The Man Who Invented Christmas (with a Little Help)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Man Who Invented Christmas (with a Little Help)
By Michael Paller

Charles Dickens, circa 1860s. 
Heritage Auction Gallery
Imagine a Christmas without carols or cards. No festive dinner. No presents under the tree on Christmas morning. No tree. No day off to spend with the family. This was Christmas in most places before A Christmas Carol was published on December 19, 1843. Charles Dickens has been called “the man who invented Christmas,” and while that’s an exaggeration, it’s only a slight one. He didn’t invent the modern holiday by himself, but for many people, his vision of Christmas is Christmas.

Christmas was grim in England’s cities during the Industrial Revolution. Factories and businesses were open on December 25, and there was no day off for employees like Martha Cratchit. Still, while Christmas wasn’t much celebrated in London or other large cities, some of the old customs were observed in remote rural villages.

"The Spirit of Christmas Present."
From Dickens's A Christmas Carol, 
illustrated by Soy Eytinge.
Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1869. 
Courtesy the British Library
When Dickens was 12, his father was declared a bankrupt. He and the entire family except for Charles were imprisoned for debt. The boy, suddenly alone in the world, was removed from school and put to work. It was the formative experience of his life. It’s not surprising, then, that in a series of pieces beginning in 1835 with an essay called “Christmas Festivities,” Dickens depicted a holiday centered on families, especially children who were loved, cared for, and surrounded by warmth and good cheer. Dickens eventually produced five short books and numerous articles on Christmas themes, but A Christmas Carol has always been far and away the most popular, and the most successful in setting out what he came to call his “Carol philosophy.”

"A Retrospect."
From Dickens's A Christmas Carol, 
illustrated by Soy Eytinge.
Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1869. 
Courtesy the British Library
First stated in “Christmas Festivities,” the philosophy is an earthly one, concerned with the welfare of all in the here and now, however much it might find echoes in religious texts: “And thus the evening passes, in . . . good-will and cheerfulness, doing more to awaken the sympathies of every member of the party on behalf of his neighbor, and to perpetuate their good feeling during the ensuing year, then all the homilies that have ever been written, by all the Divines that have ever lived.”

It’s a sad irony that the profit-driven atmosphere of the early nineteenth century, which led Dickens to write Carol, has infected the holiday in our own time. Still, Carol is an antidote to what a contemporary critic referred to as “this money-seeking age and money-getting country.” Dickens’s vision of Christmas isn’t about money; it doesn’t divide rich from poor. It encompasses all, child and adult, fortunate and unfortunate, the loved and the orphaned. It’s summed up in a sentence that, if it’s accumulated sentimental baggage in the ensuing 169 years, is still revolutionary in its plea that the bounty of life be shared among all: “God bless us every one!”


For tickets to A Christmas Carol visit act-af.org/carol.

A Very Real Woman

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Very Real Woman
An Interview with Testament Costume Designer Jessie Amoroso
By Adam Odsess-Rubin

Costume designer Jessie Amoroso shares some of the images
that inspired his design.
Fall is always a busy season in A.C.T.’s costume shop: the staff creates costumes for all Master of Fine Arts Program, Young Conservatory, and mainstage shows, in addition to renting costumes to people looking for special Halloween outfits. That doesn’t stop A.C.T. Costume Shop Manager Jessie Amoroso, who is the costume designer for Testament, from investing himself in the design process of the one-woman show. Amoroso gave us a look into the complex process of designing a costume for one of the most iconic women in history.

What research did you do for Testament?
Mary is such a prominent figure that has been written about for centuries, so there is quite a bit out there to digest. Luckily, we have Michael Paller, who did an amazing job with the dramaturgy. But research starts with the script, and Colm Tóibín wrote an amazing piece of literature. I knew we weren’t going for a “swords-and-sandals” portrayal of this great woman, but we didn’t want something so abstract that she would be removed from what we know of Mary. I knew early on that the color blue would appear as a watered-down blue-gray. I also looked at historical clothing, and I found that it was usually brown in color, and the fabrics were natural: linen and flax. I took all those images and presented them to Carey [Perloff], and we tried to see where the story was going.

What have your conversations with director Carey Perloff and actor Seana McKenna been like?
We spoke a lot about the realism of the costume and the idea that it may need to transform during the process. The character relates several stories in Testament, and it would be nice if the costume could help facilitate that; maybe a scarf becomes a shawl, or maybe it’s wrapped around the waist. The costume should have a transformative effect so that she can inhabit some of the other characters she talks about. She reenacts the wedding scene and the Crucifixion; she visits temples, walks through villages, and speaks to other people. Seana may want her costume to transform as she transitions between recollections.

You have the task of designing a costume for a play that is set in a nonspecific time and place. How do you mediate that?
In the script, Mary speaks as if the events surrounding her son’s execution have just happened, but for us, they happened two millennia ago. Tóibín takes it to a place of realism, and he tries to explore the larger ideas and how they pertain to our daily lives. If we put that story in a world of stone, mud, heat, and sandals, it would take away from the audience’s ability to identify with her. We will use contemporary clothing, which is an idiom that audiences will recognize. That way, they won’t be put off by the image of the Mother of God, who is a character beyond reproach. People will relate to Mary much better if they don’t have to decipher what the costume is.

Is the costume meant to be a bit ambiguous?
Not so much ambiguous as universal. We talked a lot about whether or not we would include a crucifix. If this character actually is Mary, Mother of God, would she wear a crucifix? We decided she probably wouldn’t. We will answer questions like that every day in the rehearsal room. I plan on going to rehearsal quite a bit to talk about what the costume needs to do, and to see how things evolve with Seana and Carey on a daily basis.
This is my third time working with Seana, so I have an idea of what she is comfortable in and how she has felt about past characters. Luckily, we did a reading of Testament earlier this year, so I saw her perform it once. I was able to get a good idea of how she moves the character, where she puts some of the exclamation points. That helped me choose a starting place.

Do you agree with the way Tóibín has shaped Mary?
I do. It’s almost like she is the mother of an executive. He’s more important to his shareholders, as their leader and the moneymaker, than he is to his parents; they might have other children, or maybe he wasn’t their favorite child. Parents have very different relationships with their children from the relationships the children have to the rest of the world. That’s something to remember: everyone is someone’s child.

For more about Testament, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Testament visit act-sf.org/testament.

Clowning Around with Technology

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

by Projection Designer Erik Pearson

Bill Irwin and David Shiner
in Signature Theatre's Production
of Old Hats. Photo by Joan Marcus
I grew up in Santa Cruz and had the good fortune of seeing productions at A.C.T. as a kid. I became involved in the theater myself when I was very little and family visits to the city to see a play left a big impression on me. I live in Brooklyn now and work as a director and designer in New York and regional theaters around the country. This is my first time returning to the Bay Area for a project since moving east. Old Hats is just the sort of A.C.T. show that inspired me when I was young and I can’t imagine a more perfect project for my return.

I first became involved with Old Hats a couple of years ago at Signature Theatre in New York. Bill Irwin and David Shiner had started developing ideas for a new project that would be a follow up to their wildly successful Fool Moon. There was no show yet, really—no director, no title—but they had a lot of ideas. Many of these ideas involved the imaginative use of projections and video. I joined Broadway projection design legend Wendall K. Harrington in taking on this challenge and began collaborating with the clowns in a series of workshop rehearsals at Signature.

Tony Award-winner Bill Irwin in
Signature Theatre's production
of Old Hats at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater.
Photo by Kevin Berne
My work focused primarily on a new solo piece Bill was creating, called “Mr. Business.” He had an exciting idea for a new technology-obsessed character and his misbehaving tablet computer. Bill envisioned a complicated struggle between a man and his gadgets in which the tablet takes on a life of its own. We began developing ideas in a rehearsal room together, trying out gags and experimenting with surprising ways for Bill to interact with the tablet.

At the same time, I was working behind the scenes to figure out the technology necessary to support the performance. As far as I’ve been able to tell, no one had ever attempted anything like what we were doing, and this led to many unique challenges. To run the tablet computer for the New York production I created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of computers, wireless routers, off-the-shelf software, and an iPad, all connected together to bring the tablet to life. The completed system allowed us to wirelessly send video to the tablet in Bill’s hand as he performed. When it worked correctly, it was as if the image on the tablet interacted with and responded to Bill just as a live actor might. Unfortunately the system was not entirely reliable, and on some nights Bill’s electronic companion would misbehave. It was as though the other actor in the scene would sometimes forget his lines and Bill would have to improvise to keep the scene going. Bill and I shared many a laugh over the way life was imitating art; our efforts to get the technology behind the scenes to work properly mirrored the struggles of Bill’s character to control his tablet. Thankfully returning to the show for a second time at A.C.T. has given us an opportunity to fix some of the bugs we encountered in New York.

For this production we’re working on a new and improved version: “Mr. Business 2.0.” Before rehearsals even began, we shot all new video for the tablet on stage at the Geary, improving on our original ideas—going for new laughs and expanding the story. We also brought in a local programmer, Dave Orton, to work with us in creating a brand new piece of software to run the tablet. This new app makes it possible to run “Mr. Business” with a single computer and Android tablet—no more Frankenstein’s monster! Our hope is that this version will be much more reliable.

As with all of Bill and David’s work, the comedy in “Mr. Business” is inspired by the kind of human struggles we all encounter in our day-to-day life. While technology may continue to seduce us with its promise of making things easier, it often seems that for every problem solved another is created. In Old Hats, Mr. Business leaves the stage having triumphantly conquered his gadget dependency. Having faced and overcome our own technological demons, we’re thrilled to share “Mr. Business” with A.C.T. audiences!

Performances of Old Hats run through October 12! For tickets and information visit act-sf.org/hats.

A Heavy Dose of Liveness: An Interview with Director Tina Landau

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Heavy Dose of Liveness
An Interview with Director Tina Landau

Bill Irwin (left), Tina Landau (center), 
and David Shiner in rehearsal for 
Signature Theatre's 2013 production
of Old Hats, photo by Gregory Constanzo
“The Coolest Project Ever” was the subject line of the email Tina Landau received from her agent, asking her if she would be interested in working with Bill Irwin and David Shiner on their new project at Signature Theatre. Landau, who had seen Irwin and Shiner in Fool Moon about twenty years earlier and was a huge fan of their work, jumped at the opportunity.

Although Old Hats is unlike anything Landau had ever worked on before, she was particularly well-suited to direct this physical show, as she coauthored The Viewpoints Book with Anne Bogart. Viewpoints is a method of theatrical composition that heavily focuses on physicality, movement, and gesture. “I feel very comfortable in Bill and David’s world, because I always think of my theater work in a physical way,” Landau says. “It surpasses the verbal.”

What is it like directing two clowns?
Bill and David had never worked with an official director on one of their projects together. I agreed to a one-week workshop, and for the first three or four days, I went home thinking, “Wow. They’re amazing. I could be a fly on the wall forever watching them work, but they do not need me in the room.” But I also very intentionally didn’t go in thinking of “directing” the way I usually do. I just wanted to observe and see what their process was and see if I thought I could be helpful. Before I knew it, they started saying, “What do you think about that? What does that look like?” Very slowly, we realized that it was a wonderful match and I should continue with the project.

How would you describe a clown’s relationship to the audience, compared to that of a more traditional actor?
I think ultimately the goal is the same, which is to connect and to engender feeling, and thereby ask us to take a new look at our own lives or help us find a moment of solace. The goals of a clown are very similar to the goals of performers in general, but the means are different: a clown uses primarily laughter. Clowns are quite clear on the fact that people laugh at misfortune and failed attempts and mistakes, so they elicit what ends up being a very joyful evening through moments that are filled with human foible and error and sadness. There has to be some pain in the comedy. That’s what it is born out of.

David Shiner (left) and Bill Irwin in
Signature Theatre's 2013 production
of Old Hats, photo by Joan Marcus
What effect do the nonverbal elements of the show have on the audience?
When we hear words, a part of our brain engages that only allows us to hear what is being said, but not necessarily how it’s being said. We glom onto meaning, and the meaning is very prescribed by how we understand that word. A picture is worth a thousand words. It leaves the individual audience member open to access a part of the mind that is more associative than literal.

What was your favorite part of working on Old Hats?
Often as a director, at some point in previews, I start getting tired or bored or scared of my own work, and I often find an inability to see it afresh. I never for an instant feel that with these guys. I could watch them every night of a long run and know that something is actually happening in this theater tonight that did not happen last night and won’t happen again tomorrow. That’s the kind of theater experience I think we all long for: a real, strong, heavy dose of what I’d call “liveness.”

Landau’s directorial work includes several shows in New York, including Bells Are Ringing and Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts on Broadway. Landau is also a company member of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and has directed numerous shows there. Most recently at A.C.T., Landau directed The Time of Your Life, by William Saroyan, in 2004.

To read more of Tina Landau's experience and to learn more about A.C.T.'s production of Old Hats in our latest edition of Words on Plays click here.

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG – PART 6

Friday, June 27, 2014

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG – PART 6
ELEMENTS OF THE DRESS REHEARSAL

Sab Shimono, a great role model
and Asian Actor Pioneer,
on deck during tech.
Photo by BD WONG
By the end of Tuesday afternoon we indeed got through tech-ing the entire play, but there was no surplus time to rehearse anything additionally, let alone to run Le Whole Shebang before Tuesday’s dress rehearsal. This means that Tuesday night we will be running through the entire play for the first time. An invited audience will be present, which is good for finally gauging the response, but this of course means one’s adrenaline and stress are ratcheted up considerably due not only to the “unknown factor,” but to the dramatic placement of the process’s final puzzle piece—that long-awaited entrance of the actor’s cruel dominatrix: the audience and her judgment. It, of course, matters not whether the audience is made up of paying customers or your friends and family. The anticipation of judgment pretty much feels the same. There is a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” phenomenon that often happens when you spend four weeks acting in a show (or even months working on a movie): you almost always fall in love with your captor. Any shred of objectivity you had when you entered the process is now colored by your chemistry with your fellow actors, affection for the costumes, even your comfort with the weather of your surroundings or the theater’s provided housing! I don’t think that there is an actor who, in some way or other, doesn’t become so immersed in the process of a production that she easily convinces herself it is wonderful across the board (or, at the very least, desperately hopes so). You try to be self-critical, you try to be objective about things you’d do differently (if only you were the director). But to me, these things pale in comparison to your invariable affection for what you’re doing. It’s very sweet, actually. It is your job to do your best work, it is your job to support the production and your fellow actors, it is your job to believe in every aspect of it and to, in fact, love it. Trust me when I say that most of the time, none of this is a gigantic leap.

More often than I’d like to admit, it is at this point in the process—that first fateful “open dress rehearsal”—that the gorgeous castle you’ve ensconced yourself in, complete with its impenetrable moat and frolicking koi fish, vanishes cruelly, leaving only, to your shock and dismay, you, a handful of well-meaning actors who are also all “making a go of it,” and an audience who doesn’t find the jokes amusing, isn’t moved by the drama, or simply doesn’t get it.

Julyana Soelistyo on deck during
tech and our fearless director, Carey Perloff.
Photo by BD WONG
I believe, if I am an accurate polltaker, everyone in this acting company nervously feels the same way I do: that the play holds enormous potential, but that we need the audience to tell us what we’ve got (and what we don’t got). Some of us struggle with the language as I do; some of us aren’t sure if certain highly theatrical moments in the play that we are attempting to sell with great commitment will, in fact, be “bought.” But to our core, we do believe that we have an opportunity to co-create a rather special evening of theater, if we just keep trudging up the mountain of our process with our basket of humble, theatrical belongings fastened to our back, and don’t hesitate or drop the proverbial ball. The one person who I feel unflinchingly knows that it will all be great is director Carey Perloff. Of her many gifts, enthusiasm and fearlessness are two of her most amazing. She has impressive leadership qualities. She could sell you a bridge spanning two uninhabited pieces of land with no water underneath it, cars to drive across it, or people to drive said non-existent cars.

(No, I’m not likening A.C.T.’s production of The Orphan of Zhao, or my relationship with Carey Perloff, to a bad bridge investment.)

I am constantly pondering and processing all of the above, and feeling a fair amount of tension in my
body as a result. My neck and shoulders are always stiff, often extremely so, and this condition is exacerbated by certain physical tasks in the show, which of course must be repeated. I am overwhelmed by: the play’s emotional demands, my nervousness as we run out of time to refine things before an audience comes, my default desire to give my mom and family face time, and the many press and special appearances that have come with the job (headlining in a play and then turning down the press requests because you’re too tired from rehearsal gives you no leg to stand on if your production is under-attended, so I turn down none).

I remember feeling a different color of the same tension when I was in Washington, D.C. with M. Butterfly (as well as previewing on Broadway), and during the Broadway previews for Face Value (both plays by David Henry Hwang). In both of these projects I felt some version of a responsibility to “make the play work.” I don’t mean that the plays were less than dramaturgically sturdy on their own; what I mean is that in both of those plays, I felt the weight of being central to its ideas and aspirations, and I felt, in some way, I could or would mess things up if I was sub-par. I feel a similar burden in The Orphan of Zhao, playing a character that is spinning in its emotional core. There are also feelings that naturally come with being in plays alongside other Asian-American actors; our investment to excel and prove ourselves in an industry that often shuns us is palpable. To be one of the senior members in a play that features Asian-American performers, all who are hoping to disprove the intolerable notion that Asian-Americans are inherently devoid of commercial appeal, indeed comes with some stress. And it also happens that in the three projects mentioned above, I played some of the larger roles I’ve ever played.

Stan Egi and Carey Perloff solving the
Orphan's problems, one baby at a time.
Photo by BD WONG
As I described earlier, visits from donors and/or board members are a tradition at A.C.T., not only at the tech rehearsals once the show has loaded into the theater, but even earlier as well, such as in the exploratory process of the rehearsal room (or, as in our case, the rehearsals held at the scene shop on the set). I frankly find this extremely invasive, because for me the actors’ process is one that should be as private as possible—you’re so exposed and vulnerable because of anything from early failed attempts at comedy to emoting rather messily in order to try and find a character’s pain. You’re simply not ready to share what you’re working on with anyone. The whole point of rehearsals is to provide a safe place for actors to try and explore and fail.

Having said all that, the success and existence of a theater as an institution is made or broken by the enthusiasm, hard work, generosity and engagement of its donors and board members. They are the absolutely crucial entity that makes it happen. Their passion for the theater is also most often directly related to their affection for it as a “magic place”—and the rehearsal room is the most special place to experience that magic. So the rehearsal door is usually wide open at A.C.T. and we actors must embrace it, because it is a good thing. It is not easy to explain to people why it’s so uncomfortable, though! What’s the big deal, right? I guess I keep coming back to the idea that the acting process (like the theater itself) is made on elements of magic. And there ain’t a self-respecting magician who’s gonna let you into her little workshop and expose all her stuff! But again, somebody’s gotta pay for all of it.

The afternoon of the dress rehearsal, my inevitable, mounting tension crests in a meltdown of sorts. I realize in retrospect that, aside from the stress inherent in the process (and this process is tripping along without incident, thank goodness), I am also carrying around with me constant, dark, kind-of-awful feelings that are unique to playing this particular role. I have never experienced this before, the onstage feelings manifesting themselves in “real life.” But I actually find myself almost always upset or irritable and actually weepy. The worst thing is, I don’t even notice that this is abnormal! I just walk around most of the day feeling like going back to bed and starting the day over (not getting enough sleep isn’t helping, either).

One thing adding to my stress is a fear of being underprepared. I am confident we can do the play without much messing up tonight, but I personally don’t feel the performance is ready, that the layers of material have been fully mined. Some actors believe that this is okay, that you actually use that audience time to start mining those things, and I understand that. All I can say is that regarding this particular production, I was hoping to be much further along.

Marie-France Arcilla plays the princess
with great flair, as in a Chinese Opera
production of "Sunset Boulevard."
Photo by BD WONG
My three main sources of anxiety come from 1. The language of the play, which I have memorized but I can still feel my mind reaching for (that goes away after proper repetition, rehearsal, and performance); 2. Tracking the emotional path of the character I’m playing, knowing how the character is feeling from point A to point B and so on—this is something that really needs time, but again I wanted to have tracked it better by now; and 3. As the sound department continues do its work to set our mike levels and find the proper balances, I have a mistrustful anxiety that we might be “over-miked’ (over amplified). I have no proof that we are, I’m just worried we are. I think all of these things are actually related. Like all actors, I am on a quest for what I consider to be “the truth” of this play, and if these three things are not mastered, effortless, unnoticeable, and cared for properly, a sense of “untruth” can surface. When this is happening, I don’t realize that these things are all related to the same search for something real. It is only as I look back after the fact that it dawns on me.

The only thing I can think of is to use the dinner break, before the dress rehearsal, to walk through the whole play by myself on the set, quietly say all of the words, track my physical checklist in conjunction with my verbal, and give myself a little run-thru of my own. This is a normal thing for me. It appeals to my sense of logic and really can help a person iron out wrinkles. It’s also rather meditative. When one is not feeling in control, doing something deliberate such as this creates a semblance of it.

But as I start this simple process, I am ordered off the set by a crewmember who behaves brusquely. There is a rule that people can’t be on the set for insurance reasons, and of course my defensive point of view—that I’ve worked in X amount of theaters over X years and have never heard of such an absurd thing—means nothing to anyone (nor should it). I am also even more freaked out by her demeanor and the fact that she launches into kicking me out without an introductory explanation of who the hell she even is. My frustration escalates, and I actually succumb to what feels at the time like a perfectly natural state of being: sobbing. This is wildly entertaining to me now as I look back on it. I definitely still easily maintain that the gatekeeper was unnecessarily rude, but what amuses me now is how fragile I actually was.

Remembering that a huge contingent of drama students from Lincoln High School, my alma mater, and their teachers, and oh yes, my mother, are all coming to see the “invited dress” does not buoy me. I quickly realize that the dress rehearsal will just have to be what it is; there will be no heroic, miraculous opening night–style, transcendent performance. We will be happy if 1. We don’t have to stop in the middle; 2. We tell the story clearly and effectively; and 3. Nobody in the audience throws anything wet at us.

And that’s basically what happened. When a performance begins at this stage of the process, there is a scary, thrilling sense of danger fueled by the general human fear of the unknown, and the faith that you have indeed done most of the work necessary to avoid disastrous results. One does not normally dive off a rocky cliff in Acapulco without having learned how to do so properly (I hope), and even so, there has to be a first time. Will your lack of seasoned timing at this particular task cause you to plunge headlong into the lagoon when the tide is suddenly out? Will a sudden gust of wind blow your hapless body so close to the face of the terrain that it snags your thong, stripping you naked of your dignity?

No animals, actors, or divers were harmed during the dress rehearsal of The Orphan of Zhao. If there is one thing to be said about this company of actors, and the entire crew, both groups are extremely dependable. Everyone carried her or his weight. Everything went as smoothly as possible. I felt for the first time many small revelations about the continuity of the story as we stitched it all together as a team. At the end, as I greeted the Theater Kids and my mother (who clearly was very pleased with this show that she had been waiting to see with such motherly anticipation), I sheepishly felt we could’ve done so much better, but in fact we could not have, given the circumstances of where we are in the process. It was exactly what it was supposed to be. And we were all still safe, performing for our friends and family.

Before performing, the drama of acting can create surprising, disproportionate anxiety, but I often find it really easy to shake any nervousness I feel by remembering something rather simple; that what we are doing is not so monumentally important as to warrant such fear, and that furthermore and most importantly, “no one is going to die.”

In real life, anyway.

To learn more about A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zhao and to buy tickets visit act-sf.org/orphan.

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG - PART 5

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG PART #5
SECOND AND THIRD DAY IN THE THEATER: TECH-TEQUE

Daisuke Tsuji, Brian Rivera, and Stan Egi
Photo by BD WONG
So we starts tech at the beginning of the play on Saturday morning and slowly work our way through every moment—the actors’ performances, the lighting cues, sound cues, scenery shifts, and costume changes (many of the costume changes are “quick changes” as there are a lot of actors doubling roles in this company)—gently folding them all together like ingredients in the batter of a soufflé. I believe the goal is to finish the play by the end of Sunday, basically one day per act, leaving time for revisions, a margin for error, and enough time for a proper dress rehearsal before the first preview performance. That is about eight-and-a-half hours to tech each of the two (approximately) sixty-five minute acts for each day. Why does it take so long?

The tech process is partly tedious because it is in a constant state of stopping and starting. Repeating a part of the show that hasn’t been entirely ironed out yet is complicated, because in order to go over any given portion again, everything in every department has to be restored to where it was at the beginning of that sequence; and, as a play like ours is always in a state of forward motion (with lighting, scenic, sound, prop, costume, hair, makeup, and music elements all constantly shifting from point A to point B to point C and so on), working through the entire production bit-by-bit requires the constant, painstaking coordination of every department. Picture, if you will, an actor rushing offstage during tech and doing a full makeup, wig, and costume quick change with the assistance of dressers and hairdressers; completing it successfully in the small window of time he has to make his next entrance; high fiving everyone—and then, just as he’s about to reenter, hearing that we are going back to repeat a part of the show right before this all happened. It can be maddening, but it’s also pretty fun.

Daisuke Tsuji, Cindy Im, Nick Gabriel
(at the gong), Orville Mendoza, Paolo Montalban,
and Marie-France Arcilla
Photo by BD WONG
 
Here is my attempt at recreating a typical moment in a tech rehearsal.

(This basically happened the way it is described, with minor artistic license.)

Midway through the rehearsal, the Stage Manager announces where in the play the tech rehearsal will resume and continue from.

Stage Manager (on a “god mike” that everyone in the building can hear): Okay. Thank you for your patience, we have fixed the problem with the drop rolling up and are ready to continue. So we are going to take it again from the point in the scene between BD and Julyana when BD exits the house through the curtain, so we can raise the “mountain drop” again. Can we have BD and Julyana back on stage, please?

BD reenters, finishing a donut.

BD: Hello again.

Assistant Stage Manager (stepping onto the stage from the wings): Dick, Julyana thought we were moving on. She’s making her costume change for the next scene.

Stage Manager: Bring her back please, Megan, just tell her she doesn’t have to change back all the way.

Julyana (eventually entering): Here I am! Sorry. . . . I thought we weren’t doing it again.

Stage Manager: That’s okay, we just want to look at one thing again. BD, whenever you are ready.

BD: Okay. (Speaking from the script to Julyana, who is no longer dressed for the scene as his wife, but is now dressed as an old man.) “. . . Maybe he will have some advice. . . . ”

BD goes to the curtain and opens it. Before his exit, he and Julyana share a moment of meaningful eye contact.

How tech looks from the stage.
Left, in blue, Dick Daley at his command center,
lower right, Ken Savage, director's assistant
to Carey Perloff, Ms. Perloff, and "movement
designer" Stephen Buescher conferring.
BD closes the curtain in front of him, exiting the scene, and the lights shift indicating the end of that scene. Julyana exits in the dark to go to her designated backstage quick- change area (where the dresser and hairdresser wait to assist her with her costume and wig change), but she does not change, since she already did before. Continuing to the next scene, BD starts to climb the ladder, in front of a slowly rising backdrop that is painted like the mountain in a Chinese watercolor. The Stage Manager coordinates the lighting and rising of the mountain backdrop with the actors’ movements. He cues the lights and scenery according to what has been decided/designed, speaking to the different departments with the aid of a headset. The live music is self-cued visually by the musicians. The transition represents BD leaving Julyana behind in their house, and him traveling to (the character played by) Sab’s house. When the scene shift is complete and BD has reached the second level on the ladder, Sab and Brian enter from another part of the second level to meet BD for the next scene. The Stage Manager speaks into the god mike.

Stage Manager: Can we hold please? Thank you, BD.

BD climbs back down the ladder to the stage level, assuming they will be going back again and trying to get back to the secret place where he hid his donut in the set. Sab and Brian go back offstage obediently, “restoring” to where they were before they entered.

Director (to all involved, a voice in the dark, enthusiastic about the “rising mountain effect”): It’s beautiful, guys! Hold on. . . .

Set Designer (to Director): Carey, does BD have to close the curtain? If the curtain is closed, then the audience sitting house right can’t see the mountain drop go up.

Director: BD, leave the curtain open, honey. It’s so beautiful when the mountain drop goes up.

BD: But I’m leaving the house. How can we have that “goodbye” moment with Julyana if I don’t close the curtain? Don’t I need to close the curtain?

Director: I know, but it’s blocking the mountain drop.

BD: Argh. Okay. How about if I just stand and we look at each other for a moment and I wait for the lights to go out before I move, rather than leaving with the “front door open”? The lights go out, right?

Director: Yes, the lights will go out. Yeah, do that.

BD: Okay!

BD “goes back in the house.”

Stage Manager: Okay, can we take it again from the same place?

Julyana (coming back on, still dressed as an old man): I’m here this time!

Stage Manager: Very good! Whenever you are ready, BD.

BD: “Maybe he will have some advice. . . . ”

BD goes to the “doorway.” BD and Julyana look at each other meaningfully for a prolonged moment. The lights do not go out. The mountain drop starts going up. The musicians start playing the music cue.

Stage Manager: Hold, please.

Everyone stops.

Director: BD, you have to exit and go to the ladder so Dick can call the light cue and cue the mountain drop.

BD: . . . But I thought the light was going to go out . . . argh. Can I—

Director: NO. You can’t close the curtain. It’s blocking the mountain drop.

BD: Argh.

BD resignedly goes from the “doorway” to the ladder.

Stage Manager: BD, we need to take it from the same place as before.

BD resignedly goes from the ladder back into the house.

BD crosses to his “hiding place.”

Assistant Stage Manager (popping out from the wings): You can’t eat on the set.

BD: Argh.

End of Scene.

To learn more about A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zhao and to buy tickets visit act-sf.org/orphan.

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG - PART 4

Monday, June 23, 2014

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG - PART 4
SECOND AND THIRD DAY IN THE THEATER: TECH-TEQUE

BD WONG
Photo by Kevin Berne
Time management always baffles me. Time is so mercurial. We humans have figured out how to measure it, and we can predict somewhat how we can negotiate our way through it when faced with a time-sensitive task, but not much thought goes into how that negotiation actually happens. I suspect this is because if we do try to figure it out, our heads will explode.

So, you have a finite amount of time to tech a show. Tech-ing a show means that you take the performance of the play that the actors have rehearsed in the rehearsal room, bring it into the theater, and then spend that finite amount of time prior to the final dress rehearsal adding every remaining technical element that gives the production its physical identity. Months or sometimes years before a production goes into technical rehearsals, designers are preparing their work. Director Carey Perloff shared costume designer Linda Cho’s wonderful costume designs with me back in February. These were completed and did not change much subsequently, so Linda and Carey were undoubtedly collaborating on their ideas well before. Dan Ostling and composer Byron Au Yong probably were also in conversation with Carey sometime in 2013 (I hear Byron started doing musical sketches almost immediately, and that Carey and Dan “storyboarded” the entire play—choosing a scenic identity for each of the many scenes—for about a year). Lap Chi Chu, as lighting designer, probably does his most intensive work once an initial scenic concept is established, and his work becomes a collaborative response to that, as well as to Carey’s direction and Linda’s costumes. Jake Rodriguez is the sound designer and not only designs the entire equipment plot for the enhancement of the actors’ voices through artful miking (we have challenges balancing our particular show as the actors’ voices need to be heard over loud percussion instruments, for example), but he also works with Byron on the soundscape (i.e., sound effects). Sound design is the unfortunate, neglected sibling of the design family, as it is a design element underappreciated by nearly everyone. Perhaps this is because sound does not have a tangible entity, something you can look at or touch. There is no excuse for omitting the value of a good sound designer’s contribution to a production while one gushes over the lighting, scenery, and costumes.

Daisuke Tsuji, Paolo, Montalban, and Cindy Im
Photo by BD WONG
This process of tech is extremely complicated. The stage manager is coordinating all of the elements. Each department (wardrobe, hair/makeup, on deck/props/set, lighting, etc.) has its own crew. In the three days that we resumed rehearsing at 30 Grant after our partial week at the scene shop, the set (an imposing three-story structure primarily constructed of two-inch steel pipe, split into two large parts that are separated by a corridor running the depth of the stage) was dismantled, transported, and installed on The Geary Theater deck, where it greeted the actors when they came to work on Friday, May 30. I have no idea exactly what this entailed, but I certainly appreciate it. In order for the set to be as sturdy as it would be in the theater (and safe), it had been welded to the scene shop floor. Therefore, it must’ve had to be un-welded to transport it, for starters. However, I never saw a truck, or a wrench, or a blowtorch, or any of it ever in pieces. It was there in the scene shop when we left Sunday, and then it was there on The Geary Stage in all its glory when we arrived Friday. And, by the way, nobody directly involved in this seemingly-effortless but herculean process is doing any bragging of any sort to the naïve actors about all this magic. If you have been doing it as long as I have and are even a little observant, you come to realize that that’s precisely what makes it magical. This realization is unfortunately rather hard to come to when you are an actor at this stage of the rehearsal process, though. Steeped in your own tasks, you tend to see everything during this time as one of two things:

Everything is either about you (and your—or your character’s—track of whatever show it is that you’re doing). . . .

. . . Or everything is about you (and your—or your character’s—track of whatever show it is that you’re doing).

Those are the two choices; pick one.

This is because you are about to put yourself on the line and go out there in front of paying people in a rather exposed way, so you are somewhat vulnerable to worrying about whether or not the new elements—the clothes, what you’re standing on, what you’re hearing, everything else—is going to mess you up in any way. If something does mess you up, then you worry whether or not it will be the permanent kind of messing up or the kind of messing up that you can deal with gracefully if you make a manageable adjustment. Usually the tech phase of a production coincides with both the final stage of committing the text to memory, as well as a growing comfort with the staging after working on it for weeks, and I find that this is the time when I am the most stressed out. It’s challenging to be trying to get your brain to install the text in a text-challenging play to a word-perfect place, right at the time when the physical elements are being introduced to you—i.e., change.

An A.C.T. donor was so tickled to relate to me how fascinated she was when she was once able to attend a tech rehearsal as an observer. “And then the stage manager came out and told us, ‘Watch this, the actors are all going to complain about their props; some of the props are still being built and the actors are not going to be happy. . . .’ And sure enough, wouldn’t you know, the actors all came out and said ‘Where’s my this?’ and ‘Where’s my that?’ and ‘Is this how it’s going to be?’ It was so interesting!”

This isn’t totally fair, though. The rehearsal process is usually closed so that actors can work these things out in privacy. Furthermore, it can’t be overstated how important an actor’s familiarity with a prop that she is working with is when you consider that effortlessness is her ultimate goal. In our show, for example, there is one particular prop—an old fashioned medicine chest—that must not only hold a variety of other props within it with a minimum of “scrounging around for it,” but it must also be handled by two actors at different times in very different ways: one gets things in and out of it many times, and the other must climb the three-story set with it strapped to his back. The prop has to work for both of them, and they each in turn must rehearse with it, so that their dealings with it are not in the least bit awkward in front of an audience, or in some cases, even unsafe.

To learn more about A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zhao and to buy tickets visit act-sf.org/orphan.

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG FIRST DAY IN THE THEATER - PART 3

Thursday, June 19, 2014

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG
FIRST DAY IN THE THEATER (FRIDAY, MAY 30) PART 3
A PERSPECTIVE FROM THE HOUSE

L to R: BD Wong and Marie-France Arcilla
Photo by Kevin Berne
On Friday, the day following our run-thru in the 30 Grant rehearsal room, we spent our first thrilling day in the theater. This experience is a little like Christmas morning. You start seeing the actual costumes that you’ve watched slowly materializing at every fitting (I believe most of the cast had three interspersed appointments with the inspired costume designer Linda Cho and her immaculate crew). You walk into the theater and actually see how the set looks on the stage in all its glory, and you can compare your reaction to it to the reaction you had when the set designer proudly presented his lilliputian model at the meet-and-greet on the first day. You go into your dressing room and start organizing the supplies you brought from the drugstore and from your personal arsenal and start picturing how your routine will go as you arrive every night. Gradually, you start envisioning how all the work you’ve been doing in the rehearsal room with your colleagues will translate, fully formed. It is a thrilling and always cautiously optimistic time, particularly when you like the people and the play that you are working with, as I do.

We then tiptoed through the play to work out all of the various physical challenges that rear their ugly head(s). Invariably, almost everything is at least somewhat different than it was in the room or even on the set at the scene shop: entrances and exits are all informed by any number of new variables, including whether or not a particular entrance you are making is going to be in the dark or not. Lighting designer Lap Chi Chu is experimenting with intense focus, creating lighting cues using his palette of a hundred-or-so lighting instruments like a mad scientist (working with his crew from an intricate computer setup on a temporary tech table in the middle of the house), while we are doing our spacing rehearsal, and we could start seeing the actual colors of the production’s world as he experiments, and that was rather exciting. Dick Daley, the production stage manager, is a fine captain. He manages every department of this complex endeavor with great strength and a reassuring sense of calm. This is no small feat considering all of the elements that need to come together so that a production like this can happen. I am in awe of a good stage manager like Mr. Daley even more than I am in awe of Meryl Streep.

I sneak out into the house when I am not in a scene and watch it all slowly coming together. Carey calls the creative shots with confidence, decisiveness, and a true sense of collaboration, meaning she is not closed to people in other departments making suggestions to help solve any of the problems that invariably arise (those directors who cannot or will not do this are “fatally flawed” in my book). Dick complements her by being appropriately spontaneous but keeping everything on track. Neither yells at me when I miss at least a couple of entrances because I am loving watching everything from my house vantage point in one of those gorgeous purple velvet seats snapping photos with my tablet.

I am feeling rather overwhelmed by all the converging sights and sounds, but at the end of rehearsal (about 9:30 pm) I feel encouraged that we are slowly but surely moving toward meeting this production’s potential. I always maintained that this play holds incredible promise, and that if Carey were to assemble the right team of Asian-American actors and a great creative team, the production could hit a home run. We are working one of the few long days that the union, Actors’ Equity, allows for technical rehearsals—10 hours including a dinner break. This first long day, we get through working out the spacing challenges throughout the whole play, which is quite an accomplishment. The play is not a musical but this production of it contains many musical elements, and working all of those out are much more time consuming than spacing a play that doesn’t have music in it. Our production has many actors all taking turns playing various instruments or making sound effects, and that complicates things tremendously: “Can you make it to the drum on time?” “Who is supposed to be doing the baby cry here?” etc. The actors all feel spent and exhilarated and eight of us go across the street to the bar at the Mexican restaurant for a drink. Over my guilty pleasure, a coconut mojito, and a small vat of guacamole, I survey and gather that everyone feels the same as I: So far, so good.

To learn more about A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zhao and to buy tickets visit act-sf.org/orphan.

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG FIRST DAY IN THE THEATER - PART 2

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG
FIRST DAY IN THE THEATER (FRIDAY, MAY 30) PART 2
A WEEK THREE-STORIES UP

BD WONG
Photo by Julius Ahn
The third week of rehearsal was eye opening. This was the week Stage Management moved all of the props and personal items that had accumulated in the 30 Grant rehearsal room and transported them to the scene shop on Florida Street, where the entire set was already erected and ready for us to explore. Carey tells us that early in the planning of the production, she was rather despondent that the play could not be properly rehearsed in the Grant Avenue rehearsal rooms because of their lack of vertical space (Dan Ostling’s set is three stories high), and it was A.C.T. production manager Andrew Nielsen who introduced the inspired notion of pre-building the set with the goal of bringing the rehearsal to the actual scene shop, so the actors could become properly accustomed to climbing around on it.

This is not a generally common practice in my experience—the one place I remember reading about this happening was in Ted Chapin’s book about the making of the legendary musical Follies, directed by Hal Prince: lots of old gals in the shop wobbling around in heels on a slanted floor that the famous Broadway set designer Boris Aronson rightfully found visually arresting, but it was not particularly practical. Security and comfort are crucial for actors to give confident performances, as is safety. A good friend who recently performed on a multi-level set in an off-Broadway musical endured several minor injuries and an ongoing sense of trepidation and mistrust of management because the actors were not properly introduced to the challenging scenery and its various elements—this can cause discomfort, fear, and inhibit someone’s performance.

Phil Estrera and Jessica Ivry
Photo by BD WONG
The process of rehearsing in the shop was as productive as anticipated, and is emblematic of what seems to be true A.C.T. style: good producing and thinking ahead. Whatever this might’ve cost, it is worth it to me as an actor and I am grateful for it and think it should be acknowledged. I am a big fan of people who think ahead and I feel that all too often actors are put in a position where things gets compromised unnecessarily because something was not properly anticipated. It’s definitely another of my favorite qualities in a person, someone who aggressively binds the paws of Disaster before she even has a chance to grow them.

After nearly a full week in the scene shop (which was not without compromise—dear Sab Shimono has a severe dust allergy and could not continue rehearsing at the shop, so he rehearsed separately back at “base camp” by running some of his more difficult speeches for memorization with an A.C.T. intern and then joined us later), we went back to the 30 Grant rehearsal room for fine tuning on the one-level structure. Yes, Dick Daley and his diligent stage management team moved all of the props and personal items back to the rehearsal room, like the shoemaker’s elves did.

Our process was now greatly informed by what we knew about how the set accommodated (or encumbered) our performance goals. Adjustments continued to be made and the staging refined. On Thursday, May 28, after the two weeks in the room, the partial week in the shop, and then back to the room, we did our first real run-thru of the entire play for key crew, designers, and a handful of close friends. It was after this that one could begin to see the potential of the play and its affect on the audience. I felt that, for a first run-thru, it “threaded through” rather well and that it was potent emotionally. Carey later said that various members of the crew were quite moved.

To learn more about A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zhao and to buy tickets visit act-sf.org/orphan.

The History of The Orphan of Zhao

Monday, June 16, 2014

By Shannon Stockwell

Orphan of Zhao Set Model
Set Design by Daniel Ostling
James Fenton said of the process of adapting The Orphan of Zhao, “There seems to be nosingle text that presents the whole story from start to finish. It is a livingpiece of drama—continuously evolving and mutating.” Indeed, the tale has gone through many permutations, passed from country to country, translated from Chinese to French to English and back to Chinese again, leaving us with as many interpretations as there are adaptations. The origins of the tale reach back impossibly far, all the way back to the seventh century BCE.

The Orphan of Zhao is based on actual events that occurred during the Spring and Autumn era (722–481 BCE), which is a subdivision of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE). The Spring and Autumn era is named after Chunqiu, or Spring and Autumn Annals, which record the history of the small state of Lu during the years 722 BCE to 481 BCE. The earliest known roots of the Orphan of Zhao story are found in the Zuo Zhuan, or Zuo’s Commentary, which was written by an unknown author during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). This detailed expansion of the Chunqiu includes accounts of a great minster named Zhao Dun who tried to reason with the corrupt Duke Ling, who was needlessly cruel to his subjects, even killing them for sport.

There is no mention of an orphan in the Zuo Zhuan; that part of the story first appeared in the Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, written by second-century BCE historian Sima Qian. The chapter titled “Noble Family of Zhao” tells of the rescue of the Orphan of Zhao, who is, in this account, Zhao Dun’s grandson. This story also introduces Tu’an Gu, the duke’s power-hungry minister, and Cheng Ying, a friend of the Zhao family who rescues the orphan from his awful fate.

Orphan of Zhao Set Model
Set Design by Daniel Ostling
The Shiji’s tale of good versus evil, honor, loyalty, and revenge caught the attention of many Chinese authors over time, so the story was already well-known among the Chinese public by the time an otherwise unremarkable Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) playwright, Ji Junxiang, wrote a stage adaptation. His play was catalogued in the library of a Ming dynasty emperor in the early fifteenth century. In 1735, a French translation was published by a Jesuit priest who had traveled to China as a missionary. This translation, though somewhat unfaithful to the Chinese original in terms of style, inspired many more adaptations in several European languages.

While the “vogue” of Chinese culture fell out of favor with the European public near the end of the eighteenth century, the story of The Orphan of Zhao has captured the attentions of audiences throughout time. The twentieth century saw several new adaptations and translations, not only in China but across the world. The dramatic story of revenge, sacrifice, and loyalty has endured for almost 3,000 years, and to James Fenton, it is no mystery why: “The story has resonances throughout the world: I have often thought of Cambodia; others might think of Uganda, or Rwanda. There is, of course, the recent history of China itself. One doesn’t need to insert these echoes. They resonate on their own behalf.”

Read more about A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zhao in Words on Plays! Click here to purchase a copy.

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG FIRST DAY IN THE THEATER - PART 1

Friday, June 13, 2014

ZHAO BUSINESS: THE ORPHAN DIARIES OF BD WONG
FIRST DAY IN THE THEATER (FRIDAY, MAY 30) PART 1
REMEMBERING THE BEGINNING

L to R: JULYANA SOELISTYO and BD WONG
Photo by Julius Ahn
We’ve enjoyed an intense and productive rehearsal process: first, two weeks in the A.C.T. rehearsal spaces on Grant Avenue, with a modified uni-level rehearsal version of our multi-level set designed by Dan Ostling, and then for the better part of the third week rehearsing on the actual scenery in the A.C.T. scene shop in the Mission District. The rehearsal room on Grant Avenue that had a ceiling high enough to accommodate this particular set was recently relinquished due to a rent hike, and of course our director, Artistic Director Carey Perloff, misses that space with great nostalgic frustration—it compromises the comfort of her company, but I have no doubt that she will either get it back or acquire something even better, as she is quite the force of nature.

The actors were surprised when Ms. Perloff moved right from the first read-thru of the play to immediately staging the show, forgoing the traditionally observed process of “table work,” in which detailed discussions about the material are often held before putting anything “on its feet.” When pressed, Carey offered that such discussion could occur once the play was staged (which is turning out to be somewhat true). I find such reassurances crucial to understanding the path that we as actors are going on with the director to manage one’s expectations and plan one’s own personal progress. Just knowing what the director is thinking about how things will unfold is extremely helpful in being able to proceed calmly about how one’s creative needs/questions will be met/answered. I’ve taken it upon myself to act as a casual conduit to the rest of the company and create somewhat of a bridge of communication.

Brian Rivera, Daisuke Tsuji, Cindy Im, Stan Egi,
Orville Mendoza, Marie-France Arcilla, Paolo Montalban,
and Phil Estrera (below)
Photo BD WONG
The acting company of 12 is a wonderfully good-natured and spirited group from many different backgrounds and with a wide range of professional experiences. Four of us—Sab Shimono, Orville Mendoza, Paolo Montalban, and I— worked together on the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures in 2004, and I recall quite vividly the unique, strong bond that occurs when Asian-American actors perform together. There is shorthand and a common experience that is undeniable; we all have similar experiences and relationships to show business (for better or for worse) and that really informs our sense of family. Some of us are very fine actors who are Bay Area and/or A.C.T. locals; one, Phil Estrera, is an enthusiastic pup fresh out of A.C.T.’s impressive M.F.A. program (A.C.T. is one of a handful of American regional theaters that is also a school, and both wings of this house are world class). Phil’s commitment and lack of hesitation when approaching any task is emblematic of the A.C.T. spirit. The rest of the company is rounded out with several actors from Los Angeles and New York. Everyone is generally enthusiastic, committed, and what I would call “game” (a quality that really draws me to people). I think there is a general consensus that the play holds tremendous potential, and that the various elements of the production with Carey at the helm are exciting and promising—and not in a “wishful thinking” kind of way, either.

To learn more about A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zhao and to buy tickets visit act-sf.org/orphan.

The “Heartprint” of The Orphan of Zhao, How Ink Art Influenced the Production

Monday, June 2, 2014

By Shannon Stockwell

“The centerpiece of this whole play is when Cheng Ying finally has to tell his son who he is. But it’s so painful and frightening that he can’t—so he paints a scroll. Cheng Bo looks at his life in the scroll and discovers who he is,” Orphan of Zhao director Carey Perloff told the cast and design team at the first rehearsal of in May. Costume designer Linda Cho agreed, “We talked a lot about this being a story that’s written down. It’s a legendary story.”

The crucial role that writing and painting play in The Orphan of Zhao led Perloff to an exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art called Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China. The exhibit, which opened in December 2013 and closed April 2014, was the first major exhibition of Chinese contemporary art at the Met, and featured about 70 works by 35 artists. Every piece of artwork was inspired by ink, which has been the principal medium in Chinese art for over two millennia.>

“It’s among the most amazing contemporary work I’d ever seen,” said Perloff of the exhibit. “It plays with this notion of inscription: What are our stories? How do we tell our stories? What is the relationship of physical character to those stories?” The influence of the ubiquitous nature of ink in Chinese art is apparent in Cho’s costume design; for example, the basic unisex costume all cast members wear is a painted tunic that looks as though it has been dipped in ink:

More specifically, Cho was inspired by the piece Book from the Sky, which was first mounted in China in 1988 and has traveled the world since. The piece, created by Xu Bing, features several large scrolls covered in what appears to be Chinese calligraphy. However, upon closer inspection, the viewer learns that none of the characters are actual Chinese letters, and the scrolls are gibberish. According to curator Maxwell K. Hearn, Book from the Sky is a response to “the often blatant contradiction between propaganda and reality, words and actions, in a China where doctrine, news, and history were continually being rewritten and texts could no longer be trusted”—an analysis that also seems to fit The Orphan of Zhao.

Cho applied a similar style of abstracted writing to the costume of the Ballad Singer, whose beautiful poetic songs frame the show and summarize the tale the audience is about to witness. Cho was attracted to idea of a costume covered with unintelligible writing because it “steps away from being a historical reproduction of anything.” This aesthetic influenced her costume design, which she describes as “abstracted historical Chinese.”

Just as Perloff and Cho found calligraphy to be central to the story of The Orphan of Zhao, Hearn believes that it is “China’s highest form of artistic expression as well as its most fundamental means of communication.” Not only do the words themselves convey meaning, but the way an artist forms a character is significant. A practitioner might draw upon the work of artists before him or her, and, according to Hearn, “every trace of the brush carries the autographic handprint or ‘heartprint’ of the individual, reflective of his or her intellect, emotions, and connection with the past. Thus have Chinese cultural traditions been sustained and renewed.”

Read more about A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zhao in Words on Plays! Click here to purchase a copy.

Remembering Sophiatown

Friday, May 16, 2014

By Shannon Stockwell

Can Themba’s short story “The Suit” takes place in Sophiatown, a small suburb of Johannesburg, in the mid 1950s. The township was a tangle of contradictions during the middle of the twentieth century. It was one of the only places in all of South Africa where black people could legally own property. Although the location wasn’t great (it was near a sewer) and the township was small, the prospect of some freedom in a environment of oppressive apartheid laws was enticing for South Africans of color—including people with mixed and Asian heritage. This led to overcrowding and slum conditions, which led to violence and poverty, but Sophiatown’s unique diversity cultivated a vibrant community of art and culture; some of the best South African musicians and writers of the 1950s lived in Sophiatown.

We Won't Move, Sophiatown,
by Jürgen Schadeberg
(jurgenschadeberg.com)
With its need for total racial segregation, however, the Afrikaner National Party found Sophiatown’s existence unacceptable. The government declared that the majority of the housing was in need of immediate repair or demolition. Fixing the housing problem for the current residents was never the government’s intent, however: on a rainy morning in February 1955, the National Party sent armed policemen and trucks to begin forced evictions of the residents. Over the next four years, more than 65,000 Sophiatowners were displaced to various government-controlled townships. Sophiatown was bulldozed, rebuilt, and renamed Triomf—and resettled with white residents.

For the artists who were once inspired by Sophiatown, its destruction was symbolic of white Afrikaner triumph over black South African art and freedom. Triomf became a working-class white neighborhood and remained that way until apartheid rule was overthrown in the 1990s. In 2006, Johannesburg’s mayor restored the name Sophiatown. Residents claimed it didn’t matter: “A name is a name,” they said. But the mayor felt differently: “A name is something that gives identity to people. . . . Sophiatown is the past we dare not forget.”

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of The Suit in our Words on Plays click here to purchase a copy. For tickets to The Suit visit act-sf.org/thesuit

A Brief History of The Suit

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

By Dan Rubin

Nonhlanhla Kheswa in The Suit,
Photo by Johan Persson.
Can Themba’s “The Suit” was first published in the inaugural issue of a South African journal called the Classic in 1963. In 1966, while Themba was in exile in Swaziland, the South African apartheid government declared him a statutory communist and banned his work. It remained unavailable in his homeland until 1982. In 1994, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon adapted “The Suit” into a play, which premiered at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre.

Director Peter Brook learned about Mutloatse and Simon’s stage adaptation of The Suit when he read about the play in a newspaper article. He requested the script, which he shared with longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. “Ah! Yes, this is remarkable,” he remembers her saying. “But it’s only like a first draft. We could do it in our theater in Paris,” she told him, referring to the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, home of Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research, “so we’ll do it in French.” They put Le costume, as they called the piece, in front of a Parisian audience in December 1999 as part of a season of South African plays, after which it toured quickly started touring the world.

Ivanno Jeremiah in The Suit,
Photo by
Pascal Victor/ArtComArt.
Despite the show’s success, the creators were not satisfied with it. They realized the piece wanted to be done in its original English. “[The French version] wasn’t mature,” remembers Brook. “It wasn’t ready. Like with many projects, we waited for the right moment to return to it.” In 2012, they remounted Le costume as The Suit, an English version that incorporated the musical direction of Franck Krawczyk.

Revisiting the tale a decade after first exploring it, the creators realized that their audience was 20-years removed from the realities and knowledge of South African apartheid. In order to flesh out this world, they interlaced excerpts from articles Themba wrote for Drum magazine. They pulled a story about black people being denied entry to white churches from Themba’s investigative report “Brothers in Christ” and a story about the dangers of riding the commuter trains from his “Terror on the Trains.” Without the presence of apartheid onstage, Brook explains, “we couldn’t tell this story and make it even remotely real.” He continues, “The situation in The Suit couldn’t have arisen without that endless pressure, hour after hour, minute after minute, of people living in those brutal situations.”

They presented The Suit in Paris in April 2012. It began its international tour in May 2012 and has been touring the world ever since.

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of The Suit in our Words on Plays click here to purchase a copy. For tickets to The Suit visit act-sf.org/thesuit

Nonhlanhla Kheswa: The Voice of The Suit

Monday, April 21, 2014

By Dan Rubin

The incredible South African actor/singer Nonhlanhla Kheswa has been performing the role of Matilda in The Suit since it premiered in Paris in 2012. She has traveled the world with the show, to London, Madrid, Milan, Naples, Shanghai, Beijing, and New York, just to name a few places. She has loved meeting people everywhere she has visited, but her favorite city so far has been Tbilisi, Georgia: “They suffered a war recently. . . . It reminded me so much of Alexandra, the [Johannesburg] township I grew up in, because it’s a developing country. The people’s spirits are so lively. They are just thankful that they are alive. They are thankful they’re able to breathe. And they have such an immense love for theater and art, so I felt like I was at home.”

Kheswa never trained formally as an actor; in 1998, while she was still in high school, she was cast in the film Soul City. On the heels of that, she joined the cast of Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway; she stayed with the show for five years. New York was a playground for Kheswa’s explorations of vocal performance. She became a regular member of hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean’s ensembles, while entrenching herself in the city’s jazz scene and Brooklyn’s eclectic youth-music culture. She started her own group, Kheswa & Her Martians, which is “steeped in the hard-bop accents of Jackie McLean and Gary Bartz, the spirituality of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, and, naturally, the diverse strands of the South African jazz subculture.” They released their debut album, Meadowlands, Stolen Jazz, in 2013, which you can listen to online. A number of the tracks on the album are songs that Kheswa sings in The Suit.

Kheswa’s experience as a singer prepared her well for playing Matilda, an aspiring singer whose dreams are undermined not only by the racist laws of the oppressive apartheid government, but also by her adoring husband, Philemon, who prefers to keep his lovely wife at home. “She wants to do things, but Philemon wakes up at 5:30 in the morning and prepares breakfast for her so that she can stay in the house,” Kheswa explains. “She wants to be a singer, but he says, ‘No, no, you don’t need to be out there embarrassing yourself!’ He wants her to stay home and be beautiful. ‘I’ll do everything for you.’”

Kheswa continues, “[Matilda] knows that there’s something more inside of her. She loves Philemon as much as Philemon loves her. . . . But you have to realize that whatever it is that you love, you can also kill by overloving.”

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of The Suit in our Words on Plays click here to purchase a copy. For tickets to The Suit visit act-sf.org/thesuit
 
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