solo juggle was rare: they were almost always juggling with someone else.

"What is the trick to juggling?" I opened my interview with Larry. "Trick? There's no trick. It's all practice." When I was in the toy store last December buying soft footballs to donate to the fire department's holiday collection, I picked up a set of juggling balls for myself. I've been bringing them back and forth from the office to home, taking them out when I need a break. And I have to say: it really is just practice.

Now I need to convince my colleagues. Because we could all stand to be a little more like the Pickles.

The Sky’s the Limit: Reflections on The Sky Festival, Part 3

Friday, January 20, 2012

posted the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2014

Our coverage of the 2012 Sky Festival concludes with musings from other members of the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2014, who experienced this intense two-week period of rehearsal and performance for the first time. The festival brings together A.C.T. students, staff, and faculty in the high-speed creation of inventive new work. For many students, the festival also offered an opportunity to delve into something new, as they stepped into roles as writer and director.

Thieves
L to R: Cloud Tectonics director Jeffrey Crockett with Blair
Busbee and Aaron Moreland. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Thieves
L to R: The Owl and the Pussycat directors Omozé Idehenre and
Lateefah Holder. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Blair Busbee
Performer, Cloud Tectonics and No Man's Island

I was once in an acting class where I had to practice juggling for the first 15 minutes of every class. The first day, I failed. Miserably. I took my frustration out on the balls, and I pounded them each into a brick wall. The second day, I practiced with only two balls. I was a bit more successful, but I still clenched my jaw whenever a ball went THUD onto the floor. Eventually, as classes continued, I learned how to juggle. I learned patience by taking the process one step at a time, and I learned a lesson in the importance of focus.

I've actually thought about juggling a lot since I started rehearsals for José Rivera's Cloud Tectonics. It takes an immense amount of focus to juggle all of the facets of my character, Celestina del Sol. She's hitch-hiking. She's pregnant. Her only food is soggy saltine crackers. She's alone in the world, carrying all of her possessions in a black plastic bag—oh, and she can bend time. So, yeah . . . there's a lot to juggle in this play.

I'm having a blast, and I'm growing with each rehearsal—taking little leaps of faith, which is all I can ask of myself, I guess.

Lateefah Holder
Director, The Owl and the Pussycat, and performer, Black Maria

Woooo. Whoever said that directing was an easy job was really not telling the truth. Directing is tough. I only have a cast of two, and they are counting on me to tell them where to move around, scene by scene, from point A to Z, in a way that makes them look glorious! No pressure, though. (Yeah, right.)

I have to be honest with you, though. When I was first asked to direct this piece as my second Sky Festival assignment, I was a little unsure of myself and whether or not I would be able to pull it off. My mind was racing as I tried to wrap my head around a script that not only had I never heard of before, but then after reading it, realized I was not quite connected to, either.

BUT! I have to say I've come a long way with this dysfunctional-yet-cute romantic comedy. Once I was able to discover the heart and soul of the piece, I felt as if I had tapped into the work and it finally settled with me. THANK GOD! Also, not to forget that I had the pleasure of working with two extremely hardworking and talented fellow students who truly made the world come alive for me. (I love them. They are fabulous!)

Researching the '60s and all of its glorious fashion and music really put me in the perfect frame of mind for this work. I'd say that The Owl and the Pussycat is like a Glee mash-up of Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Venus in Fur! So, if you're interested in a very messy, yet highly dysfunctional, rollercoaster ride of a show, with some damn good classic '60s jams, then come see The Owl and the Pussycat!

Lisa Kitchens
Assistant Director, Noncents, and performer, Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness!

Since coming to A.C.T., I have heard nothing but fabulous things about the Sky Festival! And since I arrived, I have been itching with anticipation to get started. Knowing that students were given the opportunity to produce, write, direct, and act in projects of their choosing for an audience of fellow supportive, creative students and professional artists, seemed to be not only unique but also incredibly relevant, as so many young theater artists moving to cities are being called to do just that. This festival has been so full of enthusiasm and heart since it started two weeks ago, that I am beyond thrilled to see all of the projects!

I have been lucky enough to participate in two student-produced works—one being an original and the other being student-directed. Both experiences are completely different and equally rewarding. Working on a new work is always exciting—seeing it transform and grow into a fully fleshed-out piece is a huge learning experience. My classmate, Elyse Price, invited me to work on her original work, Noncents, as assistant director. I had participated in a reading of her play last semester, so it is a privilege to be a part of this developmental process. We started the first week by doing some intense table work. Questions, dialogue, research, rewrites, and, of course, reading—all came together to further develop this wonderful play. During the second week, when we got on our feet, the play took off—and it was truly thrilling to watch. Her piece has come such a long way since its beginnings last semester. I speak for myself and the others involved when I say sharing this will be a pleasure.

The other piece I am working on is second-year student Rebekah Brockman's Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness! by Anthony Nielson. Rebekah proposed the project and is also directing it. This play requires such energy and imagination—every moment is a blast! This piece has also been quite challenging. This particular style of comedy requires larger-than-life physiques while also being extremely connected to the emotional lives of the characters. And let me tell you, being a pockmarked girl with a sister who ruins everything and whose pimples are actually pearls and is dumped by her true love for an oyster is not easy! Rebekah has also incorporated mask work (she made all six masks!), puppetry, music, and comedy to create this delightfully poignant piece that is sure to surprise audiences.

Aaron Moreland
Performer, Black Maria and Cloud Tectonics

My name's Aaron, and for the past two weeks, the following has been my mantra: Tight. Bright. Light. Sounds weird, I know, but let me explain. Right now I am nearing the end of my first Sky Festival at A.C.T. Over two weeks, I will have collaborated with folks from all over the Conservatory and put up not one, but two shows. Sounds stressful, I know, but it's way more fun than stressful, believe me. I've gotten to work on two shows that are awesome, each in their own way. Black Maria, a film noir piece written in pure poetry (no dialogue), and Cloud Tectonics, a play about love in and out of time (deep, right?). At first I was beyond stressed and nervous: how was I gonna finish these projects? But then I remembered that little mantra, something I found as an undergrad that's almost grown to be a way of life here at A.C.T. So here's an explanation of this little philosophy:

1. TIGHT
No, you don't have a lot of time. But that's cool, because you're in grad school, so you'll never have enough time. So what can you control? You can control your preparation. Working as hard as you can to keep everything around you tight and organized, to keep things in arms reach for easy access. It's okay if you don't remember everything, as long as you have it written down to remind you. Sooner or later, it'll all become second nature and you will remember it. Also, keeping it tight means making things simple for yourself: what can happen right now that will make my life so much easier? What can I cut out? What proverbial fat can I trim? This is essential for quick deadlines, like the ones in The Sky Festival.

2. BRIGHT
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING!!! You gotta stay positive in this. I know there always seem to be 20 million reasons to get upset, but get this: things are easier with a smile. Be hopeful, for Pete's sake!! No one expects you to create The Iron Lady in two weeks! Once I remembered that I really started having fun.

3. LIGHT
Why so serious? Just have some freaking fun. That's it.

York Walker
Performer, Black Maria and Better Angels

The Sky Festival is a great way to come back to school after the winter break. Everyone is refreshed, well rested, and ready to work again. I am currently working on a project entitled Black Maria (sounds like pariah).

Black Maria, directed by Stephen Buescher, is adapted from the book of poetry by Kevin Young. The piece follows two lovers as they battle their demons and circumstances to be together. The poems are written in the film noir style, so we are creating that same world for the stage. Rehearsing for this project has been wonderful since day one. Stephen creates a rehearsal room that encourages collaboration and the spirit of playfulness. We have such a good time in rehearsal that the time flies by. It feels like two minutes, and then it's time for it to end. The other actors in the company are also very giving of themselves. Each of us brings our ideas and knowledge to each of the scenes we are working on. There was a day when one of my characters was smoking a cigar, and I was smoking it as if it were a cigarette. One of my castmates said, "You can't smoke a cigar like that. You would have been dead a long time ago." I had no idea what I was doing! I am an asthmatic and have never even touched a cigar, let alone smoked one. It was great to know that I could count on my castmates to correct me if there was something that wasn't authentic onstage. It's good to know that your cast will have your back and not let you go out onstage looking crazy.

Light has been a big part of our rehearsal process. Film noir has a very specific lighting style. It plays a lot with shadows and lighting only sections of a space, instead of the entire thing. We play around with flashlights, lamps, and clip lights to create the noir atmosphere. The show doesn't have a big budget, so all of the lighting is done with ordinary things. It's so interesting to me what you can do with something as simple as a flashlight and muslin screen. It's like being a kid creating a completely different world with just your imagination and a few toys.

The Sky’s the Limit: Reflections on The Sky Festival, Part 2

Thursday, January 19, 2012

posted by Elyse Price, member of the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2014

Our coverage of the 2012 Sky Festival continues with a post from Elyse Price, whose original work Noncents is one of the selected pieces to come to life over this vibrant two-week festival.

Thieves
L to R: Maggie Leigh and Elyse Price in Noncents. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Thieves
L to R: Noncents performers Maggie Leigh and Elyse Price, assistant director Lisa Kitchens,
and director Domenique Lozano. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The idea of The Sky Festival is such a fabulous one—its title mantra, "the sky is the limit," mixed with about 50 daring, creative, and energized artists, is dangerously exciting. And it takes place at A.C.T., no less, a theater company that pushes boundaries and wants to challenge its audience. When I found out about this festival during callback weekend for the M.F.A. Program, I was hooked, and already had ideas brewing . . . but when it came to proposal time, after spending my first five months in this city, I knew which one was the best.

I had been working on a short play called Noncents back in New York City, which was my home before making the big move across the country. It was inspired by the countless number of homeless men and women I would engage with on a daily basis in the city. I started wondering about their individual stories and what their lives used to be like, knowing that I would probably never know. Then one day I heard a line that knocked the wind out of me—someone selling a baby, desperately. I thought, "Could this be real? Am I really hearing this?" I hopped on the subway and made my way home. After a couple days of typing and typing away, my mind repeating that horrendous line ("Baby for sale!") over and over, Noncents was finally born.

After moving from one enormous city to another, I was really struck by the stark differences among the people who inhabit San Francisco. I have about a 20-minute walk to school every day, and after weeks of interacting with the people that inhabit these streets, I knew some editing was in order. My amazing classmates met several times with me to hold readings and offer input and insight on the plot, the characters, the circumstances, the language, etc. We experimented in all different ways—we paired up men and women, men and men, and women and women, just to see the difference, if any, it would make to a text that was originally written for two men in New York.

I don't think I could have ever imagined how helpful these preliminary meetings were! I realized that although it worked as a play between two men in a different place, the difference it made when pairing two women was expansive, especially in this new setting. It opened up a whole new perspective on this play. And I was very excited by this new point of view, as were several of my classmates who really saw this project through with me! It brought up so many topic of discussion: gender roles, sexuality, responsibility, perspective, need, money, appearance, love, desperation, and abuse, to name a few.

Once we got into the rehearsal room, a whole new and thrilling layer was added—Nancy Benjamin (Co-Head of Voice and Dialects) as our director, Lisa Kitchens (class of '14) as assistant director, and Maggie Leigh (class of '12) as my scene partner. We have all been collaborating every single day, sharing stories, closely reading the text, and building a real, visceral world in the rehearsal room. I continue to be awestruck by the personal experiences that reveal themselves in these conditions. We are all interested in the truth—telling the fullest story possible, while doing justice to the complex world of the streets.

It has been both challenging and incredibly fulfilling to wear two hats in the rehearsal room. I have learned so much about both writing and acting and am so grateful to have been given this opportunity. The support that I have received working on this project has been unparalleled and it continues to surprise me every day.

The Sky’s the Limit: Reflections on The Sky Festival, Part 1

Friday, January 13, 2012

posted by Dillon Heape, member of the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2014

Each year, the A.C.T. community gathers for The Sky Festival—the creation, rehearsal, and performance of a vibrant and eclectic range of work. Students, faculty, core acting company members, and artistic staff submit proposals for projects they are personally passionate about, from self-written work to movement-based interpretations of classic texts. The chosen projects are developed over two weeks of intense rehearsal and exploration, culminating in two days of lively in-house presentations.

This year, one production Thieves, a raucous spin on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2—will be presented as a full production at The Costume Shop.

The first-year Master of Fine Arts Program students were thrown into the creative chaos of the Sky Festival for the first time, and Dillon Heape stole away from rehearsal for a few moments to reflect on his experiences as part of the cast of Thieves.

Thieves
Thieves in rehearsal. L to R: Tyee J. Tilghman, Rebekah Brockman,
Dillon Heape, Jessica Kitchens, Titus Tompkins, and Jason Frank. Photo by Kevin Berne.

I've never been one to get too excited about Shakespeare. I've acted and studied theater for most of my life, read and seen many of Shakespeare's plays, and even performed in a few—but I have yet to be "bit" by the bug of the Bard. And until recently, it's something I've felt pretty guilty about. I've never disliked Shakespeare—I've just never really got it, either.

Fortunately, just this week, things have started to change. I've been given the opportunity to play King Henry IV in my friend Matt Bradley's play Thieves, a rock adaptation of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, as a part of A.C.T.'s second-annual Sky Festival. Thieves places a new, bold, interesting spin on the relationships between King Henry IV and his son Hal—and between Hal and the band of thieves he's recently joined as an act of rebellion against his father.

Until working on this play, I had always thought of Henry IV as a bleak, long-winded installation in Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses plays. The story is compelling, but the antiquated language kept me from really connecting to the heightened emotions these characters are feeling. (This is something I experience with many of Shakespeare's plays.) In Thieves, though, the characters speak in a fascinating blend of modern language and Elizabethan English—and sing and play some pretty awesome rock music—in order to convey their dark, funny, and emotionally-charged story to the audience. And I get it!.

I have to admit I was a little bewildered when Matt first cast me as the King. (If nothing else, I felt pretty undeserving. Give the part to someone who loves Shakespeare!) But now that we're knee-deep in the rehearsal process for this play, I could not be more thankful to be involved. Through rehearsing with my friends and peers, working with an apt and able young playwright who's passionate about telling Shakespeare's story in a way I can connect to, and through the age-old medium of music, I am learning more about Shakespeare than I ever thought possible. No time like the present, right?

Enter the Pickle Memories Contest

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

In celebration of our upcoming production of Humor Abuse, share your favorite Pickle Family Circus memories for a chance to win a VIP package to the show and meet star Lorenzo Pisoni in person. Entries must be submitted by January 22. Click here for details.
Pickle Family Circus cofounder Larry Pisoni applies stage makeup to his son, Lorenzo. Photo by Terry Lorant.


 
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