A.C.T. Explores Shakespeare's Lost Play

Friday, April 29, 2016

By Cecilia Padilla

As a part of the 2016 Spring Performances, A.C.T.’s M.F.A. Program actors present what scholars believe is Shakespeare’s lost play. Cardenio, a romantic farce about star-crossed lovers who find each other in a play-within-a-play, has a unique creation story. Literary scholars have traced the play’s existence back to 1613, when The History of Cardenio was performed by Shakespeare’s theater company, the King’s Men. Later evidence found in 1653 indicates that the play was about to be published, and this time it was attributed specifically to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, one of Shakespeare’s known collaborators. 

Then, in 1728, Shakespeare scholar, editor, and playwright Lewis Theobald published a play called Double Falsehood. He claimed that this play was based on three different manuscripts of The History of Cardenio. Double Falsehood, Theobald said, was a mixture of Shakespeare’s, Fletcher’s, and his own writing. Theobald’s is the version of Cardenio read most widely today. Despite these mentions throughout history of a manuscript by Shakespeare himself, a copy of the original script has never been found.

The actual storyline of Cardenio comes from Miguel de Cervantes’s epic novel Don Quixote (1605). In the novel, Don Quixote comes across a man named Cardenio who has lost his betrothed to his best friend. As a result, Cardenio goes mad and runs away to the mountains. But in the end, all the misunderstandings are cleared up and the lovers reunite. Theobald loosely bases the plot of Double Falsehood on Cervantes’s character of Cardenio. We don’t know for sure if Shakespeare and Fletcher’s version follows this plot, because the original script has not been discovered. However, if Theobald claimed that he based his play on the one by Shakespeare and Fletcher, we can assume that the 1613 and 1653 versions followed similar storylines.

Inspired by these ever-evolving interpretations, playwright Charles Mee and English professor Stephen Greenblatt created the Cardenio Project  in 2008. This project encourages theater companies around the world to adapt Mee and Greenblatt’s contemporary version of the play to fit their own cultural circumstances. Their reasoning, Greenblatt explained, was their mutual interest in “what happened when a story generated within one set of assumptions, preoccupations, constraints, and conventions was transmuted for performance in a very different world.” The project invites a wide range of adaptations: from using Shakespearean English; performing in other languages; changing characters; or setting the play in a different country. A.C.T.’s M.F.A. Program actors, for example, will perform the piece in modern English and set the comedy in San Francisco.  

Running May 6–14 at the Strand Theater, Shakespeare’s lost play gets its Bay Area debut, directed by Delia MacDougall. Get your tickets here!

Lessons from The Lion—a Master Class with Benjamin Scheuer

Thursday, April 28, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

“Songwriting is a game of what you leave out,” says Benjamin Scheuer. “As Hemingway said, you write the 3 percent of the iceberg, but you’ve got to know the 97 percent that’s underwater.” Today singer-songwriter Scheuer took a break from his award-winning show The Lion (playing at The Strand Theater until May 1) to present a master class in songwriting at A.C.T.’s 30 Grant Avenue offices. Listening to the songs of five young performers—Danielle Frimer, Matt Herrero, Sydney Kistler, Andrew Fridae, and Lauren Hart—he offered technical advice ranging from melody to rhyme, structure to story.
Benjamin Scheuer working with Matt Herrero in an A.C.T. master class. Photo by Ken Savage.

“Danielle, tell us about this song,” Scheuer said after Frimer (a graduate from the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program) finished her poignant number, “The Guy Who Plays Guitar at Mission BART.” When she confessed that she thought the song was “on the sad side” and that she wanted to “get a few more colors in there,” he suggested that great art can sometimes come from a dark perspective. Then he leapt up to the piano to play a few bars from Oklahoma—“People Will Say We’re In Love”—to illustrate how lyrics can offset a jaunty tune.

Throughout the master class, Scheuer drew on a panoply of sources to illustrate his points. He used William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to show how to start a story in the middle. He cited Eminem for lyric construction and reusing words in different contexts. He drew from Paul Simon and Indigo Girls, Greek three-act structure and Bob Dylan.

Whether it was about the specificity of images, the importance of song titles, the use of rhyme, or the variation in verbs, Scheuer was full of insight and incisive suggestions. By way of introduction, he said he had learned from some great teachers and wanted to pass this on to others. If the full house in the rehearsal room today is anything to go by, dozens of Bay Area songwriters will be using those tips and techniques soon. Many thanks to everyone who showed up, and to Benjamin Scheuer for the class!

The Lion is playing at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater through May 1. Don’t miss this incredible one-man musical! Buy tickets here.

Revisiting Top Girls with A.C.T.'s Fellows

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

By Carey Perloff

In 1982, I was an intern in the casting office at the Public Theater in New York when Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls premiered in London. One of my first assignments during my internship was to set up general auditions for the American version of the play about to be held at the Public. So it was a surreal and wonderful experience, over 30 years later, to go to A.C.T.’s Costume Shop Theater to see our own A.C.T. fellows tackle the play for their annual self-produced project. 

The cast of Top Girls dressed as women in history. Photo by Shannon Stockwell. 

Clearly, the ferocity, wit, and despair of Churchill’s feminist tale still holds, and seems to speak directly to young theater artists. I have to admit that when I first encountered the play at age 22, I was fascinated by the imaginative first act, in which intrepid women of many eras (from Pope Joan to Lady Nijo) meet for a celebratory dinner in contemporary London, and less enamored of the second part of the play, a condemnation of Thatcherite Britain. 

All these years later, Top Girls seemed more complex than I had remembered it. Marlene, the paragon of commercial success in 1980’s London, seemed sadder and more lost, despite her professional success. The arguments between her and her working-class sister seemed more nuanced and harder to resolve. Is this because we are mired in our own inequality struggles in such a visceral way today? Is it because while women’s professional success is taken more seriously today than it was when I was in my twenties, personal satisfaction and collective respect seem to remain elusive?

A.C.T.’s fellows are a remarkable bunch—they come to us from every corner of the country, with a vast range of interests and levels of experience. Their project is a chance for them to take the reins and do it all themselves, from fundraising to marketing to directing to dramaturgy to stage management to performance. 

Despite the very sober subject matter of the play (the last word of the script is “frightening”), I came away from this Top Girls feeling inspired and more than a little proud. Our fellows had taken a hugely challenging play, an impossibly short rehearsal period, a series of setbacks from losing actors to weeks of sickness in the company, and created something authentic, intelligent, and beautiful. I knew it would thrill Caryl Churchill that, well into her seventies, she was still inspiring young artists to rigorously reimagine their world. That this group of twentysomethings met the challenge with such heart and craft, while simultaneously working full days at their respective jobs at A.C.T., gave me great hope. The future of the American theater is in good hands!

The Secrets behind Benjamin Scheuer’s Tailored Performance in The Lion

Friday, April 22, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell

Benjamin Scheuer in his blue suit.
Photo by Matthew Murphy. 
For the entranced audience in The Strand Theater, Benjamin Scheuer makes The Lion seem simple—just seven guitars and a cornflower-blue suit. But there’s more to that suit than meets the eye. It’s actually tailored specifically for Ben to sit and play guitar. The sleeves are attached in two slightly different ways, so that holding the instrument feels natural. The left leg is looser so that it can move around, while the right leg is designed for supporting the guitar. “That actually comes from military and hunting tailoring,” Scheuer said in a talk with Broadway at Google. “The British tailors get it right.”

Clothing hasn’t always been so important to Scheuer. His love for sharp suits came from his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Scheuer said that, while he was receiving chemotherapy, “clothing took on this really powerful meaning for me [because] one of the only things that I could do on any given day that I had any control over at all was [getting] dressed.” At the doctor’s office, he explained, the green gowns patients had to wear felt dehumanizing. “Clothing became control. It became armor. And that still sticks with me today.”

Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion. Photo by Nilaya Sabnis. 
In addition to his performances through May 1, Scheuer is holding an open workshop on Thursday, April 28 for select singer-songwriters in the Bay Area. To observe, join us at A.C.T.’s administrative offices (30 Grant Avenue, 9th Floor, San Francisco) at 1:45 p.m. The class will start promptly at 2 p.m. Space is limited, so please RSVP to ksavage@act-sf.org to reserve your spot! For more information, check out the Facebook event

The Lion is playing at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater through May 1. Don’t miss this incredible one-man musical! Buy tickets here.

Storytelling in Chester Bailey

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

An Interview with Playwright Joseph Dougherty

By Cecilia Padilla 

When asked what he thought his play Chester Bailey was about, playwright and television writer Joseph Dougherty responded with a quote from Harold Pinter’s Old Times: “There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.” This is the undercurrent of Chester Bailey’s vivid imaginings while recovering from a tragic shipyard accident that has left him blind and without the use of his hands. But he copes with it through imagination and what he chooses to remember,” says Dougherty. “I believe part of what makes us who we are is a mixture of what we remember and what we imagine.”

We had the chance to speak with Dougherty about the mysteries of the play, the imagination, and the fine line between memory and reality. 

How did you come up with the premise of Chester Bailey?

I saw a short article in the newspaper about someone who experienced cataclysmic injuries, including loss of sight. Although doctors confirmed that the person was blind, the patient was “in denial” about what happened. I wondered what that would feel like. I began by writing some dialogue in response to the article. What I’m about to say may sound very flaky, but I just waited around for the characters to show up and start talking. Then I wrote down what they said. I think it started with Dr. Cotton telling me about the case.

Imagination plays a big role in Chester Bailey. Why is imagination an important theme for you?

There’s a hunger for narrative in every human being. We’re storytelling creatures. It’s the only thing we have over every other animal on the face of the planet. We use narrative to understand ourselves and what we experience. And sometimes we base our narratives on fiction without realizing it.

Do you think that Chester’s imagination is a positive or negative force?

In Chester’s situation, his imagination is a matter of life and death, much more so than it is for most people. It’s the thing that is sustaining him. Chester takes his own version of the story and builds a private reality. That’s why Chester carefully repeats the same details of the accident. His story may not be entirely true, but it’s exactly what he needs to hear in the moment.  And he knows he has to hang on to it.

Why did you choose to set the play in 1945?

I wanted to take away this cocoon of communication that we have right now—cell phones, wireless contact. So much of the play is about face-to-face communication, I wanted audiences to be able to concentrate on a language they might not hear on the street or read online.

Setting Chester Bailey in 1945 turns down the noise and allows the audience to sit and have an intimate experience with two characters, to lean in and hear the story. We’re all creatures telling stories by the fire. Maybe I’ll understand what you’re telling me now, or maybe I’ll remember it later and it will be of value to me long after we’ve parted. 

Chester Bailey opens May 25 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. Get your tickets here

An Interview with The Lion’s Benjamin Scheuer

Friday, April 15, 2016

By Simon Hodgson  

Benjamin Scheuer was 31 years old when The Lion (then called The Bridge) premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013. The one-man musical ran off Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2014 and 2015, earning Scheuer the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. The young New Yorker seemed like an overnight success, a charming musician with a winning smile, a gift for storytelling, and a wardrobe of sharply tailored three-piece suits.

Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion. Photo by Matthew Murphy. 

The reality was quite different. Scheuer had endured a series of setbacks—from losing his father at age of 13 to being diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma—challenges that he transformed into The Lion’s story. “Being able to take the worst parts of our lives, then using those things as a means of communication, is a kind of alchemy,” he says. We caught up with Scheuer as he was preparing to bring his award-winning show to The Strand Theater.

How did The Lion come to be?

When I’m having a bad a day, I try to write a song about it. Sometimes you can’t improve a bad day, but you can write a song about it, and suddenly, something good has come of it. So I’d written a series of autobiographical folk songs. I never intended for it to be a musical. But when I was playing these songs in coffee shops around the Village [in New York City], I didn’t know what I was going to say between the songs. I figured, well, I’ll just write that down too and memorize it.

How have your personal feelings about the themes in The Lion shifted since the show originally premiered in 2013?

Before I started performing the show, I worried that many of the things I sang about were so personal that no one was going to understand. I’ve learned that the opposite is true. The very things we think make us unlovable are so often the things that other people relate to.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. I wanted to have long hair and wear leather pants and play guitar as fast as I could. Then I came to the realization that Eddie Van Halen is already Eddie Van Halen, and he’s pretty good at it. I wanted to do something with a guitar, and I realized I’d better tell my own story.

How is musical theater evolving?

Nine Inch Nails is musical theater just as much as Guys and Dolls is. Both use music and words to capture attention, generate emotion, and tell stories. When writers acknowledge that musical theater is a methodology, rather than a genre, it frees them to create whatever they want.

Songwriting seems like a solitary process. What was it like collaborating with director Sean Daniels?

Sean Daniels is a brilliant man. If it weren’t for him, I’d still be playing in a coffee shop to four people a night. Sean challenged me to dig deeper, to tell harder truths, to say things in fewer words. He also makes a tremendous breakfast sandwich. And he can wear mismatched plaid like no one else.

Any advice for young actors, performers, and writers?

Songwriters: get a rhyming dictionary. All artists: get a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. Then try this: Write down the one thing you don’t want anyone to know about you. The single most terrifying thing. Start writing your next piece there.

Emulation is important as we learn our craft. But ultimately, we need to do our own thing. The one thing that every person can do better than anyone else is be themselves.

The Lion opens April 19 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. Get your tickets here!

A Sneak Peek of The Lion

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell

Above all else, singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer loves a good story. But despite his own folk-bluegrass acoustic style, one of his favorite genres of music is hip-hop. “It’s the most advanced kind of lyricism. These guys and girls are doing things that I aspire to do. I would love to tell these dense and complex stories.” In The Lion, Scheuer’s moving, intricate one-man musical, his aspiration is reality.

Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion. Photo by Matthew Murphy. 

Scheuer is a master storyteller with a sharp understanding of the structure of musical theater. Traditionally, every musical starts with a song that sets the scene, and the second song lets us know what the main character wants. Scheuer pointed out that the first lines of the first song in The Lion do that perfectly: “My father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs / There is nothing I want more than to play like him.” “I don’t like to waste words,” Scheuer said. “Everybody’s time is valuable, you know?”

He also understands storytelling in a technical way. A graduate of Harvard University, Scheuer spent much of his college career studying the intricacies of the classical three-act structure. “I try to incorporate that three-act structure that I’ve learned by studying theater and literature into every single song,” Scheuer said in a talk with Google. “Into each song.”

The arc of the show is built upon the Hero’s Journey, a theory of storytelling codified by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. “Structurally, I really try to be very technical,” said Scheuer. “Because the closer I stay to the technical structuralism, the farther I can go in telling my version of that.”

The Hero’s Journey, the three-act dramatic structure, and traditional musical theater—the fact these theories exist is a sign that the vast array of stories we tell are essentially the same tale. For Scheuer, the interconnectedness of stories became abundantly clear in the audience response to The Lion. “The best compliment I can get is when somebody says, ‘Hey, man, you know, your story is just like my story,’ and then they tell me this story that has nothing to do with my story,” said Scheuer. “You know, ‘My mother moved to Tennessee with my dad’s canoe and my dad and I used to canoe together.’ And I couldn’t work out why this was happening, [but] I think I have an answer. It’s not that the stuff that happens to us is the same. It’s that we pretty much feel the same way about the stuff that does happen to us. We feel alone. We feel lost. We feel loved. We feel understood by other people, by ourselves. That’s all.”

The Lion opens April 19 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. Get your tickets here!

Accepting Death in The Unfortunates

Friday, April 8, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell 

The Unfortunates is now playing at The Strand Theater and closes April 10. Get tickets here!

In The Unfortunates, Big Joe goes from being utterly terrified of death to accepting it with bravery. For human beings, learning how to accept our own death is one of the most difficult things we can do—so difficult, in fact, that some believe we are completely incapable of it. Freud said, “It is impossible to imagine our own deaths.” But there are those who believe that accepting death is not only doable, but the key to living the happiest life possible: “We cannot live authentically and meaningfully without embracing death,” says psychologist Paul T. P. Wong.

(L-R): CJ (Christopher Livingston), Big Joe (Ian Merrigan), and Coughlin (Jon Beavers)
face their deaths in The Unfortunates. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Several theories have been proposed about the ways in which humans approach death. Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance. In The Unfortunates, Big Joe goes through all of these stages: He denies his feelings of grief by flexing his big fists. He bargains for Rae’s life with Stack by betting on a game of craps to win the money to get her medicine. He goes through bouts of extreme depression. His anger comes through when he attacks the Rooks, and when he tries to kill the Doctor at the end of the play. As in Kübler-Ross’s theory, Joe’s journey finally ends in acceptance of death—his own as well as his friends’.

According to Wong, there are three different ways people can come to embrace death. “Approach Acceptance” is the belief that whatever comes after death will be pleasant—this is the religious approach, a belief in a joyful afterlife. There is also “Escape Acceptance,” which is the belief that, no matter what death is, it will be less painful than the life currently being lived. This is the form of acceptance associated with suicides. The third type, “Neutral Acceptance,” is rare. Neutral Acceptance is when a person simply accepts that death is the inevitable end of life. Wong identifies Neutral Acceptance as the ideal way in which to become comfortable with death.

The way to achieve Neutral Acceptance, Wong maintains, is “to focus on the immediate task and live a meaningful life. . . . When one has found something worth dying for, one is no longer afraid of death.” At the end of The Unfortunates, Rae echoes this when she tells Joe, “There was never a way to save me. Not forever. It’s about what we do with the time that we have.”

But what exactly is a meaningful life? The Unfortunates seems to say that the most you can do with your life is to love as much as you can. In response to the question—“Why do we love and how do we live / When we’re waiting to die?”—Joe says, simply, “Love is how we live when we’re dying.” And the answer to why we love while we’re waiting to die seems to be that . . . we just do. It’s the only thing that keeps us sane. 

To read more about the acceptance of death 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. 

Rooks and Plagues in The Unfortunates

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell 

The Unfortunates is now playing at The Strand Theater and closes April 10. Get tickets here!

Everybody dies. It’s a fact of life. Most of us can set aside this truth to get on with our lives and avoid despair, but eventually, we will all have a moment where we must come face to face with our mortality. The Unfortunates tells the story of such a moment: Big Joe must confront the inescapable reality of death—and he must come to terms with it quickly, because the enemy is aiming his gun at Joe’s head.

A copper engraving of a seventeenth-century plague doctor, by Paul Fürst, circa 1656.

In the dream world of The Unfortunates, one of the most potent symbols of death is the plague. It is telling that, although Joe is in the midst of a war in the real world, his subconscious invents a pandemic. Wars and plagues are often thought of in similar terms; one is often used as a metaphor for the other. We talk about the “war” on AIDS, or an enemy’s ideology “infecting” our people. But the two are very different in significant ways, the largest being that war is human driven, but plague comes from uncontrollable biology. It could be argued that war is preventable, but disease is inevitable. In this way, the Unfortunates plague becomes a metaphor for death itself—it’s inescapable. The fervor with which Joe chases after the cure for the plague shows just how much he wants to avoid facing more death.

In The Unfortunates, the heralds of the plague are the Rooks, also important symbols of death, and particularly antagonistic ones at that. The Rooks look like CJ and Coughlin—Joe’s friends in the real world whom he watched the enemy kill. Simply by looking like his dead friends, the Rooks remind Joe of his failings as a human being: he convinced his friends to risk their lives and sign up for the war, and now he can’t even take a bullet without pleading for his own life. He’s a coward, the Rooks tell him.

The Rooks’ costumes are reminiscent of death. They are partially based on the outfits worn by seventeenth-century doctors who treated the bubonic plague. These consisted of wide-brimmed hats, long robes, and beaklike masks. The masks were filled with strong-smelling herbs, which protected the doctors against bad smells, which, they believed, carried disease. In the seventeenth century, these doctors were seen as benevolent figures of good health, but as time went on, it became clear that they were unable to cure the bubonic plague, and today, the outfits are seen as symbols of death and disease.

The Rooks tell Joe everything a dying person doesn’t want to hear—he’s a coward, he’s going to die alone, and, most awfully, no one will remember him after he’s gone. This may get to the root of the terror; as sociologist Joseph A. Scimecca says, what people fear most is not extinction itself, but “extinction without meaning.”

To read more about rooks and death 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. 

Small Talk in The Realistic Joneses

Friday, April 1, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell

The Realistic Joneses runs until April 3 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. 

Jennifer and Bob Jones sit outside their house, talking to each other. Well, it seems like they’re talking, at least by the modern definition of “talking.” Their mouths are moving and their vocal cords are vibrating and one makes a sound that the other hears, interprets, and responds to. But despite the outward appearance that they are, in fact, talking, Jennifer remains unconvinced. “We’re—I don’t know—sort of throwing words at each other,” she says.

Jennifer Jones (Rebecca Watson) and Bob Jones (Rod Gnapp)
try to have a conversation about Bob's deteriorating health.
Photo by Kevin Berne. 
The characters in The Realistic Joneses throw words at each other for the entire play, and the other party often fails to catch them. Questions are asked and remain unanswered. Words are misinterpreted. Topics are dropped. Stutters and false starts abound. It feels as though, for all their existential dread, these characters can’t pull themselves away from small talk in order to get at the bigger fears that pervade their lives.

What exactly is small talk? The academic term is “phatic communication,” which was coined by sociologist Bronisław Malinowski in 1923. Phatic communication, he explains, is when words are exchanged but no particularly important information is conveyed. For example, you might be compelled to comment to a person standing next to you, “It’s so cold today.” The person likely knows that it is cold. No new information is exchanged. But you say it anyway. Why?

Malinowski says, “To a natural man, another man’s silence is not a reassuring factor, but on the contrary, something alarming and dangerous. . . . The breaking of silence, the communion of words is the first act to establish links of fellowship. . . . The modern English expression, ‘Nice day to-day’ [is] needed to get over the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence.”

These thoughts were inspiration for Eno as he wrote the play. In an interview with Playbill, he said of The Realistic Joneses, “I wonder, I assume that everyone must have some little moment once in a while where they think what a strange thing this all is, that we have words and there didn’t used to be words and somebody made up all these words and now they’re pouring out of my mouth and I’m telling you what it’s like inside me. And I’m probably not getting close to describing it, but close enough that you can hear it and have some other opinion and respond with how it is inside you.”

“You don’t get what I’m saying,” says John to Bob in The Realistic Joneses. “Not your fault. Words don’t really do it for me anymore, anyway. It’s all just bodies and light.”

To learn more about small talk in The Realistic Joneses, 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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