Finding Humanity in Our Brokenness: An Interview with Martin Moran

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

Growing up in 1970s Denver, teenager Martin Moran looked like a poster boy for Catholic school—a kid with good grades, clean fingernails, and a smile for everyone on his paper route. Inside, however, Moran was grappling with the conflicting shame and thrill of a relationship with his male 30-year-old camp counselor, Bob.

“Sometimes I felt scared and I liked it,” Moran says in his memoir, The Tricky Part. “All the concealment was a kind of strange power. An entire and buzzing inner life. A fourteen-year-old boy on a three-speed Raleigh, getting it every which way. I was getting away with murder, with pleasure, with crimes, and I was pulling A’s.”

Martin Moran in All the Rage. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Moran went on to become a successful actor, with Broadway credits including Spamalot and Cabaret, and television appearances on The Newsroom and Law & Order. He is also a writer, whose OBIE Award–winning show The Tricky Part (based on his memoir) describes coming to terms with his relationship with Bob, his own journey as a young gay man, and his discovery of theater.

All the Rage, Moran’s Lucille Lortel Award–winning follow-up show, originated in a question he heard from Tricky Part audiences—shouldn’t he feel more anger about what he experienced as a boy? All the Rage follows Moran from Las Vegas to South Africa as he’s haunted by ideas about compassion, forgiveness, and fury. As The Strand Theater prepares for All the Rage and The Tricky Part, we caught up with the actor and writer for a quick Q&A.

What kinds of reactions have you got to All the Rage and The Tricky Part?

I recently performed the two plays on a three-city tour of India, where there was a kind of gobsmacked reaction at both the frankness and the form: one guy standing onstage talking about sensitive social issues, like trespass, molestation, forgiveness. In Red Bank, New Jersey—a very Catholic community just outside of New York City—there were people who got up and left. The reactions have been profound, and have differed by locale. But the more I tell the stories, the more I realize they are less about me and more about universal questions: How do we survive what we think of as damage? How do we find the humor and the humanity in our brokenness?

You’ve been performing these two stories, in various forms, for several years now. How has your perspective on them shifted?

Initially, the writing and performing invoked a great sense of shame. I used to get nauseous before doing The Tricky Part. I’d sit backstage and think, “What the fuck am I doing? This stuff is too intimate.” Now, I feel less a sense of owning the story in a personal way, and I revel in the humanness of it instead. It feels like a quest that’s of service, that’s unifying, and even joyous.

One of the most compelling aspects of The Tricky Part is how you handle the complexity of the human experience.

I feel devoted to complexity. It is within the paradoxes of life that we have a chance at grasping flashes of human truth and beauty. We are so full of love. And cruelty, too. Look at us now, amid this election season, so anxious about the seeming hate and division. But we do look to one another in quiet ways, don't we? Over a meal, in a book, perhaps in an evening of theater, to be reminded that we are all in this together. When I was 12, the violence of what happened was so painful, the complexity overwhelming. Thanks be that I lived, and how odd that everything that happened became a source of knowledge and empathy.

The Tricky Part and All the Rage open tonight and run through December 11 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

Ghosts in The Geary: A.C.T.'s A Christmas Carol

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Original Costume Sketch of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
By Costume Designer Beaver Bauer.
This interview is adapted from the Christmas Carol edition of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Along with the curmudgeonly Scrooge and the adorable Tiny Tim, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are the most well-known and loved characters in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. But how do you translate these larger-than-life entities on to the Geary stage? Carey Perloff, A.C.T.’s artistic director and the co-writer of this adaptation of A Christmas Carol, offered her insight on Dickens’s seasonal spirits in this 2010 Q&A.

What was your inspiration for the three ghosts in this adaptation of A Christmas Carol?
I wanted them to be otherworldly spirits, filled with light, and not like ordinary humans. Their locomotion is different: they swing and rise up on elevators; they hang above like specters.

What can you share about the ghost of Christmas Present?
In the book, Christmas Present is described as a Bacchic spirit of fecundity, an image of the cornucopia, wearing a green velvet robe, growing holly and leaves, with fruit hanging everywhere, emanating light and exuding fertility. Christmas Present is about seduction, in a way: sensual and lively and very pleasurable, with the vibrancy and light of the present moment that you wish Scrooge would enter into.

What about Christmas Future?
The ghost of Christmas Future is about terrorizing somebody with the potential consequences of his behavior. So in our production, the ghost is an evanescent specter, a puppet made of mesh that rises up above the Geary stage, reminding and warning Scrooge of what will happen to him and his own culture if he doesn’t take responsibility for contributing to the world around him.
Original Costume Sketch of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
By Costume Designer Beaver Bauer.

And Christmas Past?
Christmas Past is a flickering candle. This emanating light is important because it’s the symbol of the imagination, that Scrooge’s mind is about to be “enlightened.” There is a metaphor throughout the play of Scrooge’s blindness. People say to him, “Open your eyes, blind man. Look up.” But he can’t see. Literally, he cannot see what they are offering him. He can’t remember his own past. He can’t see how wonderful Fred and Mary and his family are, that there is a community out there for him. So, the journey of the piece from darkness into light is also a man’s journey from blindness into seeing, into opening his eyes to the possibilities of the world—and the candle is the flickering beginning.

How does Dickens use these spirits to get across his own motives?
We are charting several different actions: What is each spirit trying to do to Scrooge? How does he resist? How can we make him resist as long as possible, to keep it dramatic? When we did this adaptation, we realized that Dickens really thought that every individual carries the potential to change themselves, to change the way people are treated, to change the world.

Come celebrate the holidays with us! A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol runs from November 25 through December 24 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

Dressing Scrooge: An Interview with Costume Director Jessie Amoroso Part One

Thursday, November 17, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

Making a new dress for 2016 production 
of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
For ten months of every year, A.C.T.’s A Christmas Carol costumes are hidden away in the costume shop: all 200-plus costumes, including thousands of shoes. It is Costume Director Jessie Amoroso’s job to guide his team through the month-long sprint to get this Bay Area holiday classic onto the Geary stage once more. We caught up with him between costume fittings to get a glimpse into the preparations for this A.C.T. staple.

When does the process for Carol start here in The Costume Shop?

We usually have about four or five weeks once it’s cast to fit everyone and get everything ready. That’s at least fifty hours of fittings over two weeks.

Do you create any of the costumes from scratch each year?
We usually create one or two new pieces. This year we’re making two new dresses, which are always fun to make.

Are the costumes for our two Scrooges the same?
Everything is identical except for their coats and vests. Jim Carpenter wears the coat designed by Costume Designer Beaver Bauer, but Jim and Anthony are different heights. If they wore the same coat, we’d have to do alterations between shows and that be too much work. Eventually we’d like to build Anthony his own coat. Maybe next year. Put it on the list [He laughs.]

Jim and Anthony also have their own special button arrangement for their costumes, because they dress and undress onstage. They don’t have time to do all of the buttons. On Anthony’s vest, he only has three real buttons; the rest are snaps or fakes.

What is the biggest expense every year?

Dance rubber for the shoes. To re-rubber or resole a pair of shoes—even used shoes, and we tend to reuse ours—starts at about $40. Every year, it’s at least $40 to $80 per person just for footwear maintenance.

A rack of A Christmas Carol costumes. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
Do some costumes get more wear than others?
Anything that gets physically fought in shows the most wear. During the gang scene, the YC actors are on their knees; they’re fighting, jumping onto the stage, and getting tossed around. Some of their costumes were new twelve years ago, but they’ve now been fought in for about a year [one month for twelve years], so they’re starting to show their age.

When we opened this adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 2005, we were using foam snow, which falls very delicately and gently but leaves spots on some of the costumes. [He pulls out a costume.] This is Mary’s dress—Scrooge’s niece-in-law—and you can see spots which look like 7-Up or champagne got sprayed on it. This is what happens when the foam snow dries. But you step ten feet away from it, and it just looks like the dress has texture, so we haven’t tried to clean it off. We now use paper snow, which is more difficult to corral. Every night we do what’s called “The Snowflake Shuffle” so that the snow remains on stage.

Come celebrate the holidays with us! A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol runs at The Geary Theater from November 25 through December 24. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

Decking the Halls: A.C.T. Fellows Decorate The Geary

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman 

Fellows Emilianne Lewis and Joseph Reyes Decorating The Geary. 
Photo by Karen Loccisano.
Today, some of A.C.T.’s 2016–17 fellows participated in one of the most cherished rituals in the company’s calendar—decorating The Geary Theater for the holiday season and A.C.T.’s production of A Christmas Carol.

After fueling up on pastries and hot cocoa, fellows Emilianne Lewis, Karen Loccisano, Julia Ludwig, Joseph Reyes, Elspeth Sweatman, and Marcella Toronto donned their holiday hats, turned on the carols, and set to work hanging wreaths, placing garlands, and untangling yards and yards of lights.

Two hours later, The Geary had been transformed into a winter wonderland that even Scrooge would love. From Fred's Bar to the lobby to the Sky Bar, not an inch was left without a little holiday sparkle. "Decorating The Geary this morning with the other fellows definitely brightened my day and got me into the holiday spirit," says Special Events Fellow Julia Ludwig.

Fellow Marcella Toronto Decorating the Tree.
Photo By Elspeth Sweatman.
This tradition of decorating The Geary falls at a perfect time in the fellowship. "We've become close friends over the past few months in this new and exciting city, and this was the perfect way to bring us together in the midst of our fellowship," says Ludwig. "It's a fun way to celebrate the holiday season with our little fellow family," agrees Graphics Fellow Karen Loccisano.

"At A.C.T., we have the opportunity to be part of a community. I really felt that this morning as we decked the halls of The Geary," says Academic Programs Fellow Marcella Toronto.

“We'll be able to look at The Geary and know that we  helped get it ready for all of our patrons who are coming to celebrate the holidays with us,” says Marketing and PR Fellow Emilianne Lewis.
Some of A.C.T.'s 2016–17 Fellows. Photo by Amy Hand.
Come celebrate the holidays with us! A.C.T.’s production of A Christmas Carol begins performances November 25. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Visualizing Consciousness: The Hard Problem

Thursday, November 10, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

Not only does Tom Stoppard’s newest play The Hard Problem—now playing at The Geary Theater through November 13—delve into the murkiness of consciousness and brain science, but it also presents a unique challenge for the set designer.

How do you visualize consciousness? How can you represent it on the stage?

“What I said to scenic designer Andrew Boyce was that I wanted the set to look like consciousness, not neuroscience,” says director Carey Perloff. “So we looked at the most beautiful science building that I think has ever been built: the Salk Institute in San Diego.”

The Salk Institute. Photo by Justin Brown. Courtesy of Flickr.
Built in the 1960s by architect Louis I. Kahn, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is comprised of two mirror-image structures either side of a central courtyard. Made out of concrete and wood, these geometric structures create a temple of science on the shore of the Pacific.

One of the institute’s most famous features is the narrow water channel in the otherwise barren central courtyard, constructed in such a way that the sun sets in line with this strip of water. Kahn wanted people to always be aware of their small place in our vast, mostly unexplored universe.

“It is a science building that tries to create an environment in which consciousness can be exploded,” says Perloff. “It is unbelievably exquisite and spiritual. It’s just heart-stopping.”

Set model, by scenic designer Andrew Boyce, for 
A.C.T.'s 2016 production of The Hard Problem.
To create the same effect on the Geary stage, Perloff and Boyce placed a tree that rises up and crashes through the ceiling of the space. “We just love it as a kind of anarchic moment of consciousness in this scientific world,” says Perloff. It serves as a constant reminder that nature—be it the natural world around us or the world created by our brains—is not always explicable.

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

Altruism versus Egoism in The Hard Problem

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell and Elspeth Sweatman

“Since the very beginning, Tom Stoppard has written about what is the nature of goodness and is there such a thing as value,” says The Hard Problem director Carey Perloff. “What are human values? How do we express ourselves as human beings? Is there such a thing as goodness, as altruism?”

Altruism is at the center of Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, running at The Geary Theater through November 13. The term altruism—from the Latin alter, meaning “other”—was coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century. He wanted to create a religion based on a belief in science, rather than God. To Comte, to be altruistic meant simply to live for others.

Dan Clegg and Brenda Meaney in A.C.T.'s 2016 production
 of The Hard Problem. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Since then, the concept of altruism and its counterpart, egoism, have become a hot topic of debate in a wide array of fields, from philosophy to biology to economics. The main questions are: Does altruism exist? Do any living organisms ever act solely in the interest of another organism, or solely for the good of the group? Or are all organisms ultimately motivated by self-interest?

In The Hard Problem, Spike uses biologist Gerald S. Wilkinson’s research into vampire bats to explain altruism to Hilary. Wilkinson noticed that the bats display reciprocally altruistic behavior. The bats go hunting at night, but some are not successful and return home hungry. Other bats that have been successful will regurgitate some of their food and feed it to the hungry bats. Wilkinson’s theory was that the successful bats do this because they want to ensure that, when they go hungry, their fellow bats will feed them in return. But can this be called altruism, if the bats are ultimately being altruistic for their own gain?

This debate between altruism and egoism is particularly interesting for neuroscientists studying how the brain creates things like morality, empathy, and consciousness. “We know so much about how the brain functions, but the more we know, the more mysterious these questions become,” says Perloff.

A.C.T.’s production of The Hard Problem runs through November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about altruism, consciousness, and Stoppard? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Strong Women: Hilary in The Hard Problem

Thursday, November 3, 2016

By Elspeth Sweatman

Brenda Meaney as Hilary in A.C.T.'s 2016 production 
of The Hard Problem. Photo by Kevin Berne.
During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, running through November 13, psychologist Hilary Matthews fights to find her place in a scientific world that frowns upon the “feminine” emotions of mother love, goodness, and faith.

Hilary is an oddity in neuroscience: a person who believes in the power of faith as well as the power of science. This worries her university tutor Spike, who fears that this will sink her chances of an academic career. “She has what he thinks are childish notions about the self, about consciousness, and about belief,” says director Carey Perloff.

But Hilary’s faith is grounded in a pivotal event in her past: when she was a teenager, she gave up her baby for adoption. To cope, she turned to her faith in the inherent goodness of others and in a higher power. “I missed her like half of me from the first day,” she says to Julia in scene six, “and the worst thing was, there was literally nothing I could give her, she’d just gone, and then I thought up something I could do, just to, just to be good, so that in return someone, God, I suppose, would look after her.”

Hilary is also an oddity because of her gender. According to BiasWatchNeuro, a site that tracks gender representation in neuroscience, women only make up 24 percent of neuroscience departments at leading US universities. 

For Perloff, the character of Hilary is one of the main reasons she keeps coming back to Stoppard’s plays. “I love that he writes such great women. Particularly for someone of his generation—he’s going to be 80 this year—his inclusivity about the world and his acceptance of the fact, from Thomasina [in Arcadia] on out, that women can have intellects as fierce or fiercer than men is really amazing and unusual.”

A.C.T.’s production of The Hard Problem runs through November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the ongoing debate about faith, goodness, and neuroscience? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Breaking the Sound Barrier: An Interview with Voice Coach Nancy Benjamin

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

“Every single play that I pick up has its own accents,” says A.C.T.’s Co–Head of Voice and Dialects Nancy Benjamin. “The actors, the director, and the coaches have to figure out what that accent is and do it authentically.” Before she started working on Stoppard’s The Hard Problem—playing until November 13 at The Geary Theater—we sat down with Benjamin to talk about acting and accents.

Nancy Benjamin works with M.F.A. Program actors Emily Brown,
Alan Littlehales, and Albert Rubio. Photo by Alessandra Mello.
How important are the accents in The Hard Problem as an identifier of character?

Accents and dialects help us understand the culture of the play, the environment, the status of the characters, their education, their place of origin, and how they identify themselves. Specifically with The Hard Problem, once I understand where the character comes from, their age, and their level of education, then the accent or dialect comes from that. Our accents, our way of speaking, is so integral to how we think about ourselves. Our word choice, our word order, the sounds we prefer, all of those reinforce how we show ourselves to the world, but it also colors how the world sees us.

How is dialect work different between stage and screen?

This is going to sound really perverse, but I will buy a dialect in theater if the level of commitment is there. If dialect work is shaky in film, it bothers me a lot more than if it’s not nailed in theater, because film actors have so many opportunities to get it right. In theater, you have to get it right every night. And you’re probably not living in the accent that you’re doing onstage. The challenge is much greater.

What TV shows or films do you recommend to actors working with British accents?

If I’m working with old-school Received Pronunciation [a general British accent traditionally associated with elite socioeconomic groups], which I would use for anything from Noël Coward to George Bernard Shaw, then I’m going to look to older films like Brief Encounter (1945). In terms of more modern films, I’d choose anything with Emma Thompson (she’s wonderful) or Alan Rickman. And Downton Abbey.

The Hard Problem is playing at The Geary Theater until November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To learn more about Benjamin, Stoppard, and the hard problem, purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
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