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Showing posts from October, 2016

Stoppard and Zombies: A.C.T.'s The Hard Problem

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By Elspeth Sweatman

Imagine someone who looks exactly like you, dresses like you, walks like you. He says the same things you would say, answers questions with the same answers, and makes decisions using the same logic. His body is built in the exact same way. His brain is a mirror image of yours. The only thing he is missing is consciousness. Meet the philosophical zombie.

When philosophers talk of zombies, they aren’t thinking of shuffling Halloween humanoids that will eat your brain. They mean something much more frightening. Something that’s being debated every night at The Geary, in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem.

If you met a philosophical zombie in the street, would you be able to tell the difference? Philosophers argue that you wouldn’t. But could these zombies be real? If they are real, then consciousness and the brain must be separate. And if that is so, then how did we get consciousness? Were we just lucky? Did it evolve? Were we given it by some …

Mr. Hard Problem: An Interview with Philosopher David Chalmers

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By Shannon Stockwell 

Think of any modern philosophical theory about the mind, and Australian philosopher David Chalmers has probably had his hands on it. He is famous for coining the phrase “the hard problem” to describe the as-yet unanswered question of how a physical brain can create consciousness. 

Some aspects of consciousness are easy to explain. If you put your finger into the flame of a candle, your brain interprets that as pain, and you pull your finger away. But what about emotional pain, like sorrow, despair, and loneliness? What creates that?

So far, scientists agree that consciousness exists, because we all experience it. But no one has been able to figure out where consciousness comes from. Is consciousness some kind of stuff that you could theoretically hold or see, coming from actual things happening in the body (like neurons firing)? Or is consciousness something else, something separate from the body entirely?

Here are some of Chalmers’s thoughts on Tom Stoppar…

A.C.T. in Sarajevo

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By Nick Gabriel

In the second week of October, A.C.T. sent me to present at the European Theatre Convention (ETC) and to attend the International Theatre Festival MESS in Sarajevo.

ETC is a yearly gathering of European theaters of all sizes, with a variety of aesthetic values. Comparable to America’s TCG conference—which hosts hundred of American theaters every year—the ETC convention is a place for member theaters to dialogue about challenges and to develop strategies for future success.

A.C.T. was commissioned by the Goethe–Institut, a German cultural institute with an international reach, to produce a ten-minute play exploring the theme of digital privacy. Philip Kan Gotanda was selected to write our play and I was selected to direct it. Because A.C.T. has an M.F.A. Program that is central to its artistic mission, we’re particularly curious about how our students are complicit in the exchange of sensitive personal data when using social media platforms.

While several other Americ…

Spooked at The Strand

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With Halloween’s ghosts and ghouls just around the corner, A.C.T. is getting ready for Spooked at The Strand, its fabulous, fundraising, costume party in aid of M.F.A. Program scholarships. As A.C.T.’s costume shop swings into action to outfit Spooked attendees and student actors alike with show-stopping outfits, we snuck behind the scenes to talk with Conservatory Director Melissa Smith and find out what surprises guests have in store throughout the evening.


What inspired A.C.T. to start this fantastic charity event?

In the spring of 2015, the M.F.A. Board of Directors was looking for a new take on our annual fundraiser for the M.F.A. Program. Previously, we had held formal, sit-down luncheons. In a Board Meeting discussion, members talked about how inspiring the new Strand space is and how crucial it would be to the M.F.A. Program. We talked about the desire to attract new people to the M.F.A. Program, how to get the word out about this top-ranked actor training program, and h…

Tom Stoppard on The Hard Problem

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By Simon Hodgson 

After 17 productions at A.C.T., Tom Stoppard has become part of Geary Theater lore. In these works, he has explored a wide range of topics, from philosophical paradoxes, political dissidence, and evolutionary biology to murder mysteries and landscape gardening. In between rehearsals for The Hard Problem—which runs through November 13—we caught up with Stoppard to talk about consciousness, computers, and chaos.
In The Hard Problem, you focus on chaos and rationality, which affect both the stock market as well as Hilary’s intellectual exploration into consciousness. Why?

For a long time during my intelligent years, from about 1950 to 1995, the computer was considered to be a paradigm for the human brain. A lot of people still think it is, and I found that I was resisting the idea.

It seemed to me that the fact that the market behaves irrationally from time to time was an indication that it wasn’t controllable through maths and algorithms, and that human behavior was …

Shakespeare's Strand Debut: Interview with Shrew Director Stephen Buescher

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By Elspeth Sweatman

Between voice coaching sessions, country-music rehearsals, and fight calls involving horseshoes, we caught up with Stephen Buescher, the director of A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare’s classic comedy about the battle of the sexes will open with a cowboy twist at The Strand Theater on October 20.

This is the first Shakespeare production at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater.
Yes! Part of A.C.T.’s mission is reinventing classics. We hope that The Strand can be somewhere where we can help people see classics in a new light.

It seems like you’re really reinventing The Taming of the Shrew—you’re setting it in the Wild West.
I recently came back from a trip to Mexico where I saw lots of Vaqueros (cowboys). I started to listen to country music from the States and thought, “This country-music scene is about breaking hearts and ‘he hurt me, but I still love him.’” That’s the hook. I was also trying to figure out the voice of Kate…

Every 28 Hours at A.C.T.

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By Elspeth Sweatman

For A.C.T.’s Community Artistic Director Tyrone Davis, theater is an art form that can bring people together and start a conversation.

Davis has been instrumental in bringing together theaters from around the Bay Area—A.C.T., Berkeley Repertory Theatre, FaultLine Theater, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Crowded Fire Theatre, and Campo Santo—for an arts festival and production of Every 28 Hours, 75 one-minute plays inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Co-created by Dominic D’Andrea (One-Minute Play Festival) and Claudia Alick (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) in 2015, Every 28 Hours takes its name from a study that revealed how frequently—every 28 hours—a black person is killed by police or law enforcement in the United States.

For Davis, the plays are a vehicle for an important conversation that should happen across the Bay Area. That is why A.C.T. and Berkeley Repertory Theatre are hosting an Every 28 Hours arts festival before a full production of the piec…

Stoppard and the Prisoner's Dilemma

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By Shannon Stockwell and Elspeth Sweatman 

What do you get when you cross game theory with neurobiology? Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, which runs at The Geary Theater from October 19 to November 13.

In this play, Stoppard is particularly interested in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game theory scenario invented by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950.

Let’s say John and Stacy both get arrested for the same crime. The sheriff goes to John and Stacy separately and offers them a chance to evade jail time if they betray their partner, while ensuring that John and Stacy cannot communicate with each other before making their decisions. Here are the possible results of that deal:


1. If John betrays Stacy and says that she committed the crime, but Stacy stays silent, then John will get no time in prison, while Stacy will get three years.

2. If Stacy betrays John and says that he committed the crime, but John stays silent, then Stacy will get no time in prison, while John wil…

Annette Bening and Mark Harelik Visit A.C.T.

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By Emilianne Lewis 

“Transformation! That’s what it’s all about here as a student. We want range, to be anything—young, old, whatever!”
–Annette Bening, A.C.T. M.F.A. Program Alumna

The morning after their wonderful performance in Dear Liar, an A.C.T. 50th-anniversary event held on Sunday at The Geary, M.F.A. Program alumna Annette Bening and former company member Mark Harelik spoke to seventy students, faculty, and staff about their careers both on stage and on screen.

A.C.T. hosts these conversations as a way for Master of Fine Arts Program and San Francisco Semester (SFS) students to learn from those in the “real world”: those actors and production members who have bravely stepped beyond their four classroom walls and succeeded in the competitive and intimidating landscape that is the world of acting.

Both Bening and Harelik are products of A.C.T.’s programs. Bening graduated from A.C.T.’s top-ranked M.F.A. program and Harelik was an A.C.T. company member in his earl…

A.C.T. Kicks off 50th Anniversary with Two Special Events

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By Shannon Stockwell

October has certainly gotten off to an exciting start at A.C.T.—you can really tell that our 50th anniversary is in full swing. In the span of two days, the Geary stage was graced by actors Annette Bening and Mark Harelik, playwright Tom Stoppard, and neuroscientist Linda Wilbrecht.

On Sunday, October 2, Bening and Harelik joined up for a staged reading of Dear Liar, Jerome Kilty’s witty two-person play based on the letters between playwright George Bernard Shaw and his muse, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. The two actors have a long history with A.C.T.: Bening graduated from the Advanced Training Program (precursor to the M.F.A. Program) in 1983, and Mark Harelik was a company member in the ’80s. A.C.T. was thrilled to welcome them back for this reading, directed by Nancy Carlin, which they performed with a strong sense of sass in a performance that was free and open to our donors.

The Geary was bustling the following evening, as well; in a free event open to the public…