Play of the Imagination

Friday, February 26, 2016

An Interview with Shana Cooper, Director of The Unfortunates

By Cecilia Padilla 

The Unfortunates is a metaphor for facing hardship,” says director Shana Cooper. “When we fall on hard times, I am always struck by how difficult it can be to open ourselves up and be vulnerable. This show reminds us of the power in community and music. Joe’s journey exemplifies the strength it takes to let someone catch you when you fall.”

After taking on the challenge of bringing Big Joe’s world to life at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), Cooper now reimagines this hero’s journey for A.C.T.’s Strand stage. We caught up with Cooper to talk about the play’s inspiration, message, and fresh take on American music.

(L-R): CJ (Christopher Livingston), Big Joe (Ian Merrigan), and Coughlin (Jon Beavers) 
face the horrors of war in The UnfortunatesPhoto by Kevin Berne.  

The Unfortunates has a unique sound and script structure. How does it compare to other musicals?

I think that The Unfortunates is breaking new ground in the world of musical theater. It’s transforming how people receive and celebrate the American musical. To me, The Unfortunates is reminiscent of a revival meeting. Because of the way it weaves together so many kinds of American music—blues, gospel, pop, Americana—it creates a communal experience. As a result, you get the imagination of several very diverse creative lines all coming together to create the musical language that is The Unfortunates.

How is this story distinctly American?

The music is derivative of the history and tradition found in American blues. The blues interprets the human condition through music. It illustrates how a group comes together to celebrate the sad, tragic, disturbing events of life. Over the course of his journey, Joe discovers how to gracefully accept pain.

What dramaturgy did you do in preparation for directing The Unfortunates?

I did a lot of research about graphic novels, which are a part of the Americana landscape manifested in the set and costume design. I also researched propaganda posters from World Wars I and II, which have a graphic sensibility about them. I explored the history of blues and how it has shaped the world of music; it’s a common link between musical genres. The universality of the blues is not only a vehicle for grief and suffering, but also a powerful bond between generations. Young people and those well into their later years will walk out of the theater loving a genre of music they didn’t know they even liked before.

Why this play, now?

In this age of technology, where we’re all spending more and more time online, it’s essential more than ever to have moments to bond as a community through art and music. The Unfortunates really makes the case that music and theater can not only inspire, but can also heal and redeem. Through the power of music, these soldiers redefine their lives by joy, not fear. Joining together in song creates something mysterious and divine that can never be accessed through technology. That’s what makes art essential. 

*To read more of Cooper's interview , click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch Visits A.C.T.

Monday, February 22, 2016

By Simon Hodgson 

Bill Rauch is in his ninth season as the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). While visiting San Francisco for last Thursday’s triumphant opening of the new musical The Unfortunates at The Strand Theater (it premiered at OSF in 2013), he sat down with A.C.T.’s  M.F.A. Program actors for a Q&A moderated by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff.

(L-R): M.F.A. Program actor Leonard A. Thomas, A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff,
and OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch. Photo by Simon Hodgson. 

Is classical theater training still relevant?

It’s deeply necessary, but it’s becoming more and more rare. At OSF, there’s a tension between casting new work and casting classical plays. Ideally, you want actors who can play contemporary, classical, and musicals too. Real repertory actors are very rare, because it’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

How do you create a season?

At OSF, I was lucky enough to inherit the Boarshead system, where we’ll do readings of potential productions with department heads. When I joined the company, I broadened that circle to include five company members, so we might have a stitcher or a bartender weighing in as well. This means you get great feedback from a range of people across the whole company. The strength of the Boarshead system was brought home to me in my very first season at OSF. As part of expanding the classical canon, I wanted to put on a Sanskrit epic, The Clay Cart, which I love. We have long slots to program and short slots to program, and I was thinking that this play would fit one of those short slots. After all, it’s an Indian play set 2,500 years ago so it may not appeal to everyone. A guy from marketing stood up and said, “This is Bill’s show and he wants to put his stamp on the season. I think we should run it all season!” And he thumped his fist on the table and everyone cheered. And so we did. [As a side note, A.C.T.’s 2016–17 season will include its own Sanskrit drama, Battlefield, directed by the legendary Peter Brook.]

What was the original motivation behind Play On, OSF’s new project of commissioning contemporary English adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays?

To me, the idea of these companion translations is really to get at the specificity of the language. They’re intended to further understanding, rather than to replace the original texts. Shakespeare is the most produced playwright in this country for a reason. But remember: whenever you put on a Shakespeare play, it’s some kind of adaptation. What folio are you using? Which editor’s version? Which dramaturg? Which quarto? For our adaptations, we’re commissioning 38 writers to take a deep dive into Shakespeare. More than half of the writers are women, and more than half are people of color.

While we’re talking about adapting Shakespeare, it’s also worth including a story about how people respond to Shakespeare’s language. When I was at Cornerstone Theater Company [co-founded by Rauch in 1986], we essentially loaded our theater into a truck. We’d go to these tiny rural towns to put on shows. In Marmath, North Dakota [pop. 193] we put on a production of Hamlet with a cast composed of our actors and people from the town. During rehearsals, the ranchers and their wives would really get into discussions about the language. They wanted the play to be comprehensible to everyone, and they would come back to us with questions such as “Why can’t we change this word to something we’d actually say?” It was rewarding and humbling to hear what people thought and the experience made us think about the text a little differently.

At OSF, you are both an artist and an artistic director. What part of your life is most rewarding?

Being a parent is what grounds me—that’s the single most important thing in my life. But if you’d ask me to choose between being the leader that makes decisions about an arts organization and being an artist, I’d choose artist—being in the rehearsal room, doing the work—every time. 

Voices Come Together: Storytelling through Music in The Unfortunates

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

By Cecilia Padilla and Shannon Stockwell
The plot of The Unfortunates is strange and engaging, its visual world outrageous and meaty. But it is the emotional score that makes the show so moving. It is the music that brings this group of misfits together and unites them in the face of tragedy.

“St. James Infirmary”
The initial inspiration for The Unfortunates is “St. James Infirmary,” a classic blues song with mysterious origins. “It represents a morphing tradition,” says The Unfortunates music director Casey Lee Hurt. “No one knows where the thing started.”

It’s impossible to know the origins of the song because it comes out of an old European folk music tradition, which was based on sharing songs orally. The earliest written reference to anything resembling “St. James Infirmary” is “The Unfortunate Rake,” an Irish folk song from the seventeenth century.

But the reference to St. James Infirmary dates the song even earlier than that. Although it’s unclear what hospital this is exactly, the best guess, according to music historian Robert W. Harwood, is that it refers to a sixteenth-century infirmary in London that treated women with leprosy. This hospital was turned into a palace by King Henry VIII in 1532, so it is likely that the song became popular before that, when the building was still a hospital.

The cast of The Unfortunates sings a song of mourning. Photo by Kevin Berne. 

The Genres
The score of The Unfortunates incorporates a wide range of American musical genres, like gospel, blues, and hip-hop. The play is anchored in these three genres, and features others such as folk, pop, jazz, and ragtime.

The result of this “hodge-podge” process is an array of infectious multigenre songs, that diverges from the traditional musical. The show’s music celebrates the old and the new by merging a venerable folk sound with contemporary hip-hop. For the Unfortunates creators, the ability to write a catchy song that’s familiar and yet fresh comes naturally—it’s not an intentional effort. “I think it’s just the nature of us as writers,” says Hurt. “We all love a really good song. In the dressing room, we sit around and make up songs all day. It’s just the way we participate with each other and communicate.”

The Catharsis
The theme of unity through music appears again and again in The Unfortunates. Big Joe finds that his suffering and pain are bearable if he simply allows himself to become part of a community. “There’s a real authenticity when a group of voices are joined together,” says Hurt.

Storytelling is a communal art form: the storyteller unites a group of people through the shared experience of a narrative. In The Unfortunates, audiences come together to hear the telling of a war hero’s journey as related through different musical genres, genres that are all built from communities joining together and improvising off each other. This is something that Hurt utilizes when writing music: “Why not reach out for those [traditions] and tell the American story at the same time we’re telling a war hero’s story?”

Not only does the show connect individual audience members to each other, it aims to heal divisions within society. “War and music,” says Hurt, “are two things that, for better or for worse, America’s always had. And there’s no question that music has always been an outcry, a response to injustice. We sing in the hard times—in the midst of tragedy looking for solace. But we also look for a catalyst to change things for the better.”

*To learn more about the music in The Unfortunates, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

The Courage to Connect

Thursday, February 11, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell 

When I first got the email, I ignored it. Some of my fellow A.C.T. staff members were getting together to put on a production of The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler, and they were inviting all women in the company to audition.

Audition? I hadn’t acted in years. What’s more, I had gone a long time without saying the word “vagina” in public—I was feeling myself becoming sort of prudish—and it made me blush just thinking about telling people that I was in the show. I rationalized to myself: It’s outdated. It was first performed in 1996. What relevance could the show possibly have anymore?

And then I auditioned.

Stockwell at a rehearsal for The Vagina Monologues. Photo by Rebecca Struch. 

I’m still not entirely sure why. Maybe I wanted to spend more time with the people I work with. Maybe I missed acting. Maybe something inside me wanted to be able to say “vagina” in public.  

And at the first read-through, all of my rationalizations about the show’s irrelevance were thrown out the window. This group of women—many of them my coworkers who had never acted before, some of them community members, and one a Young Conservatory alum—read aloud these monologues that are alternatively tragic, hilarious, and empowering, and I realized that, although the show was first performed 20 years ago, these monologues and the issues they explore are still shockingly pertinent to the struggles of modern-day women.

I was struck with sadness that, even after two decades of work against sexism and violence, women are still dealing with the same issues they were 20 years ago. But I was also grateful for this beautiful piece that continues to give women the courage to share and connect. After the read-through, the women in the cast discussed the play and we got wildly off-topic, talking about our bodies, our identities, and our own experiences of sexism. It was because of this play that we were given the chance to do that.

Many emotions course throughout the play, so rehearsals were intense. But this special group of women always supported each other, always held space for each other. Instead of suppressing the emotions that came up, we embraced them and let them show.

Now, we look forward to our performances, in which we will share these powerful, tragic, and funny monologues with an audience. Not only does our performance raise awareness about stopping violence against women, but also, all proceeds go to Oasis for Girls and W.O.M.A.N. Inc., two San Francisco–based organizations that strive to help women and girls succeed and thrive. Our performance is part of a global V-Day celebration, a day devoted to celebrating women and fighting violence against them.  I’m so proud to have been a part of this process.

And one more time, for the people in the back: VAGINA!

Performances will take place in The Rueff at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street
February 12, 8 pm
February 13, 2:30 pm & 8 pm
Made possible with generous support from A.C.T.
Directed by Allie Moss

Buy tickets here!

Shannon Stockwell is the publications associate at A.C.T. and an actor in The Vagina Monologues.

Guitars, Guts, and Graphic Novels: An Interview with Jon Beavers, Casey Lee Hurt, and Ramiz Monsef

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

The Unfortunates started out as a side project for musical collaborators Jon Beavers, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan, and Ramiz Monsef. In 2013, with the creative team now including playwright Kristoffer Diaz, the show emerged as a breakout hit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF)—an original musical that blended bluesy grit with contemporary syncopations. Over the last couple of years, the musical’s creators have worked with A.C.T.’s artistic team to refine the score and script for a run at The Strand. We sat down with Beavers, Hurt, and Monsef to find out more about the amazing journey of The Unfortunates.

Four of the five creators of The Unfortunates:
(L to R) Ramiz Monsef, Jon Beavers, Ian Merrigan, and Casey Lee Hurt. Photo by Randy Taradash.
What’s the inspiration behind The Unfortunates?

Ramiz Monsef: The seed of the whole thing is the song “St. James Infirmary.” The first time I ever heard that song was in a Betty Boop cartoon, in which Cab Calloway sings it. It’s this seven-minute-long Snow White cartoon from 1933. I saw it as a little kid and it haunted me.

So, blues and cartoons. Ramiz, don’t you have a background in graphic novels, as well?

Monsef: I have a background in being a total comic-book nerd. I’ve got boxes of Spider-Man back issues to prove it. The character design and the idea of using hands as a metaphor came out of my head, then were brought to life by our incredible designers, set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer and costume designer Katherine O’Neill.

It seems like there’s a Hellboy element to Big Joe, with the supersized fists. Are you drawing from that?

Monsef: Yeah. Hellboy and the Goon, absolutely. I’ve always found hands really fascinating. I also like [early-twentieth century Austrian painter] Egon Schiele, whose figures all have these crazy fingers. We drew inspiration from everywhere.

Casey Lee Hurt: We’ve also pulled from the early blues aesthetic and jazz, with that kind of energy and vibe.

Jon Beavers: We also drew from action movies. And we were really interested in propaganda posters from the two world wars. In World War II, the artwork was heavily influenced by [comic book artist] Jack Kirby, graphic novels, and cartoons from the New Yorker. The styles of those artists were used for war propaganda, and we were borrowing from all of that.

The Unfortunates seems to be rooted in the two world wars—or is it set in a generalized world at war?

Hurt: It’s the idea of a world at war. World War I is where a lot of our influences are drawn from, but we’re trying not to put the show specifically in that time period. The reason for that is because the enemy in the play is not a regime. It’s fear. For us, that’s the most important element—fear is the thing that every generation faces. And we want that to be transparent and true throughout.

This is an unusual score—did you set out to include a range of American musical genres?

Hurt: We’ve done our best effort to expand the definition of Americana. A lot of people tend to lean more toward an acoustic guitar or folk elements. What we’re trying to do is not only bring in those elements but also reach into the more modern elements of blues and jazz and hip-hop and spoken word. The desire is to tell the story through music and to have a really open palette for whatever style we’re working with.

*To learn more about the inspiration behind The Unfortunates, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

The American Sound: The Evolution of Jazz

Friday, February 5, 2016

By Cecilia Padilla
There is nothing so uniquely American as jazz music. In its simplest form, jazz embodies the essence of the American people: bold and inventive. The improvisation of the jazz ensemble can even be seen as a metaphor for the American democratic ideal: musicians playing solos have the liberty to express themselves as long as they adhere to the overall structure of the tune—individual freedom but with responsibility to the group. The evolution of jazz music also carries with it the social development of our nation from slavery to the swinging songs of World War II. Musically, jazz contributed immensely to the way contemporary musicians approach instrumentation, composition, and vocal arrangements. It is difficult to find a popular tune today that does not derive from such jazz icons as Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk. Jazz is the great equalizer; for more than a hundred years, it has been the common ground between blacks and whites, men and women, radicals and conservatives.

African American man sitting outside playing a banjo.
Photo by V.G. Schreck, 1902. Courtesy Library of Congress. 
The early origins of jazz trace back to two sources in New Orleans history: African slaves and Creole descendants. By 1808, the Atlantic slave trade had brought half a million Africans to the United States, where they were forced to work on southern plantations. While working in the fields, slaves sang work songs that combined African tribal chants with Christian hymns incorporated from the Southern Baptist Church. Together, these influences created Negro spirituals that had strong, percussive beats and were accompanied by intense physical dancing. White slave owners felt that this music and dance distracted slaves from their work, and in New Orleans, slaves’ participation in Negro spirituals was confined by law to Congo Square in 1817. The strong, rhythmic music played in Congo Square remains a distinctive tone in jazz today. 
After the abolition of slavery in 1865, the United States was confronted with the need to rebuild the nation out of the wreckage of the Civil War. The Reconstruction Era was a period of revitalization of the U.S. economy and government, as well as the redefinition of race relations between blacks and whites. In New Orleans, this racial reconsideration influenced the sound of jazz. Creoles, the light-skinned descendants of white French and Spanish colonists who had had sex with their black female slaves, identified more with their European roots than with their African ancestry. They often looked down on their dark-skinned counterparts and avoided association with slave stereotypes. Many Creoles were classically trained in music and played with the elegance of European orchestras, which became a means of distancing themselves from “crude” slave music. The blending of Negro spirituals and Creole classical music, along with Civil War military marches, would contribute to a new genre: ragtime.
In the 1890s, pianists in New Orleans took to playing this new style of music set to syncopated rhythms—previously unaccented beats were now strongly accented. This gave the tunes ragged rhythms, hence the term “ragtime.” First circulated by itinerant musicians, ragtime songs were eventually printed as sheet music, something that had not been done for Negro spirituals. Ragtime was popularized by Scott Joplin, who composed the iconic tune “The Entertainer.” The genre’s syncopated musical meter remains one of jazz’s defining characteristics. 
*To read more about the evolution of jazz, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

Bilingual Play Illuminates the Stories of Women from La Colectiva

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

By Ariella Wolfe 

In mid January, A.C.T. Studio 8G was filled with stories, Spanish and English translation, songs, laughter, and even some BeyoncĂ©. Sky Festival, the annual three-week period during which the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) Program explores and develops student-originated new material, provided an opportunity for M.F.A. students, staff from the Education & Community Programs Department’s Stage Coach initiative, and members of the San Francisco community to create theater together, build relationships, and share their work with the rest of the A.C.T. community.

Part of the ensemble of Mariposas de Papel. Photo by Ariella Wolfe. 

Following last year’s Sky Festival/Stage Coach production of Stories from the ’Loin (humanizing stories of homelessness in the Tenderloin), M.F.A. second-year student Diana Gonzalez-Morett and Community Producer Rebecca Struch proposed a community-devised theater project that would feature the stories of women from San Francisco who have immigrated from Latin America and are employed as domestic workers. Allowing space for these stories is crucial, as the narratives of women of color, immigrants, and the working class have often been overlooked or silenced in traditional theater spaces. In the New Year, Struch and Gonzalez-Morett connected with Guillermina Castellanos, the co-founder of La Colectiva de Mujeres, “a worker-run collective that helps empower immigrant women and connect them with jobs.” The newly formed ensemble began sharing stories and developing creative content that eventually became the play Mariposas de Papel.

Learning a dance. Photo by Jennifer Apple.
Team-building game. Photo by Jennifer Apple. 
In community collaborations, the process is a large part of the product. Throughout the week and a half of rehearsals, ensemble members shared moving experiences from their own lives, fostered trust, navigated language barriers, and supported each other in deepening their skills as performers. When the doors opened for the culminating performances, audiences shared in the joy and strength of the women’s stories. Nancy Livingston, the Chair of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees, explained one powerful result of the production: “the woman sitting next to me . . . came because her domestic worker (who was in the play) asked her to. She was in tears by the end of it and told me that although she had been to A.C.T. before, she had never seen anything like this and was so glad she had come.” Hopefully this project will lead to a continued relationship with the women of La Colectiva, especially as it affirms A.C.T. as a space for both embracing and transcending cultural differences through theater.

Photo by Rebecca Struch 

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