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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

A zombie. By Pixabay. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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 higher power? What is consciousness, anyway, and how is it created? How is an intangible thing like consciousness created by our physical brains? This is “the hard problem,” the question at the center of Stoppard’s newest play.

Happy Halloween!

The Hard Problem runs at A.C.T.’s The Geary Theater until November 13. Click here to purchase tickets.

To read more about consciousness in The Hard Problem, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Mr. Hard Problem: An Interview with Philosopher David Chalmers

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

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. 

Philosopher David Chalmers. Photo courtesy of TED.
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 Stoppard’s play—running through November 13 at The Geary Theater—which shares the same name as the conundrum that skyrocketed Chalmers to philosophical fame.

Why is the hard problem exciting?

Because consciousness is the thing in the world that we know the best and understand the least. The hard problem is really about how objective reality relates to subjective reality in the world of science. That’s a problem at the heart of our very existence.

When did you become interested in the hard problem?

I’ve been interested in consciousness for as long as I can remember. I wondered about how processes in the brain could produce the subjective experience of seeing colors and hearing music. Later on I became so obsessed with the problem that I switched from mathematics to philosophy so that I could think about it properly. I first called the problem “the hard problem” in a talk to the first major interdisciplinary conference on consciousness in 1994. It caught on more than I ever could have expected.

How accurately does Tom Stoppard portray the debate around consciousness in The Hard Problem?

Tom understands the hard problem very broadly, probably more broadly than I do. In a discussion we had last year, it came out that he really sees the central problem as the problem of value—how can there be values in a godless physical world? Whereas for me the problem is really about subjective experience, rather than about value (or about God)—how can there be subjective experience in an objective physical world?

When do you think the hard problem will be solved, if you think it will be solved at all?

It probably won’t be solved any time soon! I’d be happy if we have a good theory of consciousness within 100 years. It wouldn’t surprise me if it takes longer.

The Hard Problem runs at The Geary Theater through November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. For more on David Chalmers, the hard problem, and Stoppard’s thoughts on consciousness, purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

A.C.T. in Sarajevo

Friday, October 21, 2016

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.

The Bosniak Institute and ETC venue in Sarajevo. Photo By Nick Gabriel.
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 American and European theaters were also commissioned for this project, A.C.T. was the only American theater invited to ETC to discuss what drew us to the project, and to describe potential iterations of the project at theaters that weren’t initially commissioned.

After all of the scripts are written, a compilation of the plays will be published in English and German and available for use throughout the world. Why German? Because German-speaking theater is so prevalent in Europe, affording a greater number of theaters the opportunity to produce their own performances of these unique short plays.

My presentation about The Plurality of Privacy Project in Five-Minute Plays (P3M5) went well. Much informal conversation ensued about A.C.T. and about Americans' relationship to privacy. I discussed A.C.T.’s diverse aesthetic in great detail; the ways in which our productions reflect our immediate community’s artistic values, how we strive to challenge our audiences, and how our work incorporates a wide variety of global perspectives. I also discovered that many of the countries represented at the conference were already in some way trying to theatricalize their concerns related to digital privacy with projects of their own.

Sarajevo's Old Town. Photo by Nick Gabriel.
Attending the International Theatre Festival MESS was transformative for me. The city of Sarajevo is often described as the place where Eastern and Western Europe converge. That cultural confluence can be perceived throughout the city—particularly in the architecture, but also in the food, languages, dress, and perhaps most of all, the theater. My initial impression of Balkan Theatre was that neither Bosnians nor Serbians make theater primarily intended to entertain audiences. Rather, most performances interrogated the audience’s tacit acceptance of genocide. I felt personally implicated for atrocities perpetrated against minority groups in the Balkans.

In most of the performances I saw, the actors were living war onstage; there was little distance from the subject matter and virtually no metaphor. The guns they shot had real blanks and bullet casings flew everywhere. I wondered, at times, if this approach to theater-making was somewhat exploitative or superfluously sensationalistic until I realized on my plane ride home that the actors were working through trauma in the one place where they’re most protected: onstage. For these actors, performing was authentically cathartic. And dramatizing these particular narratives brings a level of awareness to circumstances that should be known more intimately to wider audiences.

These actors ultimately taught me about my own indifference toward important issues in this region. I didn’t find this approach to theater-making alienating in any way. It was occasionally difficult to witness, but in general I felt privileged to commune with the actors, whose courage was inspiring. There was one performance by the Croatian National Theatre that was reminiscent of Tracy Letts’s domestic melodrama August: Osage County that I thought might actually play well to an American audience. It was a distinct production because it was entertaining—the audience laughed heartily and cheered enthusiastically—but the subject matter was intensely political and trenchantly portrayed.

Spooked at The Strand

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 how to have an event that reflected the energy of the program itself. We knew our event would be in October and we knew the Strand was the place to do it and as I recall a board member then said, “What about a Halloween party?” And we all got excited at once!

What sets Spooked apart from A.C.T.’s other events and performances?

The event itself is a really great costume party, often featuring costumes from A.C.T.’s extensive collection—and with so many people transformed by clothing, masks, and makeup, you might not recognize a friend or colleague, which adds to the high energy of the event! Spooked features M.F.A. actors in performance—both a formal performance and in surprise pop-ups—and the proceeds go only to the M.F.A. It’s a really fun evening and because people are not seated at tables but partying together, it’s a chance for guests, donors, M.F.A. actors, and faculty to all meet one another.

Spooked at The Strand 2015. Photo by Drew Altizer Photography.
Who selects the songs and acts that the students perform?

The show’s director, Domenique Lozano, and I invite all students in the program to audition with material early in September. We view all that material, as well as considering material that has been performed in the past year, and then discuss our options. The final selection is something we both sign off on.

Can you tell us a little more about The Strand itself?

The Strand was formerly a film theater and in its heyday in the mid 20th century was a Market Street destination. Today, with the award-winning restoration by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, The Strand is once again a destination perfect for special events and parties like Spooked.

“Spooked is a fantastic opportunity for the M.F.A. students to get to interact with the donors. We learn about their lives, where they come from, and why they support A.C.T. It is an opportunity to create a bridge between the program and those who help our program thrive.”—Peter Fanone, A.C.T. M.F.A. Student

“Spooked has a real sense of wonder, energy, and excitement. The pop-up performances during the cocktails come as a big surprise and keep guests on their toes. You never know when the costumed person next to you might turn out to be an M.F.A. actor who breaks into song or performance.”—Holly & Chris Hollenbeck, Co-Chairs

“Spooked is the best costume party I’ve ever been to! The costume shop designed my Ice Queen costume and it blew me away. Spooked is not only a fundraiser, but a moment for our community to come together and just have fun!”—Diana Gonzalez-Morett, A.C.T. M.F.A. Student

For more information and ticketing, please visit the Spooked page on our website.

If you’re interested in renting costumes from A.C.T.’s costume shop, visit their rental page.

Tom Stoppard on The Hard Problem

Thursday, October 20, 2016

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.
Tom Stoppard. Photo by Matt Humphrey.
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 dimension which couldn’t be captured by maths. So I can see where, in a strange Venn diagram, a story about consciousness would overlap with a story about somebody who was trying to win in the marketplace.

Another character in the play, Amal, takes a journey from complete belief in an algorithmic view of brain activity to a kind of realization that, as he puts it in the play, the mathematical models are out of whack because one doesn’t know how to build a stupid computer. “Stupid” is just his way of saying that the computer can’t quite capture spontaneity and irrationality as it’s exhibited in human nature.

Are there any characters in The Hard Problem that you feel close to?

I definitely feel close to Hilary. Or she is close to me. Particularly in terms of her questioning what is supposed to be a given, and her questioning this particular given, that there’s no more to us than meets a scanner.

What’s your own take on the whole consciousness debate?

The predictable response is that the play is the answer to your question. I have a habit of writing plays in which two points of view are being argued, and it’s part of my job to try and give as good an argument as I can come up with for the side I don’t really agree with.

There’s always a character’s viewpoint that is closer to mine than other opposing viewpoints. But at the same time, my basic understanding is that plays are a storytelling form and it’s no good having this kind of point of view if you don’t have a story.

The Hard Problem runs through November 13 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. To read more of this interview with Stoppard, or to learn more about the hard problem, coincidence, and the limitations of algorithms, purchase Words on Plays.

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

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.

Poster for 2016 M.F.A. Production of The Taming of the Shrew.
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, an intelligent and headstrong woman who is “tamed” by Petruchio. Who is this person who can go through something like this and then want to stay with her husband? And I saw that in the Wild West, there were strong women—who were not the pretty, docile Biancas of this world—who were running things.

Did the cross-gender casting pose any interesting challenges?
Something that I did that sent a ripple through the cast was having Lucentio dress as a woman when he disguises himself as a lecturer in order to secretly woo Bianca. In the Wild West, the women were the schoolteachers. Now that Bianca is flirting with a woman, what does that mean? I think it is interesting that this idea ruffled feathers in 2016.

How does this production fit in with the M.F.A. Program course of study?
The Taming of the Shrew is a collision of everything they’re studying: physical theater, Shakespearean text, and acting work. Juggling these aspects is part of the struggle but also part of the excitement when they finally get all these pieces working together. The third-year actors are a great ensemble; they’re able to riff off of each other and play.

Why did you want to do this play in particular?
One of the reasons I really wanted to do this play was to celebrate A.C.T.’s 50th anniversary. My teacher, Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, was the movement director on that famous A.C.T. production in 1974. He’s the one that brought commedia dell’arte—a sixteenth-century form of improvised theater—over from Italy. So directing this play, it’s like I’ve come full circle.

Is there anything about this production that might surprise audiences?
Something that surprised me was how funny it is. You only ever hear about Kate and Petruchio, but so many of the side characters in this play are just so funny. I’m also trying to infuse this production with the spirit of commedia dell’arte, so I’m staging the show to give the actors room to improvise. The whole production is going to feel very alive and immediate. I want the audience to think “Whoa, this is happening right now in front of us,” rather than “It’s Shakespeare so we know it’s ‘good’ for us.”

The Taming of the Shrew is playing October 20–22 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets.

Every 28 Hours at A.C.T.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

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.
Every 28 Hours Artwork. By Sara Morales.
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 piece at FaultLine Theater. On October 18 and 19, performances of some of the one-minute plays by A.C.T. M.F.A. Program actors and members of the FaultLine cast will be accompanied by performances from local musicians and spoken word artists. There will also be moderated talkbacks about the issues that this work unearths.

“As a country, we’re not dealing with these issues,” says Davis. “Look at NFL player Colin Kaepernick. He’s taking a knee during the national anthem to protest systemic racism. Everyone’s so busy talking about whether he should or shouldn’t take a knee, yet they’re not talking about why he’s doing it.”

“Theater can bring people together to showcase our humanity. Somewhere, somehow, we’ve lost it, but theater is a place where we can find it again. For me, theater has the power to do that.”

Every 28 Hours Arts Festival is at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater on October 18 (email to RSVP), and at Berkeley Repertory Theatre on October 19 (click here to RSVP).

A full production of Every 28 Hours is playing at FaultLine Theater from October 21 to November 12. Click here to RSVP. All performances are free and open to the public.

Stoppard and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

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:

Diagram of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Courtesy of A.C.T. Marketing Team.

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 will get three years.

3. If they both betray the other, then they’ll each get two years in prison.

4. If they both remain silent, then they’ll both get one year in prison.

Mathematically, the Prisoner’s Dilemma proves that, if you are put into this situation, you’ll personally have a better outcome if you always decide to betray your partner. However, it does not account for the altruistic response (as displayed by Hilary in The Hard Problem) of sacrificing yourself for your partner.

To play the Prisoner’s Dilemma yourself, head down to The Exploratorium. On Thursday, October 13, Stoppard and Perloff will also be in conversation with Exploratorium Executive Associate Director Robert Semper.

For tickets to the Exploratorium event on Thursday, October 13, click here.

To purchase tickets for A.C.T.’s production of The Hard Problem—running October 19 through November 13—click here. For more on the Prisoner's Dilemma, the hard problem, and Stoppard's decades-long relationship with A.C.T., purchase Words on Plays.

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

Thursday, October 6, 2016

By Emilianne Lewis 

 Mark Harelik and Annette Bening at A.C.T. 
Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
“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 early career.

The hour addressed multiple topics: Bening’s and Harelik’s respected work together and apart, and their experiences on stage and on the silver screen. They revealed many of the challenges they’ve had to overcome throughout their careers. Bening touched on the insecurity she feels when filming a movie versus the freedom she feels on stage. “In the theater, you never have to look at yourself. It can be so liberating. It’s different in television and movies. I know it can be hard to look at yourself there.”

There was an immense amount of respect felt between both actors as they complimented one another on their past performances. And nearing the end of the conversation when the time for questions began, the actors continued to share honest advice with their audience. Harelik stated a crucial lesson most actors should learn early on in their career when he said, “The most important thing to do is to examine what you can offer, and then be more dedicated to who you are. You don’t need to over manipulate. Attempt to achieve that sense of relaxation within yourself and you’ll realize that what you are naturally is what the directors want.”

Emilianne Lewis is the Marketing and PR Fellow at A.C.T.
For more information on special events at A.C.T., click here

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell

Annette Bening and Mark Harelik in Dear Liar 2016. Photo by Stefan Cohen.
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.

A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and Playwright Tom Stoppard.
The Geary was bustling the following evening, as well; in a free event open to the public, A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff was joined by UC Berkeley neuroscientist Linda Wilbrecht and playwright Tom Stoppard, author of The Hard Problem (which begins at The Geary on October 19). Any conversation between Stoppard and a scientist is bound to be fascinating; the discussion traveled from the playwright’s long history with A.C.T. to the idea of “hacking” the brain’s value system to the nature of consciousness. The audience was equally charmed by Stoppard’s humble intelligence and fascinated by Wilbrecht’s stories from the field. Now, Stoppard will join Perloff and the Hard Problem cast for the last few weeks of rehearsals.

We at A.C.T. want to express our sincerest gratitude to you, our audience, for coming to these events and for making our first two 50th-anniversary celebratory events a resounding success. We hope you’ll join us for more! For further information about upcoming special events, visit our website.
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