Commedia Class at A.C.T.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

It’s 9:30 a.m., a cold December morning, and in one of A.C.T.'s 8th floor studios at 30 Grant, the second-year Master of Fine Arts Program actors are preparing to show off what they’ve learned in this semester’s Physical Theater class. The Commedia dell’arte masks are lined up on the table. The actors check their props. Upbeat music blares from the speakers. And seated in the front row are two dozen M.F.A. Program actors.

M.F.A. Program Physical Theater class, 2015–16. Photo by Stefan Cohen.
As the second years don the visages of old men, young lovers, and dithering servants, their fellow student actors cheer loudly and eagerly provide whatever the improvisations need: encouragement, audience response, even coffee cups.

It is moments like this that show how closely knit the Master of Fine Arts Program actors are. No matter how many rehearsals, fittings, readings, and performances they have, they are always there for each other.

This close-knit family is a facet of the M.F.A. Program from day one. At the beginning of December, the first-year student actors got their first taste of putting on a show, performing Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper. This play focuses on the relationships between Ilana, an origami artist, and Suresh, a teenager who has been sent to her studio by his teacher. “It’s about how we deal with pain,” says M.F.A. Program actor Avanthika Srinivasan. “It’s about identity. These are things that are universal.”

For this group of first-year actors, Animals Out of Paper not only represented a finale to their first semester at A.C.T., but also provided an opportunity to find onstage answers to the challenges posed during their classes. “How do you listen? How do you live in the moment? How do you work with your scene partner effectively?” says Srinivasan. “Those questions helped us develop these characters. And the experience brought us even closer together as a class.”

For upcoming events in the Conservatory, click here.

A Stripped-Down Christmas: The Skivvies @TheStrand

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

The winter holidays are traditionally a time to dress up warm. But for Lauren Molina and Nick Cearley of The Skivvies, it’s a time to strip down. In their latest show, The Skivvies: Holiday Roadkill, this award-winning comedy-pop duo literally strip down to their underwear and perform musical mash-ups of all your favorites, like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” So grab your eggnog and holiday sweaters and join us at The Strand!

The Skivvies: Holiday Roadkill will be at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, on December 22 and 23. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

The Evolution of a Holiday Classic: A Christmas Carol at A.C.T. Part Two

Monday, December 19, 2016

By Michael Paller

By 2004, A Christmas Carol was 28 years old, and the sets were showing their age. A significant investment would be required to refurbish them, which set Artistic Director Carey Perloff to thinking. Carol had more than served its purpose since 1976. Every year but 1994 and 1995, when the production was put on hiatus until The Geary reopened, many young Bay Area children—and parents—had their first theater experience watching Bill Paterson, Sydney Walker, Raye Birk, or Ken Ruta awake on Christmas morning a changed man. Now, however, Perloff wanted Carol to serve an additional purpose, featuring parts for students in the Young Conservatory, and roles for actors in M.F.A. Program who could add the mainstage experience toward earning their Actors’ Equity union card.

A.C.T.'s 2009 production of A Christmas Carol. From the left:
René Augesen, Gregory Wallace, James Carpenter, Calum John, and Philip Mills. 
Photo by Kevin Berne.
Perloff went in search of an existing Carol that told the story well while accommodating a full class of young actors. But after failing to find one, like Williamson 28 years earlier, she wrote a new adaptation in collaboration with dramaturg Paul Walsh. The process started with Dickens’s original text; Perloff read the novella aloud to her own children and then, with the sound of Dickens’s language in her ears, set about the new adaptation. This version would have roles for every third-year M.F.A. student, plus many in the YC. Such a intergenerational Carol turned out to be exactly what Ball had meant by a conservatory theater: the veteran actors would instruct, mostly by example, the M.F.A. Program students, who in turn mentored the members of the YC.

James Carpenter as Scrooge and Tony Sinclair as Boy Scrooge
in A.C.T.'s 2010 production of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Kevin Berne.
Ken Ruta as Marley and Sharon Lockwood as Mrs. Dilber (a role that Perloff expanded from Dickens, as the original had no significant roles for women) have been regulars (Jack Willis played Marley from 2006 through 2011). And since 2006, the gifted James Carpenter has played Scrooge with the estimable Anthony Fusco doing several performances a season as well.

Just as Williamson and Powers were drawn to certain aspects of the story (including the dark nature of its world), so too Perloff’s own tastes dictated significant elements of the new version. She was struck by what she saw as Dickens’s conviction that the imagination can trigger empathy: Scrooge’s change of heart from an alienated miser into a caring human being occurred because he was willing to believe in the three ghosts (the last thing one would expect from a character like Scrooge). This, she thought, was an emphatic endorsement of the power of art. No wonder the story had appealed to theater people since the year the book was published in 1843.

John Arnone’s sets—alternating realistic windows and Victorian furniture with exteriors of houses in shimmering watercolors—lent the production a powerful sense of forward movement, and Beaver Bauer’s bold, bright costumes struck a playful modern note. The script, composed of two acts of 45 minutes, is more attuned to contemporary attention spans and, mindful of the many children in the audience, includes an intermission, which the previous version did not.

In the 40 years A Christmas Carol has been on The Geary stage, more than a million Bay Area theatergoers, young and old, have seen the show.

Come celebrate the holidays with us! A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol runs through December 24 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

The Evolution of a Holiday Classic: A Christmas Carol at A.C.T. Part One

Thursday, December 15, 2016

By Michael Paller

In the mid-1970s, regional theaters around the country discovered that audiences wanted a Christmas story at Christmastime, and none more so than Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Adaptations began appearing, starting with the Guthrie (1974) and the Actors Theater of Louisville (1976). Artistic Director Bill Ball asked Company Director Laird Williamson to look at the handful of existing adaptations and choose one to direct. Williamson found them sentimental and clichéd. They were “sugar-coated Dickens,” he said. “Tiny Tim is not the leading character. Scrooge is the real story.”

The cast of A.C.T.'s 1981 production of A Christmas Carol.
Williamson was drawn to the tale’s psychological and social realism, to its “comment on poverty and the inequality of the classes.” He suggested that he and Dennis Powers, the company’s literary jack-of-all-trades, do their own version. Ball agreed. Determined not to produce an animated Christmas card, their version would hew to the story’s dark aspect, its “brutal, painful realities.” “Unless there’s a full articulation of the painful aspects,” Powers said, “the conversion of Scrooge has no meaning.”

Nicholas Perloff-Giles, Andrew Fleischer, Imaide Steverango, and
Steven Anthony Jones in A.C.T.'s 2003 production of A Christmas Carol.
Williamson had been impressed with the simplicity and elegance of a Russian adaptation he saw of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat.” The set that he and designer Robert Blackman devised for Carol reflected this approach and provided a metaphor for Scrooge’s move from darkness into light: a tower of safes, money boxes, ledgers, cases, and cupboards, representing the coffins in which Scrooge has buried his feelings. As he regains the feelings that he has locked away, the objects on the tower fall away. All that is left on Christmas morning is a bare framework on which Scrooge can erect a new life based on love and warmth.

For years, the production provided a vehicle for William Paterson and Sydney Walker, who alternated as Scrooge, with occasional appearances in the role by Ken Ruta and Raye Birk. In 1976, Magnin predicted this play would be “another Nutcracker,” and so it was, returning almost every year until 2005, when a new version continued the tradition.

A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol runs through December 24 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

Dressing Scrooge: An Interview with Costume Director Jessie Amoroso Part Two

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

Ever wondered how A.C.T.’s costume and wardrobe departments maintain over 200 costumes during the course of A Christmas Carol? We met up with Costume Director Jessie Amoroso for an inside look into the life of a Carol costume.

A rack of A Christmas Carol costumes. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
What is the path of a costume like during the run of the show?
Everything is labeled, down to the nth degree: every sock, shoe, glove, and bonnet. Everything is also listed on a dressing list, that shows where every costume should be at any given moment, whether it’s preset, put in a dressing room, taken off onstage, taken off stage right or stage left, or put in a basket to go back to a dressing room or down to be cleaned. It also lists the costumes that are taken off stage right but need to be carried over to stage left so that the actor can put it back on later in the show. The actors who wear the big 1860s hoop skirts change out of them and become a miner or gang member, then change into a pall bearer or poor wife for the Ghost of Christmas Future sequence, and then quick-change back into the party dress. And there are also some wig changes too. So some people have four costume changes in the last twenty minutes of the show.

There are over 200 costumes in this production of A Christmas Carol. How do you clean all of those pieces?
Anything that is considered “skin layer”—socks, tights, dance pants, camisoles, bras, and t-shirts—gets washed every performance. A lot of the dresses have pit pads that are also washed on a nightly basis. Most of the costumes are dry-cleaned on a rotating schedule. If it’s only worn briefly at the top of the show, it might not get laundered until the end of the run. It just depends on how often a costume is worn.

"Bonnet Row." Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
How do you deal with the ultimate Scrooge of the holiday season: illness?
Because winter is the time for colds and the flu, we use a lot of sanitizing spray and wipes, especially for costumes that are worn by multiple people or understudies. We want to minimize the exposure. You don’t want to put someone who is healthy in a sick person’s costume, so we try and clean them as much as possible.

What happens when a costume gets damaged?
If it’s during previews, we take care of everything because wardrobe is just getting their hands into the show. Once the show is up and running, wardrobe takes care of small things like a button or a snap coming off. If it’s something really major, Mary Montijo—our wardrobe master—will consult with us about how best to repair it. Most things can be repaired at the theater.

A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol runs through December 24 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

Martin Moran Returns to A.C.T.'s Conservatory

Friday, December 9, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

“The more you dare to dive into what is deeply personal,” says OBIE Award winner Martin Moran about creating and performing solo work, “the more you just come out the other side. It’s not you at all. It’s just human. And it’s amazing.”

Moran—a former student in A.C.T.’s Advanced Training Program (the forerunner of the M.F.A. Program)—is currently performing his two one-man shows The Tricky Part and All the Rage in repertory at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. On a rainy afternoon, he sat down with current M.F.A. Program actors in The Costume Shop to discuss the thrilling—and sometimes nauseating—process of creating, editing, and performing your own material.

“There’s a real loneliness to writing, and there’s a great loneliness to solo work,” says Moran. “But in the form that I’m working with, the direct address, my partner is the audience, and that is incredibly joyous.”

M.F.A. Program Actors, Dramaturg Michael Paller, and Martin Moran.
Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
As the Broadway veteran speaks, the student actors lean forward in their chairs. Many of them are in the process of writing their own solo shows for January’s Sky Festival. In the midst of this creative process, they are a bundle of nerves, doubts, hopes, and dreams. Now, they have the chance to pick the brain of a master. They listen, totally absorbed.

For Moran, creating a play is like being an actor. “Allow what wants to come through and trust it. Cultivate faith in your impulses as an artist. All of us are somehow called to this endeavor of provoking moments of mystery. Because who really knows? There’s a breath, and we connect.”

Martin Moran and the M.F.A. Program Actors. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
The best piece of advice Moran had for these young actors was simple: Be where your feet are.

“It goes back to A.C.T., to that beautiful training I had here,” he says. “Trust that the creature, the soul that you are is the essence of what you bring into the room. You make these transformations that add up to a character—they can be as simple as a lisp—but it’s still this human energy. It’s still the thrum of my own soul in my feet, in the room, with this breath, in this moment. And it’s enough.”

Martin Moran is performing his one-man shows The Tricky Part and All the Rage in repertory at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater through December 11. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Finding Their Voices: DHS Students at A.C.T.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

By Stephanie Wilborn 

In The Rueff, students from Downtown High School (DHS) are pacing back and forth, memorizing lines, and putting up lights in the rafters. After months of preparation and hard work, they are putting the finishing touches on their exhibition, A Mask I Do Not Fit, a collection of original works on topics of gender and identity.

DHS Movement Class 2016. Photo by Stephanie Wilborn.
Since 2012, A.C.T. has collaborated with DHS to explore educational opportunities through theater. The school’s Acting for Critical Thought project allows the students to learn and discover thought-provoking performances through acting, playwriting, and movement.

At the beginning of the semester, the DHS students came to A.C.T. once a week and studied acting techniques with A.C.T.’s Community and Artistic Director Tyrone Davis. Together, the students and Davis built a trusting relationship through improv and ensemble-based games. They learned theater terminology and were introduced to teaching artists, such as A.C.T.’s Head of Movement Stephen Buescher. They discovered different types of theater, from poetry to clowning.

After months of building trust and knowledge, the DHS class was ready to discover and create its own works of theater at 826 Valencia, a non-profit organization striving to serve and support under-served youth through the creative outlet of writing. From there, the students put their words on their feet and rehearsed.

DHS student Jocelyn Lainez-Robles in 2015 exhibition.
A Mask I Do Not Fit is about gender and identity, topics that DHS senior Jocelyn Lainez-Robles believes are important subjects for teens to discuss. “It’s difficult for teens to talk about it. We hear it on TV and Instagram posts, but we ignore it. But we have a voice too. We’re teens, and we experience it on day to day basis. We may not be adults, but we are aware of what is expected of us by being a boy or a girl.”

Lainez-Robles has participated in more than four exhibitions with A.C.T., and attributes her academic and personal growth to this program. “I would have never thought I could write and perform my own words. I discovered that I do have a way with words and I am able to inspire others. I’ve had issues with others, but A.C.T. has helped me with that. I have learned how to express myself properly and see what I need to change within me. I see that my life does matter and from now on I channel that energy into positivity. I don’t think I could do that without the acceptance and love I have received from A.C.T.”

Please come and join us for Downtown High School’s free exhibition A Mask I Do Not Fit this Friday, December 9 at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., and 1 p.m. at The Strand. For tickets, please email

Stephanie Wilborn is the Education Fellow at A.C.T.

Martin Moran Wins Over Audiences and Critics Alike

Monday, December 5, 2016

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

A.C.T. audiences have taken Martin Moran to their hearts. The Broadway actor and writer opened his repertory performances of All the Rage and The Tricky Part last week, and theatergoers have risen to celebrate him both during the show and in the lobby afterward.

Martin Moran in All the Rage. Photo by Joan Marcus.
To give audiences a better opportunity to talk about the ideas and emotions which Moran’s work generates, we’ve added two Audience Exchanges this week. Moran will follow the performance of All the Rage on Wednesday, December 7 with an onstage conversation with A.C.T.’s Artistic Director Carey Perloff and will follow the performance of The Tricky Part on Saturday, December 10 by speaking with Associate Artistic Director Andy Donald.

The two shows have also had critics buzzing. While the San Francisco Chronicle picked out Moran’s “thoughtful and articulate” approach, Theater Dogs said, “You’ll be thinking about [Moran] and feeling his show long after you leave theater.”

While Moran’s charisma earned plaudits for his onstage work, the actor’s innate warmth has won him plenty of admirers offstage. After every show, the Denver-born performer has joined the audience in the lobby to shake hands, sign copies of his books (available at The Strand), and make new friends. With Moran’s two shows closing on Sunday, December 11, be sure to catch this moving and meaningful work.

Click here to purchase tickets through our website. 

Raucous and Heart-Wrenching: The M.F.A. Program Musical Revue

Thursday, December 1, 2016

By Ken Savage and Elspeth Sweatman

This time of year, the airwaves are filled with classic songs like Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas” and Vera Lynn's rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” But for Ken Savage, the director of Sing, Sing, Sing—A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program upcoming music revuethese songs from the 1930s and ’40s are more than just a reminder of the holiday season. They highlight an important shift: in popular music and in the lives of US citizens.

"The music of Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, the Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Vera Lynn, Judy Garland: it’s the beginning of really simple but sophisticated storytelling through music," says Savage. "It’s the best music out there. It’s the music I grew up on. I learned how to sing through it.

Artwork for M.F.A. Program 2016 Musical Revue  
Sing, Sing, Sing. By Sara Morales. 
"The period from 1933 to 1947 that we chose for this musical revue has a specific aesthetic sound, but the changes are remarkable. From the raucous big band and swing music of the Andrews Sisters, to the heavier pre-Golden Age musical theater tunes of Cole Porter, to the heart-wrenching jazz of Billie Holliday, these artists really got us through dark times, specifically World War II.

"We don’t think of these singers—Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin—as political singers, but they were. Crosby was the voice of World War II; his music was patriotic music. Songs like “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “White Christmas” were songs that soldiers would sing to each other, imagining a time when they would come home safely. This music played a really important role in bringing communities together to support the troops.

"This era of music is unconsciously ingrained into everyone. Especially the second-year M.F.A. Program actors; they are old souls. When we started rehearsals, they discovered that they had heard a significant number of these songs before, but they had no idea what the words were, who sang them, or when they were written. Because of later singers like Frank Sinatra, they didn’t associate these songs with the 1930s and ’40s.

"What’s fun about this music is that it gets revived every couple of years. New twists are put on these gems. This musical revue is our opportunity to put our own twist on them."

Sing, Sing, Sing runs December 7–10 in The Garret at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Finding Humanity in Our Brokenness: An Interview with Martin Moran

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

Growing up in 1970s Denver, teenager Martin Moran looked like a poster boy for Catholic school—a kid with good grades, clean fingernails, and a smile for everyone on his paper route. Inside, however, Moran was grappling with the conflicting shame and thrill of a relationship with his male 30-year-old camp counselor, Bob.

“Sometimes I felt scared and I liked it,” Moran says in his memoir, The Tricky Part. “All the concealment was a kind of strange power. An entire and buzzing inner life. A fourteen-year-old boy on a three-speed Raleigh, getting it every which way. I was getting away with murder, with pleasure, with crimes, and I was pulling A’s.”

Martin Moran in All the Rage. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Moran went on to become a successful actor, with Broadway credits including Spamalot and Cabaret, and television appearances on The Newsroom and Law & Order. He is also a writer, whose OBIE Award–winning show The Tricky Part (based on his memoir) describes coming to terms with his relationship with Bob, his own journey as a young gay man, and his discovery of theater.

All the Rage, Moran’s Lucille Lortel Award–winning follow-up show, originated in a question he heard from Tricky Part audiences—shouldn’t he feel more anger about what he experienced as a boy? All the Rage follows Moran from Las Vegas to South Africa as he’s haunted by ideas about compassion, forgiveness, and fury. As The Strand Theater prepares for All the Rage and The Tricky Part, we caught up with the actor and writer for a quick Q&A.

What kinds of reactions have you got to All the Rage and The Tricky Part?

I recently performed the two plays on a three-city tour of India, where there was a kind of gobsmacked reaction at both the frankness and the form: one guy standing onstage talking about sensitive social issues, like trespass, molestation, forgiveness. In Red Bank, New Jersey—a very Catholic community just outside of New York City—there were people who got up and left. The reactions have been profound, and have differed by locale. But the more I tell the stories, the more I realize they are less about me and more about universal questions: How do we survive what we think of as damage? How do we find the humor and the humanity in our brokenness?

You’ve been performing these two stories, in various forms, for several years now. How has your perspective on them shifted?

Initially, the writing and performing invoked a great sense of shame. I used to get nauseous before doing The Tricky Part. I’d sit backstage and think, “What the fuck am I doing? This stuff is too intimate.” Now, I feel less a sense of owning the story in a personal way, and I revel in the humanness of it instead. It feels like a quest that’s of service, that’s unifying, and even joyous.

One of the most compelling aspects of The Tricky Part is how you handle the complexity of the human experience.

I feel devoted to complexity. It is within the paradoxes of life that we have a chance at grasping flashes of human truth and beauty. We are so full of love. And cruelty, too. Look at us now, amid this election season, so anxious about the seeming hate and division. But we do look to one another in quiet ways, don't we? Over a meal, in a book, perhaps in an evening of theater, to be reminded that we are all in this together. When I was 12, the violence of what happened was so painful, the complexity overwhelming. Thanks be that I lived, and how odd that everything that happened became a source of knowledge and empathy.

The Tricky Part and All the Rage open tonight and run through December 11 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

Ghosts in The Geary: A.C.T.'s A Christmas Carol

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Original Costume Sketch of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
By Costume Designer Beaver Bauer.
This interview is adapted from the Christmas Carol edition of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Along with the curmudgeonly Scrooge and the adorable Tiny Tim, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are the most well-known and loved characters in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. But how do you translate these larger-than-life entities on to the Geary stage? Carey Perloff, A.C.T.’s artistic director and the co-writer of this adaptation of A Christmas Carol, offered her insight on Dickens’s seasonal spirits in this 2010 Q&A.

What was your inspiration for the three ghosts in this adaptation of A Christmas Carol?
I wanted them to be otherworldly spirits, filled with light, and not like ordinary humans. Their locomotion is different: they swing and rise up on elevators; they hang above like specters.

What can you share about the ghost of Christmas Present?
In the book, Christmas Present is described as a Bacchic spirit of fecundity, an image of the cornucopia, wearing a green velvet robe, growing holly and leaves, with fruit hanging everywhere, emanating light and exuding fertility. Christmas Present is about seduction, in a way: sensual and lively and very pleasurable, with the vibrancy and light of the present moment that you wish Scrooge would enter into.

What about Christmas Future?
The ghost of Christmas Future is about terrorizing somebody with the potential consequences of his behavior. So in our production, the ghost is an evanescent specter, a puppet made of mesh that rises up above the Geary stage, reminding and warning Scrooge of what will happen to him and his own culture if he doesn’t take responsibility for contributing to the world around him.
Original Costume Sketch of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
By Costume Designer Beaver Bauer.

And Christmas Past?
Christmas Past is a flickering candle. This emanating light is important because it’s the symbol of the imagination, that Scrooge’s mind is about to be “enlightened.” There is a metaphor throughout the play of Scrooge’s blindness. People say to him, “Open your eyes, blind man. Look up.” But he can’t see. Literally, he cannot see what they are offering him. He can’t remember his own past. He can’t see how wonderful Fred and Mary and his family are, that there is a community out there for him. So, the journey of the piece from darkness into light is also a man’s journey from blindness into seeing, into opening his eyes to the possibilities of the world—and the candle is the flickering beginning.

How does Dickens use these spirits to get across his own motives?
We are charting several different actions: What is each spirit trying to do to Scrooge? How does he resist? How can we make him resist as long as possible, to keep it dramatic? When we did this adaptation, we realized that Dickens really thought that every individual carries the potential to change themselves, to change the way people are treated, to change the world.

Come celebrate the holidays with us! A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol runs from November 25 through December 24 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

Dressing Scrooge: An Interview with Costume Director Jessie Amoroso Part One

Thursday, November 17, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

Making a new dress for 2016 production 
of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
For ten months of every year, A.C.T.’s A Christmas Carol costumes are hidden away in the costume shop: all 200-plus costumes, including thousands of shoes. It is Costume Director Jessie Amoroso’s job to guide his team through the month-long sprint to get this Bay Area holiday classic onto the Geary stage once more. We caught up with him between costume fittings to get a glimpse into the preparations for this A.C.T. staple.

When does the process for Carol start here in The Costume Shop?

We usually have about four or five weeks once it’s cast to fit everyone and get everything ready. That’s at least fifty hours of fittings over two weeks.

Do you create any of the costumes from scratch each year?
We usually create one or two new pieces. This year we’re making two new dresses, which are always fun to make.

Are the costumes for our two Scrooges the same?
Everything is identical except for their coats and vests. Jim Carpenter wears the coat designed by Costume Designer Beaver Bauer, but Jim and Anthony are different heights. If they wore the same coat, we’d have to do alterations between shows and that be too much work. Eventually we’d like to build Anthony his own coat. Maybe next year. Put it on the list [He laughs.]

Jim and Anthony also have their own special button arrangement for their costumes, because they dress and undress onstage. They don’t have time to do all of the buttons. On Anthony’s vest, he only has three real buttons; the rest are snaps or fakes.

What is the biggest expense every year?

Dance rubber for the shoes. To re-rubber or resole a pair of shoes—even used shoes, and we tend to reuse ours—starts at about $40. Every year, it’s at least $40 to $80 per person just for footwear maintenance.

A rack of A Christmas Carol costumes. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
Do some costumes get more wear than others?
Anything that gets physically fought in shows the most wear. During the gang scene, the YC actors are on their knees; they’re fighting, jumping onto the stage, and getting tossed around. Some of their costumes were new twelve years ago, but they’ve now been fought in for about a year [one month for twelve years], so they’re starting to show their age.

When we opened this adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 2005, we were using foam snow, which falls very delicately and gently but leaves spots on some of the costumes. [He pulls out a costume.] This is Mary’s dress—Scrooge’s niece-in-law—and you can see spots which look like 7-Up or champagne got sprayed on it. This is what happens when the foam snow dries. But you step ten feet away from it, and it just looks like the dress has texture, so we haven’t tried to clean it off. We now use paper snow, which is more difficult to corral. Every night we do what’s called “The Snowflake Shuffle” so that the snow remains on stage.

Come celebrate the holidays with us! A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol runs at The Geary Theater from November 25 through December 24. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

Decking the Halls: A.C.T. Fellows Decorate The Geary

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman 

Fellows Emilianne Lewis and Joseph Reyes Decorating The Geary. 
Photo by Karen Loccisano.
Today, some of A.C.T.’s 2016–17 fellows participated in one of the most cherished rituals in the company’s calendar—decorating The Geary Theater for the holiday season and A.C.T.’s production of A Christmas Carol.

After fueling up on pastries and hot cocoa, fellows Emilianne Lewis, Karen Loccisano, Julia Ludwig, Joseph Reyes, Elspeth Sweatman, and Marcella Toronto donned their holiday hats, turned on the carols, and set to work hanging wreaths, placing garlands, and untangling yards and yards of lights.

Two hours later, The Geary had been transformed into a winter wonderland that even Scrooge would love. From Fred's Bar to the lobby to the Sky Bar, not an inch was left without a little holiday sparkle. "Decorating The Geary this morning with the other fellows definitely brightened my day and got me into the holiday spirit," says Special Events Fellow Julia Ludwig.

Fellow Marcella Toronto Decorating the Tree.
Photo By Elspeth Sweatman.
This tradition of decorating The Geary falls at a perfect time in the fellowship. "We've become close friends over the past few months in this new and exciting city, and this was the perfect way to bring us together in the midst of our fellowship," says Ludwig. "It's a fun way to celebrate the holiday season with our little fellow family," agrees Graphics Fellow Karen Loccisano.

"At A.C.T., we have the opportunity to be part of a community. I really felt that this morning as we decked the halls of The Geary," says Academic Programs Fellow Marcella Toronto.

“We'll be able to look at The Geary and know that we  helped get it ready for all of our patrons who are coming to celebrate the holidays with us,” says Marketing and PR Fellow Emilianne Lewis.
Some of A.C.T.'s 2016–17 Fellows. Photo by Amy Hand.
Come celebrate the holidays with us! A.C.T.’s production of A Christmas Carol begins performances November 25. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Visualizing Consciousness: The Hard Problem

Thursday, November 10, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

Not only does Tom Stoppard’s newest play The Hard Problem—now playing at The Geary Theater through November 13—delve into the murkiness of consciousness and brain science, but it also presents a unique challenge for the set designer.

How do you visualize consciousness? How can you represent it on the stage?

“What I said to scenic designer Andrew Boyce was that I wanted the set to look like consciousness, not neuroscience,” says director Carey Perloff. “So we looked at the most beautiful science building that I think has ever been built: the Salk Institute in San Diego.”

The Salk Institute. Photo by Justin Brown. Courtesy of Flickr.
Built in the 1960s by architect Louis I. Kahn, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is comprised of two mirror-image structures either side of a central courtyard. Made out of concrete and wood, these geometric structures create a temple of science on the shore of the Pacific.

One of the institute’s most famous features is the narrow water channel in the otherwise barren central courtyard, constructed in such a way that the sun sets in line with this strip of water. Kahn wanted people to always be aware of their small place in our vast, mostly unexplored universe.

“It is a science building that tries to create an environment in which consciousness can be exploded,” says Perloff. “It is unbelievably exquisite and spiritual. It’s just heart-stopping.”

Set model, by scenic designer Andrew Boyce, for 
A.C.T.'s 2016 production of The Hard Problem.
To create the same effect on the Geary stage, Perloff and Boyce placed a tree that rises up and crashes through the ceiling of the space. “We just love it as a kind of anarchic moment of consciousness in this scientific world,” says Perloff. It serves as a constant reminder that nature—be it the natural world around us or the world created by our brains—is not always explicable.

The Hard Problem runs through November 13 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. For more information about Stoppard, consciousness, and the hard problem, purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Altruism versus Egoism in The Hard Problem

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell and Elspeth Sweatman

“Since the very beginning, Tom Stoppard has written about what is the nature of goodness and is there such a thing as value,” says The Hard Problem director Carey Perloff. “What are human values? How do we express ourselves as human beings? Is there such a thing as goodness, as altruism?”

Altruism is at the center of Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, running at The Geary Theater through November 13. The term altruism—from the Latin alter, meaning “other”—was coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century. He wanted to create a religion based on a belief in science, rather than God. To Comte, to be altruistic meant simply to live for others.

Dan Clegg and Brenda Meaney in A.C.T.'s 2016 production
 of The Hard Problem. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Since then, the concept of altruism and its counterpart, egoism, have become a hot topic of debate in a wide array of fields, from philosophy to biology to economics. The main questions are: Does altruism exist? Do any living organisms ever act solely in the interest of another organism, or solely for the good of the group? Or are all organisms ultimately motivated by self-interest?

In The Hard Problem, Spike uses biologist Gerald S. Wilkinson’s research into vampire bats to explain altruism to Hilary. Wilkinson noticed that the bats display reciprocally altruistic behavior. The bats go hunting at night, but some are not successful and return home hungry. Other bats that have been successful will regurgitate some of their food and feed it to the hungry bats. Wilkinson’s theory was that the successful bats do this because they want to ensure that, when they go hungry, their fellow bats will feed them in return. But can this be called altruism, if the bats are ultimately being altruistic for their own gain?

This debate between altruism and egoism is particularly interesting for neuroscientists studying how the brain creates things like morality, empathy, and consciousness. “We know so much about how the brain functions, but the more we know, the more mysterious these questions become,” says Perloff.

A.C.T.’s production of The Hard Problem runs through November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about altruism, consciousness, and Stoppard? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Strong Women: Hilary in The Hard Problem

Thursday, November 3, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

Brenda Meaney as Hilary in A.C.T.'s 2016 production 
of The Hard Problem. Photo by Kevin Berne.
During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, running through November 13, psychologist Hilary Matthews fights to find her place in a scientific world that frowns upon the “feminine” emotions of mother love, goodness, and faith.

Hilary is an oddity in neuroscience: a person who believes in the power of faith as well as the power of science. This worries her university tutor Spike, who fears that this will sink her chances of an academic career. “She has what he thinks are childish notions about the self, about consciousness, and about belief,” says director Carey Perloff.

But Hilary’s faith is grounded in a pivotal event in her past: when she was a teenager, she gave up her baby for adoption. To cope, she turned to her faith in the inherent goodness of others and in a higher power. “I missed her like half of me from the first day,” she says to Julia in scene six, “and the worst thing was, there was literally nothing I could give her, she’d just gone, and then I thought up something I could do, just to, just to be good, so that in return someone, God, I suppose, would look after her.”

Hilary is also an oddity because of her gender. According to BiasWatchNeuro, a site that tracks gender representation in neuroscience, women only make up 24 percent of neuroscience departments at leading US universities. 

For Perloff, the character of Hilary is one of the main reasons she keeps coming back to Stoppard’s plays. “I love that he writes such great women. Particularly for someone of his generation—he’s going to be 80 this year—his inclusivity about the world and his acceptance of the fact, from Thomasina [in Arcadia] on out, that women can have intellects as fierce or fiercer than men is really amazing and unusual.”

A.C.T.’s production of The Hard Problem runs through November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the ongoing debate about faith, goodness, and neuroscience? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Breaking the Sound Barrier: An Interview with Voice Coach Nancy Benjamin

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

“Every single play that I pick up has its own accents,” says A.C.T.’s Co–Head of Voice and Dialects Nancy Benjamin. “The actors, the director, and the coaches have to figure out what that accent is and do it authentically.” Before she started working on Stoppard’s The Hard Problem—playing until November 13 at The Geary Theater—we sat down with Benjamin to talk about acting and accents.

Nancy Benjamin works with M.F.A. Program actors Emily Brown,
Alan Littlehales, and Albert Rubio. Photo by Alessandra Mello.
How important are the accents in The Hard Problem as an identifier of character?

Accents and dialects help us understand the culture of the play, the environment, the status of the characters, their education, their place of origin, and how they identify themselves. Specifically with The Hard Problem, once I understand where the character comes from, their age, and their level of education, then the accent or dialect comes from that. Our accents, our way of speaking, is so integral to how we think about ourselves. Our word choice, our word order, the sounds we prefer, all of those reinforce how we show ourselves to the world, but it also colors how the world sees us.

How is dialect work different between stage and screen?

This is going to sound really perverse, but I will buy a dialect in theater if the level of commitment is there. If dialect work is shaky in film, it bothers me a lot more than if it’s not nailed in theater, because film actors have so many opportunities to get it right. In theater, you have to get it right every night. And you’re probably not living in the accent that you’re doing onstage. The challenge is much greater.

What TV shows or films do you recommend to actors working with British accents?

If I’m working with old-school Received Pronunciation [a general British accent traditionally associated with elite socioeconomic groups], which I would use for anything from Noël Coward to George Bernard Shaw, then I’m going to look to older films like Brief Encounter (1945). In terms of more modern films, I’d choose anything with Emma Thompson (she’s wonderful) or Alan Rickman. And Downton Abbey.

The Hard Problem is playing at The Geary Theater until November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To learn more about Benjamin, Stoppard, and the hard problem, purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Stoppard and Zombies: A.C.T.'s The Hard Problem

Thursday, October 27, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

A zombie. By Pixabay. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine someone who looks exactly like you, dresses like you, walks like you. He says the same things you would say, answers questions with the same answers, and makes decisions using the same logic. His body is built in the exact same way. His brain is a mirror image of yours. The only thing he is missing is consciousness. Meet the philosophical zombie.

When philosophers talk of zombies, they aren’t thinking of shuffling Halloween humanoids that will eat your brain. They mean something much more frightening. Something that’s being debated every night at The Geary, in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem.

If you met a philosophical zombie in the street, would you be able to tell the difference? Philosophers argue that you wouldn’t. But could these zombies be real? If they are real, then consciousness and the brain must be separate. And if that is so, then how did we get consciousness? Were we just lucky? Did it evolve? Were we given it by some higher power? What is consciousness, anyway, and how is it created? How is an intangible thing like consciousness created by our physical brains? This is “the hard problem,” the question at the center of Stoppard’s newest play.

Happy Halloween!

The Hard Problem runs at A.C.T.’s The Geary Theater until November 13. Click here to purchase tickets.

To read more about consciousness in The Hard Problem, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Mr. Hard Problem: An Interview with Philosopher David Chalmers

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell 

Think of any modern philosophical theory about the mind, and Australian philosopher David Chalmers has probably had his hands on it. He is famous for coining the phrase “the hard problem” to describe the as-yet unanswered question of how a physical brain can create consciousness. 

Philosopher David Chalmers. Photo courtesy of TED.
Some aspects of consciousness are easy to explain. If you put your finger into the flame of a candle, your brain interprets that as pain, and you pull your finger away. But what about emotional pain, like sorrow, despair, and loneliness? What creates that?

So far, scientists agree that consciousness exists, because we all experience it. But no one has been able to figure out where consciousness comes from. Is consciousness some kind of stuff that you could theoretically hold or see, coming from actual things happening in the body (like neurons firing)? Or is consciousness something else, something separate from the body entirely?

Here are some of Chalmers’s thoughts on Tom Stoppard’s play—running through November 13 at The Geary Theater—which shares the same name as the conundrum that skyrocketed Chalmers to philosophical fame.

Why is the hard problem exciting?

Because consciousness is the thing in the world that we know the best and understand the least. The hard problem is really about how objective reality relates to subjective reality in the world of science. That’s a problem at the heart of our very existence.

When did you become interested in the hard problem?

I’ve been interested in consciousness for as long as I can remember. I wondered about how processes in the brain could produce the subjective experience of seeing colors and hearing music. Later on I became so obsessed with the problem that I switched from mathematics to philosophy so that I could think about it properly. I first called the problem “the hard problem” in a talk to the first major interdisciplinary conference on consciousness in 1994. It caught on more than I ever could have expected.

How accurately does Tom Stoppard portray the debate around consciousness in The Hard Problem?

Tom understands the hard problem very broadly, probably more broadly than I do. In a discussion we had last year, it came out that he really sees the central problem as the problem of value—how can there be values in a godless physical world? Whereas for me the problem is really about subjective experience, rather than about value (or about God)—how can there be subjective experience in an objective physical world?

When do you think the hard problem will be solved, if you think it will be solved at all?

It probably won’t be solved any time soon! I’d be happy if we have a good theory of consciousness within 100 years. It wouldn’t surprise me if it takes longer.

The Hard Problem runs at The Geary Theater through November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. For more on David Chalmers, the hard problem, and Stoppard’s thoughts on consciousness, purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.
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