The Cast of Top of the Pyramid Talks Back

Friday, July 29, 2016

by Simon Hodgson

What happens when you combine a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a new theatrical space, and a crew of talented young actors? You get Top of the Pyramid, a world premiere by playwright Nikkole Salter now playing at The Strand. After Tuesday’s opening night success, the cast followed Wednesday evening’s performance with a fascinating postshow talkback. Not only did the entire audience stay to ask questions, but the process really brought out the structural strengths of this collaborative project.

The cast of A.C.T.'s production of Top of the Pyramid. Photo by Jay Yamada.

The storyline in Top of the Pyramid follows three African American girls who join a new, mostly white high school and enroll in the cheerleading squad. While the play follows the three friends as they try (with varying levels of humor and humility) to adapt to a different school culture, the subplot seethes with suppressed resentment, hurtful misinformation, and outright discrimination. As the cheerleading squad works toward its grand performance, the tension rises in the group until tempers fray, fists fly, and all the students are forced to recognize their true selves.

What the postshow discussion really illustrated was how the narrative of the play mirrored the collaborative nature of this project. Just as the story focused on the creativity created by mixing different groups, A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory Director Craig Slaight built the cast for this Collaborative Youth Arts Project (CYAP) by bringing together actors from three sources: our Education & Community Programs, the YC, and Destiny Arts in Oakland.

After the show the performers stepped forward to introduce themselves. The age of the actors varied from fourteen to twenty. They came from a range of places: Skyline High School in Oakland, Tam High in Mill Valley, college in San Francisco. Some were participating because they’d seen audition forms posted in their schools, some found out about the project through the YC, three had performed in last year’s CYAP, Snakes. One young actor related her own experience of switching schools and transitioning to a new cheerleading squad.

As the audience listened to the cast members’ different stories, one common thread emerged—the performers’ overriding passion for the play. The actors were exhilarated to work so closely with Salter, to see the way a script evolved, and to bring to life a brand new play. But beyond that, they were impressively aware of the play’s message.

Community Artistic Director Tyrone Davis, the play’s director, spent time during rehearsal discussing the issues and giving his actors an opportunity to develop their own perspective as they worked on their characterizations. “As a director I’m big on ensemble building,” he says. “I’m letting them know that this is not separate from what’s going on now. It’s about race. It’s about education. You don’t have to be in the Deep South to have those experiences—that kind of micro-aggression is present everywhere. I wanted them to understand it. To analyze it. Every character in the play has a point of view. It’s important to provide depth to all those characters.”

A.C.T. is telling important stories, whether it’s in productions developed by our Education & Community Programs or in shows commissioned for our Young Conservatory. Top of the Pyramid is just the latest in a line of powerful plays that includes the recent Crack. Rumble. Fly: The Bayview Stories Project as well as last year’s Snakes. At a time when the nationwide divide between communities can seem overwhelming, A.C.T. is commissioning, creating, and presenting work that bridges those gaps, showing us both who we are, and who we can become.

Top of the Pyramid runs through July 30 at The Rueff in The Strand Theater in San Francisco, and August 5–6 at Destiny Arts in Oakland.

Young Bay Area Actors Unite for World Premiere—Top of the Pyramid

Friday, July 22, 2016

by Elspeth Sweatman

American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of Top of the Pyramid—by Pulitzer Prize–nominated playwright Nikkole Salter—explores the challenges faced by a group of friends outside Ferguson, Missouri. When their school loses its accreditation, these high-school students are thrust into a school in a more affluent district. Will they find themselves at the bottom of the pyramid? Will they have a choice?

The cast of Top of the Pyramid in rehearsal. Photo by Tyrone Davis.

The genesis for this production began back in October 2015 at Every 28 Hours, a one-minute play festival in Ferguson. After the festival, playwright Salter discussed the ongoing issues of school integration and social unrest with A.C.T. Community Artistic Director Tyrone Davis. In February 2016, A.C.T. commissioned Salter to write a play for the Collaborative Youth Arts Project, an initiative uniting young actors from three groups: A.C.T.’s Education & Community Programs, our Young Conservatory, and Destiny Arts in Oakland.

Although inspired by this festival in Ferguson and the city’s position at the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter campaign, Top of the Pyramid provides a lens through which these young Bay Area actors can investigate the issues of inclusion, social justice, and understanding in their own communities. “I keep telling them,” director Davis says, “this is bigger than a play. This is more than a summer program. This is real life.”

Top of the Pyramid is running at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater from July 26–30, and at Destiny Arts in Oakland from August 5–6. Click here to purchase tickets.

Preparing for The Hard Problem with Tom Stoppard

Friday, July 15, 2016

by Carey Perloff

The grass, a shade of green unimaginable anywhere except on the British Isles, beckoned outside the window of Tom Stoppard’s extraordinary book-lined study in Dorset as we set off on two days of exhaustive work on his new play The Hard Problem, which we’re bringing to A.C.T. this fall.

Tom Stoppard and Carey Perloff
What continues to amaze me about Stoppard, with whom I have worked nearly a dozen times now, is his willingness to rewrite, reimagine, rethink, while always staying absolutely true to his own voice and his first instincts. Over a long weekend in Dorset, we went through every line of The Hard Problem, trying to tease out the balance of science and faith, intellect and instinct. I was wrestling with the character of Spike and what he actually felt for the protagonist, Hilary; Tom hilariously tried to explain to me the difference between a bed partner and a boyfriend, and argued for the obsessive love of science which seems to cloud the rest of Spike’s mind. But he was willing to dive into the Venice hotel room scene in the play and bracket a whole chunk of scientific argument, considering whether that excision would allow the warmth between the two of them to better emerge.

We talked about how to make it clearer that the global economy is in free fall by the end of the play, we spoke about hedge funds and brain science and altruism and whether goodness actually exists. He explained puns and jokes I might have missed, lamented that certain moments he was sure would be funny had turned out to be mystifying, and told me a beautiful story about how he had come up with the idea of Hilary’s “shame baby” and her grief about the adoption of her child.

Meanwhile we watched videos on my phone of the auditions I’d just held in New York, and he responded with pleasure to the sight of American actors taking on his play. We looked at preliminary set designs by Drew Boyce and mused about how “consciousness” might be represented visually. When we got exhausted, we went for walks across the Dorset meadows, up to a farm shop where Tom has befriended the proprietor. He bought fresh bread and begged her to re-order his favorite candy.

This is a man of nearly eighty years old who exists primarily on cigarettes, coffee, candy, and cookies, but retains a level of curiosity and engagement with the world that's hard to imagine in someone half his age. He is delighted that The Hard Problem will be on the Geary stage, one of his all-time favorite theaters, and is planning to take up residence in San Francisco for three weeks in October with his wonderful new wife Sabrina to participate in the rehearsal process.

As exhausting as it was to fly all that way for two days of work and then back to California, it was also a beautifully pure weekend, because Tom’s concentration is so acute. Since there was practically no internet access in the house and Tom wouldn’t use it even if there were, we weren’t distracted. We just talked. And talked. And talked. Outside, the birds chirped and the weather changed and the world got greener and greener in this little piece of heaven.

A Summer of Citizen Artistry

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

By Akilah Walker, A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program Class of 2017

Staying in the Bay Area this summer has possibly been one of the best decisions I’ve made since coming to A.C.T. I had the opportunity to work with A.C.T. first at a two-week residency at La Clínica (a health center serving two public schools in East Oakland, Roots International Academy and Coliseum College Prep Academy) and then with A.C.T. Stage Coach’s production of Crack. Rumble. Fly.

During the two-week residency at La Clínica, I co-taught two classes back to back. Each class was made up of 20 sixth-grade students—most of whom were Spanish speakers for whom English is a second language—and was 30 minutes long. To most teachers, 30 minutes of class time would sound like a breeze, but for acting—which is extremely improvisational in nature—time constraints like these called for intense preparation to make sure Alec MacPherson (my co-teacher) and I would be able to optimize students’ time while also respecting their learning rate.

As it turned out, we had to modify our plans on a daily basis. The first few days, the students were curious, but also very timid, so it took some coaxing to get them to participate. When this happened, Alec and I would have to quickly decide to play another theater game the students felt more comfortable with, or we would have to give examples ourselves of how to play fearlessly.

On one occasion, the students expressed interest in hearing more about our lives in theater, so we set aside our original plan of playing an interactive game. After we shared our stories, I noticed a shift in their behavior. Many of the students were more vocal about their interests in pursuing careers in theater and asked more questions about how the games related back to the field of acting.

Throughout the class, many of the students would speak Spanish to one another and sometimes ask us to speak Spanish to them. I was fascinated and delighted by the students’ ability to code switch so fluidly. At first I was intimidated, because I only speak a limited amount of Spanish, but I thought it was extremely important for me to try my best to incorporate the Spanish that I knew when requested. It was also visibly appreciated by the students, who would often give me a head nod or a high five of approval when I was able to do that.

I watched the students gain confidence with each passing class. By the end, many of them were jumping up to volunteer and encouraging each other to participate.

This was one of the first times I’ve worked with students who didn’t choose to be in a drama class. The students informed us that they had only seen one play in their lives—a production of Aladdin that came to their school. Teaching students who had almost no theater experience reminded me how important it is to share theater with communities. I know how positively transformative theater is, so I’m invigorated to continue to do work within communities like the one at La Clínica and to spread the good word about what it is that theater artists do.

The next project I worked on this summer on was the A.C.T. Stage Coach production of Crack. Rumble. Fly.: The Bayview Stories Project. For this project, A.C.T. commissioned playwright Aleshea Harris to write a play about Bayview–Hunters Point, a historically black neighborhood in San Francisco whose residents are gradually being displaced due to gentrification.

Akilah Walker and Mary Booker in A.C.T's production
of Aleshea Harris's Crack. Rumble. Fly., performed
at Mendell Plaza in San Francisco's Bayview
neighborhood. Photo by Haley Seppa.
Harris conceived the play after she listened to story circles in which Bayview–Hunters Point community members came together with A.C.T. staff and students to share their stories about their lives in the Bayview and their experiences of gentrification. I had the honor of sitting in on one of these story circles. In that room, we were able to aid in the process of healing for the community. We all came into that room with heavy, burdened hearts, feeling powerless—but we left with hope. We came into that room as people from different walks of life—but we left in solidarity because we had shared with each other. We cried, we laughed, we performed, and we listened. It was the beginning of theater.

After the story circles were complete and the play was written, my next task was to come on to the project as an understudy for the main character, Mother Marsha. Mother Marsha was played by Mary Booker, a pillar in the Bayview community, an actress and a pioneer of the theater scene there. Because of Booker’s age—she’s in her mid 80s—A.C.T. asked me to be an understudy who would accompany her onstage and help her with her lines if she needed any assistance. But during rehearsals, my role transformed into a new character in the play: a spirit who guided Mother Marsha. I was thrilled to be playing alongside a woman who held so much respect in her community.

We presented Crack. Rumble. Fly. on the A.C.T. Stage Coach mobile unit in Mendell Plaza as part of a Bayview Arts Festival. It was thrilling to perform in the center of the neighborhood that our story was about. Seeing the faces and hearing the responses of the people witnessing our play was a humbling experience. Though there were some minor missteps along the way and in performance, as there are in any process, we were able to tell a story that people could connect with.

For me, working with La Clínica and on Crack. Rumble. Fly. reiterated the necessity of connecting with others and the importance of serving the community in which you live. It taught me that the best way to feel empowered is to empower someone else. I was able to give my time, energy, creativity, and love to two communities, and they gave the same things back to me and to the people around them. I witnessed the power of theater as a tool for change, whether it was bringing confidence and curiosity to middle school students or inspiring a community to take back and reclaim the place they live. I learned about how to truly lead by having a vision and encouraging people to jump on board and enhance that vision. After having these experiences, I feel prepared to do more work like this in the future. I’m confident in and inspired about community-based theater and learning, and I can’t wait to embark on my next journey in this arena.
Welcome to the A.C.T. social community blog!
Join in the conversation, engage with fellow theater lovers, and enjoy amazing offers throughout the season.