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Showing posts from 2015

Cool versus Fool—Criticisms of Louis Armstrong

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By Shannon Stockwell
In the beginning of his career, Louis Armstrong successfully walked the thin line between art and entertainment. His jazz recordings with the Hot Five were regarded as some of the most influential in music history, but at the same time, the records contained enough of his comedy and his distinctive singing to attract those who weren’t jazz aficionados. By the end of the 1930s, however, it was clear that Armstrong’s music was decidedly pop oriented. As he grew more popular with mainstream audiences, jazz scholars turned up their noses at him. Among these purists, the consent was that Armstrong didn’t have the same technical proficiency that he once did, his repertoire was stale, and he gave up musicality for mainstream entertainment value. Around the 1940s, young black jazz musicians who had once admired Armstrong found themselves with similar criticisms, but they believed Armstrong had sold out in another way. They believed he had sold out his race. They called hi…

Christmas Spirits: Ghosts in the Time of Dickens

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By Shannon Stockwell

In the 1800s, a strange and spooky fad took the Western world by storm: talking to ghosts. Mediums were in high demand as people organized séances to contact the dead. The craze, known as spiritualism, had a few different causes. It came from improvements in communication technology—if you could send near-immediate telegraphs to your cousin several hundred miles away, perhaps it wasn’t such a stretch to imagine you could contact your mother from beyond the grave. It came from an increase in hiring household staff; seen but never heard, a servant’s presence may have seemed rather ghostly to those living there. And it may have even been related to hallucinations brought on by carbon monoxide coming from the gas lamps popular at the time.
The upshot of all this was “a progressive internalization of horror,” according to author Dr. Andrew Smith. This proved to be irresistible psychology for many nineteenth-century Western authors, and thanks to the rise of the pe…

The Shadow of the Prison and the Novelist's Heart: The Personal Story Behind A Christmas Carol

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Michael Paller

When Charles Dickens was 12, his father’s tenuous hold on the middle class collapsed in a heap of mounting debt. John Dickens was incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, where he was joined a few weeks later by his wife and four of their six children. Charles was put to work in a Thames warehouse that manufactured boot-blacking. The boy found himself alone in a world without comfort or security, living in a run-down rooming house in Camden Town. At night he played on coal barges or wandered the streets. So began his lifelong acquaintance with the meanest quarters and poorest people of London.

Although Charles’ time in the warehouse lasted at most five months, the sudden descent into the desperate world of London’s poor left a lifelong mark. Beginning at 15, he held a series of jobs that kept him in close contact with that world. The first, as an office boy in a law firm, introduced him to the workings of the legal system and its effects on the middle class and th…

Monstress from Page to Stage: An Interview with Playwrights Sean San José and Philip Kan Gotanda, and Author Lysley Tenorio

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By Michael Paller

The tales that populate Monstress, by Lysley Tenorio, are as diverse as they are quirky, alternatively—and sometimes simultaneously—hilarious and heartbreaking. Artistic Director Carey Perloff read these unique short stories and knew that somehow, she had to help these vibrant short stories about Filipino American life find their way to the stage.

A.C.T. reached out to some of our favorite artists and offered them the opportunity to select one of Tenorio’s stories to adapt for the stage. One of these artists was Philip Kan Gotanda, who chose to adapt Tenorio’s story, “Save the I-Hotel,” which he has renamed Remember the I-Hotel. Sean San José chose to adapt the title story from Tenorio’s collection (he renamed it Presenting . . . the Monstress!). We sat down with Tenorio, Gotanda, and San José to talk about writing, Filipinos, and the never-ending chase for the ever-elusive American dream.  


Philip and Sean, rather than asking you to adapt a specific story, Carey gav…

Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!—The Necessary Play

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By Michael Paller
By 1931, Eugene O’Neill, the great American tragic playwright, had won Pulitzer Prizes for Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, and Strange Interlude. He’d written 23 full-length plays, including Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, The Emperor Jones,and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, which the police in New York attempted to close because it showed a black man kissing a white woman. That same year saw the debut and critical acclaim of Mourning Becomes Electra, his seven-hour Americanization of Aeschylus’s Oresteia set in New England during the Civil War. He was acclaimed—not without justification—as the creator of the modern American theater.
Before him, American theater had been melodrama, vaudeville, and star-driven vehicles. With the aid of his collaborators at the Provincetown Playhouse, he forged an American theater that could aspire to stand beside the European accomplishments of August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and Anton Chekhov. Like theirs, his w…

A Lens on Small Town America: An Interview with Scenic Designer Ralph Funicello

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By Cecilia Padilla
Despite its title, Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! does not take place in the wild outdoors. Instead, it depicts the home of a tight-knit Connecticut family. Bringing the world of small town America to San Francisco audiences is scenic designer Ralph Funicello, a longtime designer of A.C.T. productions. This will be Funicello’s second time working on Ah, Wilderness! with A.C.T.— he also designed the set in the 1978 production. Then, Funicello’s designs adhered to O’Neill’s textual specifications, exhibiting realistic styles and period-appropriate architecture. This time, he’s approaching the play through a new lens. “O’Neill literally dreamt up Ah, Wilderness!,” he says, “so I want the audience to fall into the dream with him.” 


What research has contributed to your scenic design? I still have some of the books that I bought when researching the 1978 A.C.T. production, one of which is A New England Town in Early Photographs. More recently, my wife was performing in …

Your College Play Will Change the Face of American Theater in These Ten Steps

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by Peter Friedrich

1. Three weeks before opening night, go to your college cafeteria. Eat.

2. Go back to the line and introduce yourself to any staff member. Give your first and last name, and ask for the same from them. Then ask if they like going to plays. If they say no, keep asking others until someone says yes. Let them know you have complimentary Champagne VIP seats for all cafeteria staff, friends, and family. Make sure you have 50 hard copies of tickets in your pocket at all times. They should look and feel exactly like Broadway theater tickets.

3. Go back to the cafeteria every day and build your VIP audience. Get your cast and crew to do the same—ask them at the end of each rehearsal for the names of who they talked to.

4. On your way to the cafeteria each day before opening, be on the lookout for groundskeeping and janitorial staff. Introduce yourself. Ask their name. Pull out tickets.

5. Recruit your server staff. They can be actors not in the show, or students who need ex…

An Interview with Ah, Wilderness! Director Casey Stangl

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By Allie Moss 

Director Casey Stangl returns to A.C.T. to stage Eugene O’Neill’s American classic Ah, Wilderness! She approaches Ah, Wilderness! with a fearlessness toward this play’s particular challenges and an appetite for unearthing truths. “I want there to be a sense of immediacy,” Stangl says. “The characters confront first love, parent-child relationships, and the difficulty of finding love and companionship as they get into their older years. These situations are so universal and are very much with us today.” We spoke to Stangl recently about her directorial vision for A.C.T.’s production of Ah, Wilderness!

O’Neill is generally known for his tragic works, but Ah, Wilderness! is a comedy. How does that inform your understanding of the play? 
I think that the comedy actually derives from the great depth of feeling that is in the play. These characters are real people in real situations with real consequences. But even though the consequences and the circumstances are deep, there…

Growing Up: A Universal Journey

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Coming-of-Age Stories over Time 
By Allie Moss

Coming-of-age stories have been told practically since the start of civilization, but they did not receive a name until 1819, when German university lecturer Karl Morgenstern dubbed them the Bildungsroman. This German word translates literally as “education novel,” but its definition has expanded to encompass the entire coming-of-age genre.

Although coming-of-age stories share some commonalities that transcend their publication dates, they are also intrinsically tied to what “coming of age” meant at the time they were written. Near the turn of the twentieth century (when Ah, Wilderness! is set), life for teenagers was changing, but slowly. Post–Industrial Revolution society enjoyed an increase in leisure time, so children and teenagers had more hours to spend with their friends than in the past—but they were still very integrated into family life. The modern concept of “teenage culture” did not exist.

In the early 1900s, teenagers were ex…

An Interview with Director Casey Stangl

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An Interview with Love and Information Director Casey Stangl By Beatrice Basso
Director Casey Stangl returns to A.C.T. after staging David Ives’s Venus in Fur last spring. Now, Love and Information, a play that offered her a blank creative canvas that she describes as simultaneously “exhilarating and terrifying.”
Stangl brings her talent for seamless transitions and precise pacing to Love and Information, a play that offered her a blank creative canvas that she describes as simultaneously “exhilarating and terrifying.”     Stangl found her stride in directing new work and reimagining classics through a bold contemporary lens. Her movement background and interest in visual composition have helped her weave the complex fabric of Love andInformation. At a new-play festival in Southern California a week before rehearsals began, Stangl was happy to talk about the themes and ideas that have piqued her imagination, what it’s been like to include the specific communities of San Francisco in C…

A Fantasy of Fools: An Interview with Costume Designer Candice Donnelly

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A Fantasy of Fools An Interview with Costume Designer Candice Donnelly By Shannon Stockwell
“For the sheer beauty of all the satin and ruffles, costume designer Candice Donnelly should have bouquets delivered to her sewing room every night,” wrote Washington Post journalist Peter Marks in his review of Center Stage in Baltimore’s 2008 production of A Little Night Music. Seven years later, Donnelly revisits Sondheim’s classic for A.C.T.’s production, directed, as it was in Baltimore, by Mark Lamos.
    Donnelly’s vibrant costume designs were last seen on the Geary stage in Indian Ink, Tom Stoppard’s cross-cultural romance about the complex relationship between a poet and a painter, set against the backdrop of the struggle for Indian independence in the 1930s. Donnelly says she has an affinity for designing period pieces: “The research is very interesting to me. It’s a bit of a time travel experience.” A coproduction with New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company, Indian Ink was recentl…

The Enduring Mystique of Caryl Churchill

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The Enduring Mystique of Caryl Churchill By Nirmala Nataraj

Caryl Churchill is perhaps the most acclaimed female playwright in the English-speaking world, and simultaneously the most elusive. Critic Charles Spencer has called her the “least predictable of contemporary playwrights.” Her work has been described as elliptical, provocative, shocking, confounding—and, over the years, it has become significantly more pared down, devoid of stage directions or notes, which only seems to contribute to her enduring mystique.
Although Churchill has been writing plays for over five decades, she stopped giving interviews many years ago. She rarely comments on critics’ analyses of her work, but her past interviews and the words of her close collaborators, of whom there are many, continue to spark the imaginations of those who recognize the multiple ways in which she has pushed dramatic boundaries over the course of her career.
Feminist and socialist politics are important facets of Churchill’s play…

An Enchanting Vision: The Creation of A Little Night Music

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An Enchanting Vision: The Creation of A Little Night Music By Nirmala Nataraj
Inspired by Smiles of a Summer Night, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s romantic comedy of errors, A Little Night Music emerged from Stephen Sondheim’s vision of a musicalized tale about the games that men and women play in sex and love. With a grand scope that is meant to generate nostalgia for turn-of-the-twentieth-century elegance, the play is a marked departure from Sondheim’s previous collaborations with director Harold Prince, such as Company (1970) and Follies (1971), which feature upper-class New Yorkers in a contemporary setting.
Before librettist Hugh Wheeler came on board, Prince and Sondheim had been toying with the idea of writing a chamber opera since their collaboration on the 1957 musical West Side Story (for which Sondheim was the lyricist and Prince the producer). Scandinavia in midsummer (a time of year during which the sun rarely sets throughout the region) provided the ideal backdrop for a play…