Tom Stoppard at The Strand

Monday, March 28, 2016

by Simon Hodgson
Many thanks to everyone who filled The Strand on Sunday for the reading of Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem. It was great to see so many people showing up for our Scripts Play Reading Series.
Aside from the pleasure of hearing Stoppard performed by an all-star cast, it was a treat to see several favorite faces from other A.C.T. shows. On Sunday, The Hard Problem cast included actors from no fewer than four of this season’s mainstage productions: Rinabeth Apostol from Monstress; Ramiz Monsef, currently starring in The Unfortunates; David Strathairn from the upcoming Chester Bailey; and Rod Gnapp, James Wagner, Rebecca Watson, and Allison Jean White—all currently appearing in The Realistic Joneses at The Geary.

Ramiz Monsef, Allison Jean White, and David Strathairn appearing in
A.C.T.'s Scripts Play Reading Series for Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem.
Photo by Cecilia Padilla.
One of the amazing things about coming regularly to A.C.T. is seeing the virtuosity of actors who transform into different roles. Thank you all for coming, and we look forward to seeing you back at The Strand in May to see David Strathairn and Dan Clegg in Chester Bailey.

Life, Death, and Language in The Realistic Joneses

Friday, March 25, 2016

An Interview with Playwright Will Eno

By Shannon Stockwell

Playwright Will Eno has always been writing, “at least in some shy way,” he says. But it wasn’t until he was in his late twenties that he sat down to write a play in earnest. His plays have since won several honors, and one—Thom Pain (based on nothing)—was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

As for why he writes? He has some theories. “In some plain way, in the early days, I was probably trying to get my dad’s attention,” he says. “Or, maybe I had already sublimated him into some general idea of a large, unlistening Universe, so I was just trying to get some attention, and I don’t mean in just a needy little-kid way, but just some feeling or response from the Universe to prove that I existed or could be seen or heard.”

Eno spoke with us about the world of The Realistic Joneses, now running at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater until April 3.

Playwright Will Eno. Photo by Gordon Lish.

What was the inspiration for The Realistic Joneses?

I can’t say there was one single point of inspiration. Certainly, the play concerns things that I have been thinking about—intimacy and fear of death. The fact that we all die and our fears or anxieties about it are potentially things that we could share and that could make us feel less alone, but I think sometimes we lug that anxiety around and keep it like a dirty secret, and that probably ends up making us feel a little estranged from other people. Almost like we’re ashamed of the fact that we’re going to die. People talk about the meaning of life; it seems like if you can get some kind of a handle on the meaning of death, then the life part might be a lot clearer. The point of all these considerations should be, in the end, to have the happiest, fullest life you can imagine.

Why “realistic,” above all other possible adjectives? What’s realistic about these characters? Is there anything that isn’t realistic?

My thought was that, in terms of trying to face death, which is an unreal or at the very least surreal proposition, any human response might be called realistic. Also, I like the idea of that word “jones,” as in craving or need. It’s usually used in relation to drug addiction, but I think of it here in a more innocent way: the real needs and cravings we all have. What we might be able to reasonably expect from life and the world. But it has to do more with these two couples, the Joneses. Though we all might live in the middle of some serious illusions and delusions, from the inside, it probably always feels like reality. I think all the Joneses are doing their best, are living with the maximum amount of reality that each can manage.

How does your relationship with language manifest itself in The Realistic Joneses?

I think people are generally sort of brilliant. I think language is an amazing human invention. And I think people in an audience can follow things and flesh things out with incredible speed. So with all that in mind, I just try not to make too many mistakes or use words lazily. I try to use language in a way that is specific enough to satisfy the logical part of the brain, but jagged enough or gentle enough that the heart and the stomach can also get involved.

To read more of Will Eno'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. 

A Special Beast: Wigs for The Unfortunates

Monday, March 21, 2016

An Interview with A.C.T. Wig Master Kate Casalino

By Shannon Stockwell

The Unfortunates is now playing at The Strand Theater. Get tickets here!

“The wigs for The Unfortunates are a special beast,” laughs Kate Casalino. “This show is a lot different than what I’ve traditionally done at A.C.T.” As A.C.T.’s wig master, Casalino works closely with costume designers to create the hairstyles for the show. For The Unfortunates, she had the opportunity to work on a design that balanced a World War I–esque time period with a “funky, weird” factor, resulting in some truly impressive (and massive) wigs. We visited Casalino in the Unfortunates dressing rooms to get the story behind the hair.

How did you go about building the wigs?

Luckily, The Unfortunates had been done previously at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Even though the show has changed a lot since then, I rented the wigs that they used, to have a starting point. Only half of one of those wigs made it into A.C.T.’s production, and that’s our big lady [Madame’s wig]. I rented that one because building it from scratch would have been a large process. It’s built with a wire understructure, kind of like scaffolding. Then there’s netting with hair sewn over it, so it’s light enough that the actress [Danielle Herbert] can dance and move. 

Madame's wig in The Unfortunates. Photo by Shannon Stockwell. 

What about Rae’s hair?

Rae [played by Taylor Iman Jones] is using her own hair. We had to find a style that would hold up, because she doesn’t have arms to move it off her face—the character is armless in the dream world, and Jones performs with her arms bound in a costume piece. We actually talked a lot about what to do if something goes awry with her hair. We made sure that the the other actors knew that if she was nuzzling up against them at a part she didn’t otherwise, it might be because there’s hair in her nose, and she can’t fix it because she has no arms. She’s trapped. That was something that we had to be very conscious of.

There are a lot of quick costume changes in this show. How are those done?

Danielle and Amy [Lizardo, who plays Handsome Carl] have a two-minute quick change, full costume and wig. We only have two people running costumes for the show. So that’s a lot to do. We had to figure out how to quick-rig Handsome Carl’s first wig so she could take it off herself. So her first wig is just some hair sewn on to a wig cap with a handkerchief over it. Amy comes offstage, pulls that off on her own, starts to run her quick change, and by the time our wig person is available to put her next wig on, she’s ready to go.

When does that quick change happen?

It’s during the scene where Joe and his friends are prisoners of war, near the beginning of the show. They’re going from their recruitment scene costume to the dream world look. They finish one song, there’s a blackout with an explosion sound, and before they even go offstage, the cast has to change the costumes of the three guys [Joe, CJ, and Coughlin] while they’re onstage in the dark. Then they book it offstage to stage right while stripping. It’s crazy. I love things like that.

To learn more about the production design of 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. 

Fellow by Day, Director by Night

Friday, March 18, 2016

By Ariella Wolfe, A.C.T. Stage Coach Fellow

Every year at American Conservatory Theater, there are aspiring young theater professionals doing fellowships in different departments of the company, from backstage to back office. Because of the size of the organization, most of us don’t work together regularly. That’s why The Fellowship Project is so important—it’s an opportunity for A.C.T.’s fellows to work together to produce a show from start to finish, contributing their disparate skills to a larger production and honing their craft as artists and administrators.

A.C.T.'s 2015–16 Fellows. Photo by Gretchen Feyer. 

This year’s Fellowship Project is Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. In addition to my fellowship in education and community programs, I am directing this production. This is allowing me to continue finding meaningful connections between my interest in directing and my passion for social change through theater. Young theater artists are drawn to the fellowship program at A.C.T. for many reasons, and the hope is that we are able to gain professional development experience from both our primary position and our work after hours.

What’s great about working on Top Girls is that I get to collaborate with others who are at a similar stage in their careers who work every day in different teams: marketing, stage management, dramaturgy, production. Although this annual project is relatively new (it started with The Glass Menageriein 2014), it is becoming a tradition that will provide future fellows the chance to take on leadership roles and grow through new collective challenges.

Even as I prepare for rehearsals this month, serving as the director of Top Girls is already teaching me about leadership and collaboration. I was drawn to the play itself, set in 1980s England, because of its commentary on feminism, capitalism, and the myth that you will succeed if you work hard enough. My work on the play is driving me to reflect on how gender stereotypes and subconscious biases influence workplace environments, as well as how I, as a woman, define ambition and success.

The Fellowship Project is not easy. All of us have spent hours poring over scripts, developing a budget, planning fundraising, researching historical material, holding auditions, and meeting with designers. But throughout the challenges that my fellowship is providing, I am conscious that these experiences are inspiring new realizations that will ultimately help to shape my future.

Top Girls will take place in A.C.T.'s Costume Shop Theater, 1117 Market Street
April 2123, 7:30 p.m.
April 23 & 24, 2:00 p.m.
Made possible with generous support from A.C.T.

Donate here! To reserve tickets, contact Ashley Gennarelli at

Inside the Visually Stunning World of The Unfortunates

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

An Interview with The Unfortunates Scenic Designer Sibyl Wickersheimer

By Simon Hodgson

“For a designer, The Unfortunates is unusual,” says scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer. “I don’t often get to create a different world that feels nonsensical. The props take on a larger-than-life quality, with these giant fists, giant arms, and giant creations. We want to keep surprising the audience.” Wickersheimer is full of surprises. She has designed scenery for dozens of productions, including projects at Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Geffen Playhouse, as well as productions at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and even a Disney cruise-ship production of Toy Story—the Musical. With The Unfortunates playing at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater until April 10, we caught up with Wickersheimer to talk about the visual inspirations behind the scenic design.

What are the visual influences for The Unfortunates?

Set model, by scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer,
for A.C.T.'s 2016 production of
The Unfortunates
For me, the play is a soldier’s tale. It’s about soldiers coming to terms with death. The design team started looking at imagery from World War I, because we wanted to ground the production in a reality that was not just any war. What does it mean to be in the barracks? To be in the dugout? What did different enemy camps look like? What were the weapons used?

The other layer that we put on top of that was the red cross as a symbol of health. The red cross started out as an emblem for the Doctor. Then we started to twist that into something really surreal and dark. The layering of those emblems and textures started to become our own comic book.

Did you mine any particular artists’ work for ideas?

The comic-book ideas I had all started with cartoonist Ralph Bakshi. His imagery is very dark, very twisted. His paintings are textural, almost like a collage, and they focus on sources of light, as if you were walking down the street inebriated and seeing these hotspots everywhere. That speaks to the world of The Unfortunates, because we start in a bar.

Another artist I should mention is Rebecca Horne, a performance artist from the 1970s. She created these appendages and put them on her body. There are several different styles, and they’re so creepy, interesting, and human. Yet they’re not human, because they’re actually fabric that she would add to her arms and her fingers. That inspired us to take something super simple and create a monster. That was something we considered when creating Joe’s fists and the lack of Rae’s arms, as well as the Doctor’s arms, which grow and grow right in front of you.

To read more of Wickersheimer'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. 

From Kissing to Karate: Notes from the Will on Wheels tour of Macbeth

Monday, March 14, 2016

By A.C.T. School and Community Programs Coordinator Alec MacPherson

Audiences at Will on Wheels performances are always eager to pick the brains of the actors involved. For some audience members, a Will on Wheels performance will be the first time they’ve seen Shakespeare performed onstage; for others, it will be the first time they’ve seen a live theatrical performance at all. But from Marin middle school students to San Francisco senior citizens, A.C.T.’s second-year Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) Program actors are lucky to encounter some of the most diverse and engaging audiences when they embark on A.C.T.’s annual Shakespeare tour to Bay Area schools and community centers.

M.F.A. Program actors (L to R) Diana Gonzalez-Morett, Julie Adamo, and Stephen Wattrus
talk to students during the Will on Wills pre-show interaction. Photo by Jasmin Hoo.  

“How did you memorize all those lines?”

“Did you have a karate sensei teach you how to fight?”

“Was that a real kiss? Because that’s serious.”

The Will on Wheels touring program came out of a desire to provide our professional-actors-in-training the opportunity to experience the unique rewards of performing classical theater on tour. It is our hope that the tour helps these young theater artists develop stamina, flexibility, and the ability to engage with, and adapt to, a variety
of venues and audiences. Over the course of the two-week tour, the class of 2017 will perform this year’s production of Macbeth for 2,500 students at 15 different sites in the Bay Area, in spaces ranging from a packed community center multipurpose room to a 700-seat public school auditorium.

“When did you know you wanted to be an actor?”

“How did it feel delivering some of the most famous lines of all time?”

“Wait . . . that was a real kiss?”

The tour is not without its challenges. At our first performance this year, a teacher unexpectedly called in sick, and five minutes before curtain the school decided to add 60 chairs to make space for the students without a homeroom. While this threw a wrench in our plans (not to mention adding a squeaking class guinea pig to our audience) and pushed back our curtain time, the M.F.A. cast rallied around director Giles Havergal’s decree: “There’s no way we’ll turn away 60 more kids who want to see Shakespeare.”
“Do you believe the three witches are truly supernatural or are they charlatans?”

“What advice do you have to my students who want to pursue acting?”

“Um . . . how do you kiss someone onstage without catching feelings for them?”

It is validating for the actors to hear these questions, which show the actors that the audience was following along and can even help them consider the play in a whole new light. For me, however, the most rewarding question doesn’t come from the audience. It comes from the M.F.A. Program actors who visit the Education & Community Programs Department office after the tour and ask, “How can I work with those students again?”

*Click here to learn more about A.C.T.'s education programs and community partnerships. 

The Actor's Perspective on Will Eno

Friday, March 11, 2016

By Simon Hodgson and Shannon Stockwell

New York Times critic Charles Isherwood describes Will Eno as having “a voice almost like no other in contemporary American theater.” That’s an honor, to be sure, but the truth of that statement is a challenge for anyone cast in an Eno play. When a playwright cannot be compared to anyone else currently working, it’s difficult for performers to figure out where the language stands, what other artists to draw from, where to find other examples. The contradictory adjectives used to describe Eno’s work aren’t much help either: poetic yet accessible, elaborate yet simple, lofty yet colloquial, deadpan yet emotional. “It’s a pocket of tone that is so peculiar,” says Loretta Greco, who is directing A.C.T.’s production of The Realistic Joneses, opening March 16.“With Will, an actor walks in the room and they either get it or they don’t.” 

Left to right: Director Loretta Greco, actor Rebecca Watson, assistant to the director Lily Sorenson, 
and actor James Wagner at the first rehearsal for A.C.T.’s 2016 production of The Realistic Joneses
Photo by Shannon Stockwell.

Eno has a very specific style that is not quite lyricism but not quite naturalism. “His writing is deeply poetic, but it’s also very humane and soulful,” says actor James Urbaniak, who played the titular character in the world premiere of Thom Pain (based on nothing). “As an actor, the trick is to make that heightened poetic writing come from a real place.”

To make the poetry come from a real place, an actor has to discover certain things within the text to make it ring true. Actor Rebecca Watson, who plays Jennifer in A.C.T.’s production of The Realistic Joneses, found it difficult to discover her truth behind the text in Eno’s play. “Regarding Jennifer—her logic is not my logic. I’m having to dig a little bit more to make connections.” The dialogue, she notes, isn’t always clear. “My biggest challenge is embracing her logic, embracing the way she speaks, and making them my words. I suppose that’s the case with any play, but with Eno, it’s less obvious.”

Actor Thomas Jay Ryan, who appeared in Eno’s Tragedy, a tragedy and The Bully Composition, says, “The challenges for the actor are very much based in rhythm and cadence and linguistic choice.” Eno’s plays explore big ideas—do actors treat these ideas with a casual, offhand approach, or do they approach them with a sense of their depth and magnitude? For Ryan, the answer to this problem lay within the words themselves.

“My preparation for Tragedy, a tragedy was to learn the text by heart, every pause and comma and hesitation,” he says. “The gold always lay in the actual text as set down on the page.” Through doing this close examination of the text, Ryan was able to find the moments that required a sense of depth and the moments that could withstand a more casual approach. “Honoring the language never feels restrictive to me with Will. It is always liberating, because the language is so well considered. The only way an actor can go wrong, in my experience, is to use or manipulate the language in a tortured or cute way.”

The fact that both Ryan and Urbaniak have appeared in multiple Eno productions suggests that they get the playwright’s work and are comfortable with the complex and contradictory elements. But for many actors, the balance between revealing the depth of the lyricism and committing to the casual colloquialism is difficult. And it’s not necessarily something that can be learned. “The actors that don’t get the tone, it doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the emotional construction or the psychological beats,” says Greco. “It just means that they’re living in a slightly different pocket of existence.”

Eno's The Realistic Joneses is now in previews at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater and opens March 16. Click here to buy tickets.

*To learn more about the world of Will Eno, 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 Invention of Loneliness: A Few Words on Will Eno

Monday, March 7, 2016

By Simon Hodgson
“A Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation” is how New York Times critic Charles Isherwood described Will Eno back in 2005. Some playwrights wilt under such comparisons. Eno has flourished. Since the premiere of Tragedy: a tragedy in 2001, he has built up a canon of work that includes OBIE Award winner The Open House (2014), 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist Thom Pain (based on nothing), and Broadway hit The Realistic Joneses (2012), which starts its A.C.T. run on March 9 at The Geary Theater.  
Echoes of Beckett
For audiences who love language, the Beckett analogy is a useful way into Eno’s mix of quirky, clever, and compassionate. “I love Beckett’s work,” says Eno. “Beckett’s example has so much to do with finding your own way and forging your own path, so it’s a little funny to talk about influence. I hope that one of the things I’ve learned from him is the necessity of putting yourself out on a limb.”

Eno may be conscious that he and Beckett have trodden similar territory, but he is also wary of the parallel. “We may share similar concerns and some themes, or preoccupations,” he says. “But they tend to be pretty general human concerns. Beckett, for all his invention, didn’t invent sadness or loneliness.

Will Eno in his apartment. Photo by Albertine Eno.
Lives of Quiet Desperation
Eno investigates these “general human concerns” through story lines set squarely in small-town America. From the generically named Middletown (2010) to the suburbs of The Realistic Joneses (2012), Eno’s characters are regular people—doctors, nurses, librarians, mechanics, photographers—struggling with life.

In Eno’s world, ordinary people struggle to connect with each other, to express what they need or what they fear. They struggle with the fear of dying, of getting sick, of getting old. In Title and Deed (2011), the unnamed narrator talks about watching his mother die in a hospital bed: “Her breathing got very raspy, or, some adjective. She died, would be the most economical way to put it. Where do you look, in the room? Where do you stand? No corner is corner enough, in certain rooms.”
Word Play
Eno picks and pecks at the seams of mortality, and he does it through language that is both witty and poignant. When audiences first encounter Eno’s work, they’re surprised and entertained. They laugh. Then they pause, and feel the gravity behind the laughter. In The Realistic Joneses, there’s a scene where Bob and John stand in the yard outside their houses, talking. Though they never refer to it directly, they’re both suffering from the same neurological disorder, and they’re both struggling with how they (and their partners) deal with that condition. “Look at the sky,” says John. When Bob joins him to look up, he says, “No, I’m looking at this part. You look over there.”

Even in these quiet moments where his characters pause to contemplate their own mortality, Eno can’t resist slyly undercutting the gravity of the scene. This dichotomy works over the entire play. From the outside, The Realistic Joneses looks like a chamber piece. It’s about two couples in a small town who share the same name. There are scenes of revelation, scenes of tension, scenes of quirky comedy, and it’s funny. And we’re laughing along with Bob and Jennifer and Pony and John until . . . we’re not. We realize that all four of these characters are grappling with loneliness, dread, and some of our deepest anxieties, even as they forge these uncertain new relationships.

*To learn more about the world of Will Eno, 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. 

Colm Tóibín Visits A.C.T.

Friday, March 4, 2016

By Simon Hodgson 

Colm Tóibín. Photo by Larry D. Moore. 
In the week that Brooklyn, the movie based on Colm Tóibín’s celebrated novel, was nominated for three Academy Awards, the writer returned to A.C.T. to work on his new play, commissioned by A.C.T. and based on Henry James’s The Aspern Papers. The Irish novelist, critic, poet, and playwright is familiar with the rehearsal rooms high above Grant Avenue. In 2014, his Tony Award–nominated play, Testament, was directed by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff at The Geary.

In a conversation with our M.F.A. Program actors hosted by Perloff, Tóibín talked about aspects of his work of particular interest to acting students: character development, storytelling in film, and the challenges of form and structure as he works to adapt Henry James’s prose into a play. The last topic in particular is an area A.C.T. is deeply involved in, with the recent adaptation of Monstress and the world premiere of A Thousand Splendid Suns next season.   

When asked about the way he develops characters in his novels, Tóibín broke down his process. “All the novels I’ve written have only one character,” he said, explaining that although there may be many people in his stories, there is only ever one protagonist. “Everything is rendered, seen, and felt by one person. The result is that, after 30 pages, the reader becomes that person.”

Tóibín said he aims to embed the reader in their own visualization, rather than investing time in descriptions of what the characters look like. “What you’re trying to do is walk with the reader’s imagination.” As a side note, that’s also the reason why his book covers never feature images of faces, although he says that was a challenge with his latest novel, Nora Webster (2014). After his publishers sent him dozens of potential cover photos, they reached a compromise: there was a woman depicted on the cover, but she was shown from the back.

In addition to discussing his novel-writing process, Tóibín told a few stories to the M.F.A. actors about what he’d learned adapting his own work for the stage. By the time Testament played at The Geary in 2014, he had already experienced the test of winnowing the novella’s 24,000 words down to 8,000 for the stage play. How did he feel, one A.C.T. actor asked, truncating his work so dramatically? Tóibín paused and smiled. “A good director or dramaturg will watch you and guide you and then let you kill your darlings yourself.”

After seeing Testament adapted for productions in Dublin and New York, he is philosophical about giving up control. For new productions of the play, “everyone producing the show receives the script from the Dublin production, the script from the Broadway production, and the novel. Then I say, ‘Do what you want with it.’”

Tóibín has broadened his skill set to screen as well as stage, and he shared some insights from his work in film. In 2013, he said, he agreed to collaborate with German director Volker Schlöndorff on a new project. Tóibín was excited. Schlöndorff may be Europe’s most experienced director, having worked with a roll call of talent from both sides of the Atlantic: Louis Malle, Arthur Miller, Jean-Pierre Melville, Sam Shepard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Faye Dunaway, to name a few.

When the German filmmaker and the Irish writer finally sat down to talk about the film script, Tóibín was full of questions. But to every question, Schlöndorff would murmur, or sigh, or rub his chin. Initially, Tóibín said, he was frustrated. Here was this legendary film icon, and he didn’t have any of the answers. In time, however, he realized that this was Schlöndorff’s process. “All the time, he was filled with uncertainty,” said Tóibín. “He was building from not knowing.”

As Tóibín sat amid the circle of young actors eager to work across stage and screen, he was articulate about the differences in writing for each medium. He spoke to the collaborative nature of filmmaking (even in the writing stage), contrasting it with the process of writing a novel, which he described as having “full autonomy, a feeling of power.” Asked why he had chosen British novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) to adapt Brooklyn for the screen rather than taking on the adaptation himself, Tóibín was characteristically modest. “Because he knows something I don’t.”

Kismet to Comic Book in The Unfortunates

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Expanded Universe of The Unfortunates 
By Shannon Stockwell 
While super heroes like Deadpool, Ant Man, and The Avengers take over the big screen, the world of graphic novels also finds a home in live theater. The Unfortunates, the larger-than-life musical journey of Big Joe and his giant fists, is a visually stunning story that the San Francisco Chronicle says "could have emerged from the pages of a comic book.” 
Throughout the creation process of The Unfortunates, writer and actor Ramiz Monsef kept telling his collaborators, “We need to do a comic book for this!” To Monsef, an ardent comic-book fan, the world they were creating was perfect for the graphic-novel format. But there was a problem: Monsef can’t draw. “It was an equation I couldn’t finish myself,” he says.

But one day, after a performance during the show’s run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Monsef was told that there was a man backstage who wanted to speak with him. This man was comic-book artist Daniel Duford, who was rendered speechless by the Unfortunates experience, “not only because it’s so moving, but also I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s like my work, but onstage!”

Images from the Unfortunates graphic novel, by Daniel Duford and Ramiz Monsef.

Duford happened to be in Ashland curating an exhibit at the Schneider Museum of Art called Fighting Men, which featured the work of painter Leon Golub, ceramicist Peter Voulkos, and comic-book artist Jack Kirby. Kirby’s work was a particularly important influence for the creators of The Unfortunates, so the meeting felt like kismet. “All of a sudden, I found someone that spoke the language I’d been trying to speak with other people for a long time,” says Monsef.

That summer, Duford and his wife, Tracy Schlapp, began to produce posters featuring characters from The Unfortunates, and then created an eight-page comic book about Stack O’Lee, one of the villains in the play. The collaboration between Monsef and Duford flourished, and they commenced work on a full-length Unfortunates graphic novel that functions as a prequel to the musical. They hope that viewers of the play will also read the comic book and vice versa. “It’ll add emotional impact to what Big Joe goes through,” says Duford. 

*To learn more about the world of 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. 
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