A Q&A with Love and a Bottle Director Nancy Benjamin

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A.C.T.'s M.F.A. Program 2016 Production of Love and a Bottle.
 By Stephanie Wilborn

Love and a Bottle, the latest production from A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program, opens on October 5 at The Strand Theater. Stephanie Wilborn, Education & Community Programs Fellow, sat down for a Q&A with director Nancy Benjamin to discuss Declan Hughes’s adaptation of George Farquhar’s 1697 comedy Love and a Bottle and the complexity of directing a play within a play.

Why did you choose to direct Love and a Bottle?

I saw the play performed in 1992, produced by an Irish company called Rough Magic, a very feminist company. I had never seen this period of theater [late seventeenth century] done in that kind of way. It was fantastic.

Do you believe the way women are treated in this play has any relation to the way women are treated today?

Farquhar, in his own time, was challenging the story that we tell ourselves that “boys will be boys” and women are property. Farquhar saw that and turned it on its head, taking it so far that we are shocked by the violence and the abuse. It reminds me of when I was a kid, hearing the old fairytales about the idiot who finds the golden goose and gets the princess, while she has no say in the matter. Or how Cinderella wins a prince at the ball based on her beauty alone. But we understand now that this is not okay. I think it’s amazing that Farquhar in 1697 was essentially questioning the fairytale that everybody was putting onstage at that time.

Can you describe the heightened language and style of Love and a Bottle?

With heightened language we need to get rid of all notions of style. Because style leads us into false play, causing us to present attitudes rather than people. One of the things I loved about the production that I saw was the rawness and the immediacy of all the characters. They were completely modern—the only difference [between them and us] was their word choice. The characters say things in a way that’s different from the way we would, but the actors find the energy of that speech without adopting a tone or a style of playing. My goal is to get rid of style so there is no separation between the play’s world and our world.

How do you differentiate between the two worlds: the world of Farquhar’s protagonist, Lyrick, who is a young dramatist struggling to write a play, and the world of the play he himself creates within Farquhar’s play?

This is the central challenge of this play. We’ve placed Lyrick on a different platform from Roebuck and the other characters he creates, so when he’s describing the action, those characters enter the space and he tells them what to do. We’re trying to establish for the audience that this man is creating the characters we see. When his landlady comes in, she walks through all of those characters without seeing them, making it clear that the world he’s imagining is not the real world.

The play that Lyrick writes remains unfinished in some ways. Why do you think that is?

He has to stop the story. The story is wrong. That’s the big message we want to convey: Roebuck takes control of the story, and Lyrick realizes it was the wrong story to tell. We just don’t tell stories about women being abused and abandoned. We don’t tell stories about betraying men and calling women whores. If we try, we realize that we’ve messed up in a big way and the story should not, and cannot, be finished.

Love and a Bottle is playing October 5–8 at The Rueff at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here for tickets.

Strong Women: Kate Middleton in King Charles III

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell

During A.C.T.'s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In King Charles III, running through October 9, Kate Middleton tries to establish her place in a kingdom run by men, both in the palace and in parliament.

Because of this, critics and audiences alike have compared Kate to Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. While playwright Mike Bartlett did not actually intend this likeness, the parallels are remarkable.
Left: Ellen Terry playing Lady Macbeth. By Window & Grove. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 
Right: Kate Middleton. By Nick Warner. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the titular character receives a prophecy that he will become king. For him to take the throne, however, the current king must die. Lady Macbeth, whom Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber calls “the strongest character in the play,” knows that her husband doesn’t have the courage to kill the king, so she pushes him to carry out the murder and then helps him hide the evidence.

Macbeth is largely a rumination on the effects of guilt, but in the beginning of the play, Garber says that we see in Lady Macbeth “rigidity, resolution, and the rejection of a restricted notion of a woman’s place.” Garber gleans this from lines such as “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty” and “Come to my woman’s breasts, / And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers.”

Lady Macbeth’s rejection of femininity casts a fascinating light on Kate’s soliloquy in King Charles III. Kate recognizes that her femininity dehumanizes her: she is a “plastic doll,” created by the male gaze, whose only purpose is to produce an heir to the British throne. But despite the effect her femininity has on the way she is perceived by the public, she ultimately embraces it. Because no one cares what she thinks, she realizes she can spend her time observing and learning how to be an effective queen. That way, when it comes time for her to take action, she will know exactly what to do and will “be a queen unlike the ones before.” Instead of calling upon masculinity to make her strong, as Lady Macbeth does, Kate accepts the position in which her femininity places her.

A.C.T.’s production of King Charles III runs through October 9. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the relationship between Shakespeare and King Charles III? Click here to purchase Words on Plays.

Love: Tom Stoppard's Preoccupation

Friday, September 23, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff at the first rehearsal for The Hard Problem.
Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
"It's a fascinating thing to have a long, ongoing relationship with a writer," said A.C.T.'s Artistic Director Carey Perloff at the first rehearsal for Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem. "What you realize is that everybody has their own life preoccupations, and they make art in order to try and wrestle with them."

The Hard Problem is the eleventh Stoppard play Perloff has directed at A.C.T., giving her a unique perspective on this playwright's work. In her view, one of Stoppard's preoccupations is the nature of love. "In Arcadia, he toys with the way in which love is an anarchic emotion that spreads chaos amongst seemingly reasonable people. People don't always act in their own reasonable interests because love enters the universe, and then all hell breaks loose."

"In this play, The Hard Problem, love is particularly focused on mother love. The question of what mother love is, and why that's so profound and why the protagonist, Hilary, can't get over it. Another character, Spike, says that mother love is just 'mother maximizing gene potential.' And he is unbelievably embarrassed at the thought that there is actually a real thing—maternal love—that trumps neuro-scientific analysis."

In The Hard Problem, Stoppard even extends his preoccupation with love to the financial markets and the 2008 crash. "Woven into this question about consciousness is a question about the financial markets and why all these brilliant psychometric, algorithm-driving quants were unable to figure out the market was going crazy. He finally says, 'It's like falling in love.' It's like the market has fallen in love, and the market that behaved predictably has now gone haywire."

"I think Tom's a little bit of an anarchist at heart, and he's really interested in chaos, and chaos comes from internal emotional chaos, that comes from love and desire and sexuality."

The Hard Problem begins October 19 and runs through November 13. Click here to purchase tickets.

Royal Power in King Charles III

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell 

King Charles III, opening tonight at The Geary Theater, features a king at loggerheads with his ministers. But when did power shift from the British monarch to his ministers?

The Palace of Westminster. By Rennett Stowe. 
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
It began with George I (1714–27) who relied heavily on his cabinet to help him rule because he did not speak English. After he began to distance himself from his cabinet, he had almost no role in the development of laws.

Because George I wasn’t involved in making laws, he couldn’t reasonably be held responsible for the outcomes of those laws. This actually solved one of the fundamental problems of the monarchy: opinions, by their nature, can be wrong, but a monarch was meant to never be wrong. If a monarch had opinions, how could he or she be prevented from making mistakes? The answer was that by disconnecting himself from policy making, George I could never be mistaken; instead, his ministers took responsibility. This convention supported the concept of the infallibility of the sovereign.

It wasn’t until Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837 that the idea of an apolitical monarch became solidified. In fact, it was largely her husband, Prince Albert, who introduced the idea of a monarch staying above party politics. It’s not that Albert believed the sovereign should be apolitical or uninvolved with politics; he simply believed that if people saw the monarch as a neutral figure, uninfluenced by political bias, he or she would be that much more trustworthy.

In holding this view, Albert was trying to strengthen the influence of the monarchy, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. From political neutrality grew the convention that the monarch should never mention his or her political opinions in public. Because of this, the public believes that the monarch has no political effect whatsoever.

But that’s not necessarily true. Queen Elizabeth II has weekly private meetings with the prime minister, which no one else is permitted to attend. The meetings are unrecorded and extremely confidential. British constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor says, “It is . . . because relations between sovereign and a prime minister must remain confidential that it is impossible ever to form an accurate estimate of the influence of the current sovereign.”

Today, it is definitely considered unconstitutional for the British monarch to publicly express a political opinion. But there’s no constitutional convention that prescribes how the heir to the throne should behave.

A.C.T.’s production of King Charles III opens tonight and runs through October 9. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the relationship between the king and his ministers, along with other articles about the cultural and historical context of the play? Click here to purchase Words on Plays.

Behind the Scenes at A.C.T.: An Interview with Jack Sharrar, Director of Academic Affairs

Thursday, September 15, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

Dr. Jack Sharrar. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
Amid the hustle and bustle of A.C.T.’s Conservatory offices, Dr. Jack Sharrar’s office stands as a beacon of tranquility. From this den of books murmurs the soothing strains of classical string quartets or Brazilian guitar music. We sat down with him at the start of another busy academic year to discuss his role, his favorite productions, and his 27-year relationship with A.C.T.

How would you describe your job?
I wear a lot of different hats. My title is Director of Academic Affairs. I also serve as a registrar for the M.F.A. Program and the accreditation liaison officer with WASC [Western Association of Schools and Colleges]. And I teach in the M.F.A. Program and the San Francisco Semester. I’ve been here since the summer of 1989. Initially I was working in publications and press, and teaching in the Young Conservatory.

Tell us about one of the classes that you teach.
I teach “The Glorious Ones” and we focus on Shakespeare and commedia dell’arte. “The Glorious Ones” is the title of a short novel by Francine Prose about a traveling group of commedia players. It was also adapted into a musical, and one of our graduates in the M.F.A. Program, Julyana Soelistyo, appeared in it at Lincoln Center and in London playing the role of Armanda Ragusa. She’s also appeared on our mainstage in Golden Child and The Orphan of Zhao.

What’s your favorite time of A.C.T.’s season?
For anybody in education, your clock revolves around fall, when students come back to campus. It’s like a little homecoming every year for the students before they move on to the next experience in their lives. So I would say that fall is the most exciting, but that would be followed by our callback weekend in late February/early March where we bring in the final candidates for the M.F.A. Program.

What are your favorite productions from your 27 years at A.C.T.?
Oh my gosh, there are so many. Enrico IV—a Pirandello play with Marco Barricelli—has always stood out in my mind. Right Mind is the very first show that I saw here and it was quite spectacular. It was destroyed by the earthquake. Jack Fletcher’s Caribbean Twelfth Night was a delightful romp. Shockheaded Peter, too, is vivid in my mind. And Carey Perloff’s beautiful production of Indian Ink.

What advice to do you give to these young actors and performers?

I use this quote from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in all my emails: “Our doubts are traitors / And make us lose the good we oft might win / By fearing to attempt.” Quite often in emails I write “Onward.” In other words, you always need to move forward. Follow your passion and try to overcome the obstacles that may be in your way. But stick to it, that’s the important thing.

Tabloids and the British Royal Family

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

In A.C.T.’s production of King Charles III, beginning tomorrow at The Geary Theater, the British royal family face what some consider their greatest nemesis: the British press. Here is a short history of their fraught relationship.

In the 1980s, the UK’s tabloid press was emboldened by its own success. Print runs were up, sex was selling, and the Sun newspaper was flush with the confidence of backing a political winner, after switching sides at the 1979 general election from the Labour Party to support Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Meanwhile, the royal family, so long considered untouchable, had gradually lost the goodwill it had built up during World War II. The Windsors were now fair game. And with a fresh–faced generation of princes and princesses getting divorced, Fleet Street smacked its lips.

British Tabloids. Photo by Graham Holliday, 2011. Courtesy of Flickr.
“The royal family’s popularity started to decline,” says King Charles III playwright Mike Bartlett, “when the generation of Edward, Anne, Andrew, and Charles got married, and then those marriages started to collapse. They collapsed in the way that any marriage would collapse. The decline was also down to the royal family making poor choices in how they presented themselves, with things like It’s a Royal Knockout [a dignity-destroying television fund–raiser, featuring royals in medieval costumes]. They started to look like an ancient, outdated joke.”

Over the next 25 years, the royal family would be slowly eviscerated, a death by a thousand cuttings by the British tabloids. Prince Andrew would be ridiculed for his marriage to rambunctious redhead Sarah Ferguson, who would later draw her own headlines for her relationships with various American lovers. Prince Harry would be excoriated by the Sun as “Harry the Nazi” after appearing in a poorly judged costume for a private party. And Prince Charles, the hapless, balding heir to the throne, would be derided as a loveless husband, labeled as a feckless father, and then cuckolded by his beautiful young wife Diana across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

Royal kiss–and–tell stories in the tabloids continued to draw millions of readers in the late ’90s, but the tide of public opinion was about to swing against the press. In 1997, Princess Diana was killed in a car accident. Despite her string of affairs while married to Prince Charles, the princess was popular with tabloid readers thanks to her humanitarian work, her relaxed manner with ordinary people, and her photogenic looks. When the inquest was held after Diana’s death, the blame was directed partly at her drunken chauffeur and partly at the pursuing pack of press photographers and paparazzi.

Bartlett’s choice of press freedom as one of King Charles III’s critical issues shows a nuanced understanding of British culture. Even if Charles himself has suffered at the hands of the tabloids, his character in the play recognizes the need for free speech. But in the last act, the tragic hero fails to resolve the issue of privacy and press freedom. He takes a brave and lonely stand, but will the weight of parliamentary tradition, together with opposition within his family, unite to thwart his vision of tolerance and trust?

A.C.T.’s production of King Charles III runs from September 14 to October 9. Click here to purchase tickets. For more on the British tabloid press, along with other articles about the cultural and historical context of the play, purchase Words on Plays.

Meet King Charles III Playwright Mike Bartlett: Part Two

Thursday, September 8, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

“You can feel it oozing Shakespearean complications," says playwright Mike Bartlett about his play King Charles III, which begins performances at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater on September 14. Over the summer, we caught up with Bartlett to talk about form, pentameter, and King Charles III.

Set model, by scenic designer Daniel Ostling, for 
A.C.T.'s 2016 production of King Charles III. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
Your play has echoes of several Shakespeare plays. How conscious were you of those resonances, and how deliberately did that influence the language?

It was a very conscious decision to write it in a Shakespearean form. The idea that Charles would become king and would refuse to sign a bill into law came at the same time as the idea of writing a Shakespearean–style play. When I started to write it, I mainly had to practice how to write in this form. What I didn’t do was sit down and study my Shakespeare and go through his plays and deliberately add references. I’ve been brought up on Shakespeare. In Britain, you study his work from the age of 13 all the way through high school, and then I studied it at university, and I’ve seen lots of productions. Any references that come through in the writing instinctively are great, but this wasn’t an academic exercise where I cut and pasted. I was more interested in the dramatic principles of Shakespeare than clever references.

What kind of dramatic principles?

A five–act structure and a central tragic archetypal figure. And a slightly comic subplot written in prose that’s thematically linked to the main plot, which is written in verse—that’s another Shakespearean technique.

How did you write the blank verse?

I knew that I didn’t want to sit there counting the syllables on my fingers, desperately cramming the words into the right places. I went to see Ken Campbell a few years ago—he was an improv genius who’s passed away now—and he said that, in Shakespeare’s day, playwrights wrote speeches in iambic pentameter so that actors could remember them more easily and hold multiple parts in their memories. When the playwrights wrote those plays, the meter was in their bones. The meter wouldn’t be an academic thing. It would just be instinct. So I thought, “I need to practice that instinct. I wrote lines and lines of iambic pentameter, speaking it round the house to myself, trying to get to the point where I might be able to improvise the verse fluidly, hoping that if I could, the writing would be driven by the desires and thoughts of the characters, rather than aesthetics or metric requirements.

How does the verse affect the storytelling?

It’s a way of writing kings and queens that feels appropriate. If you write them speaking as we speak, it sounds reductive, as though you were mocking them. But if they speak in verse, their language has a more formal rhythm and a heightened vocabulary. Also, verse compresses meaning down. You can get more meaning into three words of verse than you can in three lines of prose. The verse is all in service of story and character. It’s never there to be beautiful poetry. I believe that’s also true with Shakespeare. The audience should never sit there going, “Wasn’t the writer of this poetry wonderful?” They should always be thinking, “What does this character want?”

King Charles III opens on September 14 and runs through October 9. Click here to purchase tickets. Read more of our interview with Bartlett, along with other articles about the historical and cultural context of this play, in Words on Plays, arriving soon!

Meet King Charles III Playwright Mike Bartlett: Part One

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

Mike Bartlett, playwright of King Charles III, which opens at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater on September 14, is known for constantly playing with form.

His plays Cock and Bull are pieces written for four actors. They are nasty, brutish, and short—crucibles of emotional entanglement, rage, and helplessness. Earthquakes in London, Bartlett’s epic exploration of climate change, features a running time of more than three hours, a scope of five centuries, and a cast of more than 15. King Charles III, meanwhile, takes on the trappings of Elizabethan theater and Shakespearean language to investigate the relationship the British people have with the royal family.

King Charles III Playwright Mike Bartlett.
When asked what makes a Mike Bartlett play so powerful, King Charles III director David Muse says, “Summing up Mike Bartlett’s work is tricky because the form that his plays take are so incredibly varied. In fact, that’s one of the defining characteristics of his work.”

“One of my criteria in choosing projects,” says Bartlett, “is to do something completely new and surprising that keeps my interest and hopefully keeps the interest of an audience. Audiences are very sophisticated now, [which comes] from watching dramatic narratives on television and in theater. They’re used to form changing all the time in the drama, the characters, even the theater space itself.”

From climate change to corporate bullying, from fathers’ rights to modern masculinity, Bartlett addresses challenging contemporary subjects that are resolutely political. “Try being a writer without being political,” he says wryly. “You couldn’t do it. Politics infuses every generation. Every play I write is political by its nature. The only thing I’ve tried to avoid doing is to fix myself in a particular political place. That’s not why people go to plays, to hear me talk about my own politics. But I would struggle to write a play that didn’t feature money, society, and politics, because life always contains those things.”

King Charles III opens on September 14 and runs through October 9. Click here to purchase tickets. Read more about playwright Mike Bartlett, along with other articles about the historical and cultural context of this play, in Words On Plays, arriving soon!

Which British Royal Are You?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

By Publications Staff

Before you come see A.C.T.’s production of King Charles III, beginning September 14 at The Geary Theater, meet the members of the British royal family.

The British Royal Family, August 2012. 
Photo By Ben. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Queen Elizabeth II
Britain’s longest reigning queen; she has been ruling steadily for 64 years. She embodies tradition and duty. She is also known for her dry sense of humor.

Prince Charles
The eldest child of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. A patient yet somewhat eccentric gentleman, he’s been waiting to be king for over 60 years!

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall
Wife of Prince Charles. She is more reserved than her husband, rarely giving interviews.

Prince William
The first child of Charles and Diana, and second in line to the throne. Like his grandmother, he values duty and tradition.  

Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge
Wife of Prince William. A style icon—when she wears something, it sells out. Along with her husband, Kate is modernizing the monarchy.

Prince Harry
The second child of Charles and Diana. He is very sporty; he likes to play polo and founded the Invictus Games, a sporting competition for wounded veterans.

George and Charlotte
The children of Prince William and Kate Middleton. They are adorable and, according to their parents, feisty and a bit of a handful.

So, are you a Charles, a Kate, or a Harry? See which member of the British royal family you are with this quiz!

King Charles III begins September 14 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets.
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