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

Monday, October 26, 2015

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.” 

Ralph Funicello's stage design in the current A.C.T. production of
Ah, Wilderness! at The Geary Theater. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.
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 a play in Connecticut, and I went to visit her on her day off. We took a trip to the Monte Cristo Cottage, which is O’Neill’s boyhood summer home. After that trip, I definitely had that research in the back of my mind.
What other influences have you drawn from?
I grew up just north of New York, halfway between New York City and Connecticut. Ah, Wilderness! takes place in a town similar to mine. I was born in the 1950s right after World War II, when the area where I grew up seemed like the world! This play takes place on the Fourth of July, and I clearly remember what my hometown felt like as a kid in the summer. There’s a sense of relief from school and an elation for summer vacation. The Fourth of July celebrations in these small towns were incredible—bunting and parades and lovely festivities. Also, the winters in that area are brutal. I can only imagine what it would have been like back in 1906, when New Englanders didn’t have central heating or waterproof boots or nylon clothing. So by May, there’s this incredible release when the weather gets warm.
What are you most looking forward to regarding this production?
When I went to college at Boston University, one of my teachers was the great theater critic Elliot Norton. He was a personal friend of O’Neill. Elliot Norton’s lectures on O’Neill are something I will never forget. He would go into a trance and talk about O’Neill’s work and everything that influenced his writing. It was wonderful. Elliot spoke about the development of the American theater, and it struck me that American theater history is a chain of people who can be traced back to O’Neill—and sitting in that classroom, hearing about Eugene O’Neill from this great man, I became a part of that chain. Working on Ah, Wilderness! allows me to be a part of Eugene O’Neill’s influence on the American theater tradition.

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

Friday, October 16, 2015

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.

VIPs at the The Tempest at Millsaps
College in Jackson, Mississippi
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 extra credit. Or call up the athletic director and say you can help promote a sport that isn’t getting the attention it deserves—you just need a few athletes for a couple nights. You might even get the athletic director in on the whole thing.

6. Train your server staff. They should wear a tuxedo every night—men and women. If they don’t have one, use your costume shop or partner with a local tuxedo company. At the very least, arrange black pants, black shoes, white shirts, and matching ties and cummerbunds. Plastic glasses are fine, and your set shop should have a few trays. Buy at least 20 bottles of champagne. Train your staff to stand up straight, look VIPs in the eye, shake hands warmly, and thank them sincerely for coming. Female VIPs should be offered an arm as they are walked to their seat.

7. You will have people who request VIP tickets even though they are not a cafeteria worker, maintenance person, or groundskeeper. Remind them politely that your theater’s VIP policy is strict and clear. You may be asked if all this is actually “a real thing.” Answer, “Yes it is!” with your warmest smile. There may be people who are used to special treatment who still insist, saying things like, “Yeah, right, [your name], but seriously, I need to be in the VIP.” If this happens, breathe. Look them in the eye and remind them that they have been in the VIP from the moment they were born. Excuse yourself and walk away. Don’t turn around. Wait at least one day to respond to an apology email, which they will send. Accept graciously in a reply email, and mention that you are still short one server in the VIP section.

8. On opening night, your VIPs might not show up at all. Do not panic. Save the champagne. Go back to the cafeteria the next day and stay positive. They are coming.

9. The first night your VIPs arrive, there might only be two. It doesn’t matter. Announce the news in the dressing room, and listen to the roar of triumph like you are rebels in The Empire Strikes Back and the first transport has escaped the Imperial Armada. Explain the reference to them another time—get to work. Your entire job is now to take care of those VIPs. Leave your crew alone. Leave your cast alone. Leave your house manager alone. They’ll be fine. Stay with your server staff, and stay with the VIPs. That does not mean smother them. It means that at all times, you have an eye on them and are making sure their evening is unforgettable. When the show is over, walk and talk with them all the way out to the exit.

10. Be prepared to buy more champagne. The night after you have two VIPs, you will have four. The next night, you will have twelve. The next night just be ready.

P.S. These ten steps take time and money. But they do not cost as much time and money as your rotating stage for Mother Courage, your 18 custom lighting gobos for Caucasian Chalk Circle, or your set for Our Town that resembles an actual town. In space. Not one of those things is going to change the face of American theater. If you want to change the face of American theater, get more American faces into the theater.

Peter Friedrich
Peter Friedrich (M.F.A. class of ’96) is Chair of the Theatre Department of Millsaps College. In 2013, he won A.C.T.’s Contribution to the Field Award.

An Interview with Ah, Wilderness! Director Casey Stangl

Thursday, October 15, 2015

By Allie Moss 

Director Casey Stangl.
Photo by Ann Marsden.
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’s a lightness to the material, and the characters come out on top. The play doesn’t shy away from depth of feeling, but because there’s this effervescence to the material, everything has a soft landing. That’s where the comedy comes from. It comes out of the characters and their situations, not jokes.

O’Neill is known for incorporating historically accurate slang into his plays. When directing Ah, Wilderness!, how do you plan to approach that language?
 I feel like O’Neill was trying to write truth. Before him, theater in the United States was pretty much only vaudeville and musicals. He was writing the language that he heard people speak, and he was trying to write it with a kind of naturalism. When the actors and I approach the slang, we won’t stylize it. We will figure out a way to integrate it into the characters’ regular language so that it gives us a sense of them as living, breathing people.

How does nostalgia function in the play, and what does it mean for you aesthetically? 
To some degree, I feel like nostalgia is something to be careful of and, in some ways, to avoid. I don’t want us to look at these people as fixtures of the past or as museum pieces. In Ah, Wilderness!, there’s more of a sense of dreaminess and memory—that’s an aspect of nostalgia that I like and that has very much informed what Ralph [Funicello, scenic designer] is doing with the piece. We have a scrim [a large piece of cloth onstage that appears opaque until lit from behind]. That design element evokes beauty and poetry. The aspect of nostalgia that I don’t want is the sense of characters not feeling vibrant or real. That idea can be useful as a way of looking at the piece dramaturgically, but as a piece of theater, we want to make sure that we land the characters in a place that feels immediate to us.

Ah, Wilderness! is set more than one hundred years ago. What relevance does it hold for today’s audiences? 
We all still fall in love. We all still worry about our children. We all still fight our demons. These are human conditions that have not changed in a hundred years, and they’re rendered so beautifully and with great gentleness in this play. In our current generation, which is so prone to snark and cynicism and the easy brutality that social media can foster, this compassion, gentleness, warmth, and love for one’s fellow man feels like a real tonic right now.

Growing Up: A Universal Journey

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.

Teenage newsboys in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo
by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1907. Courtesy Library of Congress.
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 expected to listen to their parents. Rather than creating independent identities by resisting their parents, upper- and middle-class teens often cultivated a sense of self by going away to college. Working-class teens achieved the same result by joining the workforce. So it is especially shocking for the characters in Ah, Wilderness! when Richard goes out drinking and sneaks out to see his girlfriend.

In the economic boom that followed the Second World War, jobs were readily available for teenagers who wanted them. Meanwhile, postwar technology improved transportation, allowing teenagers greater mobility, and new appliances reduced their household responsibilities. This combination provided teenagers with more free time and spending power than ever before. Now products were marketed specifically to teenagers and advertised as mechanisms through which they could define their individuality. Teenage culture was on the rise.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the literature written for and about teenagers at this time reflects these cultural changes. Many of the coming-of-age stories written in the early years of the Young Adult genre (YA) are still recognized as classic stories: J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967).

Over the last half-century, the genre has expanded to include other fiction genres. Many popular modern YA books—like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—are narratives about children growing up against a fantastical or dystopian backdrop. Today’s coming-of-age stories have also evolved to deal with grittier themes, like drugs, violence, or sexuality, subject matters very different from the moral growth emphasized in the Bildungsroman of the nineteenth century. Despite these changes, coming-of-age stories remain largely universal. The need for self-definition and personal discovery is as crucial for Harry Potter in the twenty-first century as it was for Richard Miller in 1906.
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