The Venus in Fur InterACT Prologue Disscussion w/ Director Casey Stangl

Friday, March 28, 2014

Director Casey Stangl and A.C.T. dramaturg Michael Paller discuss Venus in Fur on March 25, for the InterACT prologue discussion.  Click below to watch the recording.


Click here to buy tickets and learn more about Venus in Fur.

Music Clues in Venus in Fur

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

by Venus in Fur sound designer Will McCandless

Will McCandless
As a sound designer, it is my job to produce the sound and music for a production. At A.C.T., I designed the sound for Venus in Fur, Napoli!, 4000 Miles, and Higher, as well as numerous Conservatory shows. With each new production, my entryway into a play relies on clues in the script. My preparation begins with reading the script several times, allowing my mind to imagine what the world of the play sounds like: natural soundscapes, sound effects and musical textures that might support the play. Every once in a while, however, the playwright gives music clues that transcend setting and music and reach into the characters.

Venus in Fur, we are introduced to Thomas, a playwright and first-time director holding an audition for a stage adaptation he has written based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Fur. He has decided to direct the show himself (“within an inch of its life”) since his previous plays have been “misguided” in the hands of other directors. Thomas tells Vanda—the woman who abruptly blows through the door after auditions have ended—that he plans to use Alban Berg’s 1926 composition “Lyric Suite” for show music:

THOMAS. I'm only doing this because no director ever seems to get things exactly right. Having lived through one misguided production after another ...
VANDA. That's why you're so perfect. You can make it right. You can guide it.
THOMAS. I've got it all plotted out, too. I'm going to use Alban Berg's Lyric Suite for transition music.
VANDA. Yeah! Great!
THOMAS. Do you know the Lyric Suite?
VANDA. No! But you see? You understand this stuff from the inside, and these people.

Vanda—who is very late for her audition—seemingly knows very little about the book (and play) when we’re introduced to her. She is, however, familiar with the 1967 Lou Reed song “Venus in Furs,” which is indeed based on the same novella.

These two music compositions are quite different from each other, as are the two characters. Immediately the audience is given a way into the characters and we begin to build our assumptions. Thomas, the playwright/director, is quite excited about his choice of Berg’s “Lyric Suite” and, as a sound designer, I like his choice because Berg’s music supports the emotional currents of the novella. “Lyric Suite” is composed using a method inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. This approach to composition uses a chromatic scale, meaning that instead of a selection of musical notes to be played rooting a song in a specific musical key, it uses all the notes. The effect is sometimes highly discordant and flies in the face of our musical expectations. Given the subject matter of the novella (about a man who was whipped by his aunt as a child and now has a sexy albeit abusive fetish), the unbalanced feeling one gets from listening to “Lyric Suite” seems fitting for the story. The music clue of “Lyric Suite” might tell us that Thomas is erudite and well-read, but it also introduces us to that sense of imbalance.

Vanda, on the other hand, does not come across as erudite. Our initial impression of her is not remarkable. When she and Thomas begin to talk about the play, she seems to know very little about it:

THOMAS. Have you read it?
VANDA. I kinda flipped through it quick on the train. So what can you tell me? This is like based on something, right? Besides the Lou Reed song? "Venus In Furs"?
THOMAS. This is based on an old German novel called Venus In Fur—singular—by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

Our impression is that her only knowledge of this story comes from the Reed song released on the album The Velvet Underground & Nico—a record that makes the short list for all required-listening college playlists (right up there with Bob Marley’s Exodus and Radiohead’s OK Computer). The song “Venus in Furs” is a nice little slice of the book and, in its own way, evokes a similar discordant feeling. This is accomplished with a wailing viola line and Reed’s octave-tuned guitar, rather than using a chromatic scale.

These music clues help establish a dynamic at the top of the show: it appears that Thomas is the default expert on the story and that Vanda has a lot to learn.

Of course, this is just the beginning of the play. Ives makes a concerted effort to set-up the characters in this way, but where is he planning to go from there? Perhaps Thomas and Vanda are just this simple, though I don’t believe that would make for an interesting night at the theater. I think the most useful clue is that both pieces of music play with the sense of balance; both compositions employ unsettling tonalities. The effect is disconcerting because it’s not familiar. We don’t know where we are and we don’t know where we’re going.

Rest in sweet peace, Lou.

For tickets to Venus in Fur visit:  act-sf.org/venus

The Coining of “Masochism”

Friday, March 14, 2014

By Shannon Stockwell

It was Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing who coined the term “masochism” in his 1886 masterwork, Psychopathia Sexualis. Often hailed as the father of sexology, he was the first to classify psychosexual “disorders.” He took the name from his fellow countryman, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs. Krafft-Ebing defined masochism as:

A peculiar perversion of the psychical vita sexualis [sexual life] in which the individual affected, in sexual feeling and thought, is controlled by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex; of being abused. This idea is colored by lustful feeling; the masochist lives in fancies, in which he creates situations of this kind and often attempts to realize them.

Psychopathia Sexualis is a collection of descriptions of Krafft-Ebing’s patients who had what he considered abnormal sexual fantasies, which also included homosexuality, pedophilia, fetishism, and sadism. The case studies in the chapter on masochism include information about when the patients first experienced a masochistic fantasy, what their fantasies consisted of, and how the fantasies affected their everyday life and relationships. They often provided a physical description of the patient that pointed out any abnormalities that might have hinted at a biological source for the fantasies; for example, “At first sight there was nothing remarkable in the patient’s appearance; but his pelvis was abnormally broad, the ilia [pelvic bone] were flat, and the pelvis, as a whole, tilted and decidedly feminine.”

Case Number 57, that of a 37-year-old married man, is particularly enlightening, because, unlike the other case studies, the patient himself wrote the report. The man could never admit to his wife that he had masochistic fantasies, so when his desire became unbearable he visited prostitutes to fulfill his need—moments that he and Krafft-Ebing referred to as “attacks.” More than being sexually fulfilling, these visits provided emotional comfort: through them, he learned his desires were not all that strange. The patient wrote “According to my experience, the number of masochists, especially in big cities, seems to be quite large. The only sources of such information are—since men do not reveal these things—statements by prostitutes, and since they agree on the essential points, certain facts may be assumed as proved.”

“Venus standing on a heart, holding a sword that passes through another heart. A man kneels beseechingly before her. Around them are vatious hearts, pierced with an arrow, aflame, sawed, stabbed, broken, in a vise, etc,” (1470), by Meister Casper (courtesy Wellcome Library, London)
Over the last 130 years, other “sources of information”—especially the famous mid-century findings of American sexologist Alfred Kinsey—have proved this theory to be true, and in recent decades there has been a growing mainstream acceptance of the BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism) lifestyle. While masochism remains in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychological Association admits that many healthy and psychologically functional people practice masochism. It should be considered a disorder only if the masochistic thoughts lead to nonconsensual behavior, or if they cause the patient significant personal distress. As Stephanie Saunders, the current interim director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction says, “A lot of behaviors that are scrutinized because they are seen to be marginal are really a part of the continuum of sexuality and sexual behavior”—just as Patient 57’s prostitutes knew more than 100 years ago.

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

From Sketch To Stage: A Behind-The-Scenes Look At A.C.T.’s Costume Process

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

by Victoria Flores

"The details are not the details. They are the design." –Charles Eames

The grandeur of The Geary Theater does not make the show; rather it's the detailed craftsmanship that creates the show's atmosphere and allows the audience to fall into the story. Tracing the development of A.C.T.'s costumes for Napoli! from sketch to stage, I found a crew of artisans shining behind the show's Italian charm.

The costumes for Napoli! were designed by Lydia Tanji (Dead Metaphor, Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, After the War), who starts the costume process with visual research. This research was extensive and captured many aspects of Napolitano life through classic Italian film stills and portraits from the era. Tanji also had sketches depicting the cut of men's suits, worn-out aprons, and even quirky superstitions, like the donning of a chili pepper (a symbol to ward off evil). Using Tanji's research alongside her final costume renderings, the costume shop staff had the challenge of portraying the idiosyncratic Napoli, Italy during its tumultuous governance by conflicting parties during WWII.

The next step of the process took me to A.C.T's costume shop, a hidden treasure on Market Street, which houses costume inventory and rentals as well as the workspace for A.C.T.'s wardrobe team, including drapers, tailors, stitchers, and artisans.

Costume Director Jessie Amoroso—a costume designer in his own right (Underneath the Lintel)—works directly with the designers to bring their sketches to life and coordinates with the shop and theater staff throughout the process. Jessie explained that there is a balance to accomplishing a designer's vision once it's been sketched and planned. The wardrobe team creates most of the pieces from scratch, but pulls from the shop's inventory, where possible, to complete costumes within budget and on time. "Nothing is sacred; [we] won't hesitate to cut something up," Jessie remarked, especially if the refurbishment improves an older costume.

Costume Director Jessie Amoroso
The rentals and inventory headquarters, run by Rentals Manager Callie Floor, are located on the second floor of the shop. Here I found a rack of eclectic costumes sitting next to a rack of WWII era items that were pulled from A.C.T.'s inventory as possible options for Napoli! costumes. A.C.T.'s inventory not only supplies costumes for mainstage and M.F.A. productions, but also rents to other arts organizations and to the general public.

Inventory Manager Jef Valentine
Touring me through the vast array of costumes—in his stylish, suspender-ed pantaloons—was Inventory Manager Jef Valentine. A kind of costume connoisseur, Valentine zipped from rack to rack, detailing shows, time periods, and A.C.T. history contained in the epic closet. Among all these, he can still hone in on his favorite pieces from past productions such as Tales of the City and the 1973 production of Taming of the Shrew.

Just off Valentine's field of costume racks is the crafts/dye room, containing a colorful array of artifacts and accessories for costume manipulation. Here costumes from the inventory are distressed or altered in a myriad of ways to achieve the desired look. Cloaking a dress form in the room was a military overcoat—a costume worn by Marco Baricelli in Act II of Napoli!—which Accessories and Crafts Artisan Kelly Koehn worked on, adding bullet holes, paint, and dye to render it "worn and torn" to fit the character. Paired with the overcoat were previously-new boots that spent a good amount of time in a small cement mixer to make them look old and used.

York Walker
During my costume shop visit, I also observed an important stage in the costume process: a fitting. Fittings are a time for the designer to see the actors in their costumes and make adjustments before the actors—and their costumes—get onstage. While on my tour, I saw Tanji seated calmly at the curtained fitting room, while tailer Alexander Zeek and costume fellow Karly Tufekjian assisted in fine-tuning the designs to the Italian aesthetic Tanji wanted. During the fitting, draper Keely Weiman brought in one particularly funny project, a nun's habit with no back. After the fitting, Weiman adjusted the costume so Napoli! actor, and A.C.T. MFA student, York Walker was able to don the habit onstage quickly and without assistance.

Less obvious—but crucial to the success of the costuming process—are the actors' wigs. Wig Master Jeanna Parham's grand studio, located on the third floor of The Geary Theater, is decked out with hair tools galore as well as lots of A.C.T. memorabilia, while Wigs and Makeup Supervisor Jessica McGinty assists the actors from the wig room, located adjacent to the actors' dressing rooms.

After the costumes have been designed, collected, and distressed to perfection, they're transferred to the theater where the wardrobe staff—including Wardrobe Supervisor Mary Montijo and her assistant Diane Cornelius—takes over coordination of the collection, divvying them up to the appropriate dressings rooms and assuring costumes are worn correctly throughout the show's run, based on Tanji's and Amoroso's instructions.

Wardrobe Supervisor Mary Montijo
and her assistant Diane Cornelius
During the show, among fitting rooms and quick-change spaces (where costume changes sometimes happens in 15 seconds!), a grand, orchestrated chaos occurs. The dressers become the keepers of calm for the actors offstage, maintaining the smooth process of costume juggling during the show and resetting costumes to their start positions for the performances thereafter.

The beauty of A.C.T.'s costumes is their realistic appearance and wearable construction. Actors can put costumes on without much help as they are not sewn or pinned into them. One of Tanji's favorite pieces is a vintage floral summer dress, worn in the show by Sharon Lockwood. Lockwood showed me dozens of tiny patches that were added to reinforce each tiny flower on the inside of the dress. This detail makes the garment wearable and comfortable for the performer.

York Walker and Asher Grodman
With eight performances a week, maintenance of the costumes and wigs is a rigorous and ongoing process. Following each performance, costumes are washed or dry cleaned (and occasionally mended!), steamed, and returned to dressing rooms, while wigs are washed and restyled to maintain the correct Napolitano look and feel.

The life of an A.C.T. costume is indeed an assortment of moving parts, all driven by multitasking, talented craftsman working hard to create the atmosphere you see on stage. "Auguri" (congrats) to all!
 
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