The Thrill of Connection: Battlefield and A Night with Janis Joplin

Thursday, May 18, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

As your fellow actor walks offstage, you turn and peer past the blinding stage lights. You take a breath, step forward, and do one of the most dangerous and thrilling things possible in theater: tear down the fourth wall and talk to the audience.

Artwork for Battlefield and A Night with Janis Joplin.
For Battlefield director Peter Brook, the connection between an actor and the audience is what theater is about. It has been the driving force behind his theatrical works for the past 40 years. It is what makes his plays work on a blanket on the streets of an African village, in his crumbling theater in Paris, and in San Francisco’s Geary Theater.

“We have performed for many different kinds of audiences on different continents with different cultures,” says Battlefield actor Carole Karemera. “What people have told us is that they enjoyed the shared moment, that they felt they had an intimate relationship with the text and with us.”

The same intimacy between performer and audience is also at the heart of the next show to play The Geary. In A Night with Janis Joplin, which runs June 7–July 2, Joplin tells a story about a female opera singer who receives a marriage proposal from an audience member. “She took him backstage after she had sung a real triumph, with all the people applauding for her, man,” says Joplin. “They were going crazy. That audience reaction blew her mind. And she asked him, ‘Do you think you could give me that?’”

Battlefield runs through May 21 and A Night with Janis Joplin runs June 7–July 2 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the creation of these two plays? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Back by Popular Demand: Fatherville at the New Strands Festival

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman 

At last year’s New Strands Festival, six performers walked onto an empty stage in The Rueff Theater. The only sounds were the noises of a funfair, the only prop a tiny mannequin of a child. Suddenly, the child transformed into a gigantic, besuited wooden figure—the symbol of a father. Before it the other actors capered and cringed, by turns entranced or recoiling. Over the course of the performance, the actors shifted fluidly between playing boys and men, exploring the freedom and fear of each role. By the time the cast took their bows, most of the audience was in tears.

The cast of Fatherville. A.C.T.'s New Strands Festival 2016. Photo by Stefan Cohen.
Fatherville, an elegiac, comic, and poignant ode to fatherhood, returns in a more developed state at this year’s New Strands Festival, May 17–21 at The Strand Theater. “What was organic last year,” says A.C.T. Assistant Producer Ken Savage, “we are now giving more structure.”

All the collaborators who helped create this project—from A.C.T. insiders Carey Perloff and Stephen Buescher to Bay Area artists Basil Twist, Pascal Molat, and Sheldon B. Smith, to A.C.T. favorites Gregory Wallace and Peter Anderson—will reprise their roles.

"After throwing much joyful spaghetti at the wall last year in our quest to plumb the depths of fatherhood, we've come up with a structure for our piece that takes these bewildered dads on a more specific journey of terror and discovery,” says Perloff. “Basil has now created puppets specifically for Fatherville, including a tiny Father to mirror the über-Dad we created last year. We're hoping to make a piece that is both intensely personal and also universal. And heartbreaking. And absurd."

Fatherville will have two performances during the festival: Saturday May 20th at 12 pm and 7:30 pm. For more information about this year’s New Strands Festival, running May 17–21 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., click here.

Full Immersion: New Musicals at The New Strands Festival

Thursday, May 11, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

“Part of what’s so fun is that we don’t know what these artists are going to do,” says A.C.T. Associate Artistic Director Andy Donald about two of the works-in-progress featured in this year’s New Strands Festival. “That’s exciting because it means that they are actually creating the work in the space that will eventually house it.”

Both of the musicals included in this year’s festival—Port City and Revival—were commissioned by A.C.T. specifically for The Strand Theater. But these playwrights are not only using the 283-seat mainstage as their template, but the whole of The Strand. “We wanted to create more experiential, immersive works where the audiences are not just passive consumers of art, but active, engaged participants in the physical journey of the piece,” says Assistant Producer Ken Savage.

Composer Byron Au Yong. Photo by Joe Freeman.
Port City, written by Christopher Chen and The Orphan of Zhao composer Byron Au Yong, is a musical fable that investigates the psychological and philosophical questions of how technology shapes our lives. It begins with a Chinese woman arriving in Port City with a product she has created and transforms into a technological American dream.

“Chris and Byron as artists are interested in using the classic medium of live theater to say something about technology today, as opposed to making a movie, television show, or web series about it. There’s something special about asking an audience to come together for a live experience to talk about life on our screens,” says Donald.

Composer Casey Lee Hurt. Photo by Randy Taradash.
The second musical, Revival, comes from the pen of Obie Award–winning playwright Lucy Thurber and The Unfortunates composer Casey Lee Hurt. This epic story of family and first love is based on Hurt’s experiences growing up in a small town in Oregon, a world where the land was imbued with history and the power of the church was strong. As the characters discover in this epic tale, it takes courage to leave and strength to stay.

At the New Strands Festival, we will only get a small taste of what these projects may blossom into. Come discover and experience them with us!

For more information about this year’s New Strands Festival, running May 17–21 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., click here.

Coming Together: M.F.A. Program Spring Performances

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

In A.C.T.’s Conservatory, the end of the year is fast approaching. But before the first-, second-, and third-year M.F.A. Program actors scatter to summer festivals, workshops, and seminars, they are joining forces to put on three spectacular productions, collectively known as the Spring Reps. This year’s productions are: promiscuous/cities by Lachlan Philpott, The Good Woman of Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht, and Las Meninas by Lynn Nottage.

Artwork for A.C.T.'s M.F.A. Program 2017 Spring Performances.
“Spring Reps is one of my favorite times of year,” says second-year actor Peter Fanone. “It is so fulfilling to have the opportunity to see and work with fellow students from all three years. My fellow students always surprise me with aspects of themselves I had not seen or appreciated before, despite the fact that we are in class together 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.”

First-year actor Jerrie Johnson agrees. “Spring Reps are special because it’s the only time that all three M.F.A. Program classes are in production at the same time. We spend all year working only with our classmates; we get used to their working styles. But working with the other classes keeps you on your toes as a performer because it is not what you’re accustomed to."

"There is something special about putting on a polished production with actors at different stages of training," says third-year actor Emily Brown. "Speaking as a third-year M.F.A. Program actor, it's really fun to look back and remember where I was in my own development at the end of my first and second years, and to be able to engage with that energy in the rehearsal process. It's also great that these Spring Reps come after our classes have finished. It's great to take a breath, focus on one project for a little while, put on a great show, and move into the summer months with a reminder of why we all started this crazy journey in the first place."

promiscuous/cities, The Good Woman of Setzuan, and Las Meninas run May 10–14 at A.C.T.’s Costume Shop Theater (1117 Market St) and at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater (1127 Market St). Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Gratitude, Astonishment, and Humanity: Peter Brook at A.C.T.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman
When you reach director Peter Brook’s age, the distinction between useful and useless becomes clear. The argument about who Shakespeare really was? Useless. Using theater effects for their shock value? Useless. Stripping away until you are left with pure storytelling? Useful.

“Theater began with a storyteller,” says Brook. “It began with somebody often sitting in the open air or outside a temple, people gathering round and the storyteller beginning to tell his story.”

On Monday night, Brook sat down with A.C.T.’s Dramaturg Michael Paller to discuss the connection between Shakespeare and the Mahabharata, how he came up with the idea for his seminal work The Empty Space, and how to make theater that is contemporary.

Here is the full conversation.

Peter Brook’s Battlefield runs through May 21 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Brook’s career and the Mahabharata? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Creating Together: A.C.T., Ma-Yi Theater Company, and This Year's New Strands Festival

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

At this year’s New Strands Festival—a week-long presentation of new theatrical pieces, works in progress, readings, and experimental works by innovative, multi-disciplinary artists—East Coast meets West Coast. A.C.T. is partnering with New York’s Ma-Yi Theater Company to present three new works by Asian American playwrights. Ma-Yi is one of the country’s leading incubators of new work shaping the national discourse about what it means to be Asian American today.

Artwork for A.C.T.'s 2017 New Strands Festival.
The three Ma-Yi plays that are part of A.C.T.’s inaugural New Strands Residency Program are: The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, The Man from Saigon by Don Nguyen, and Snowflakes, Or Rare White People by Dustin Chinn.

Inspired by events in her father’s life, The Great Leap by Lauren Yee centers on an American college basketball team as they travel to Beijing for a “friendship” game in the post-Cultural Revolution 1980s. Cultures clash as both countries try to tease out the politics behind this newly popular sport.

Don Nguyen was also inspired by his parent’s story. A political thriller set in 1975 Saigon, The Man from Saigon tells the story of a South Vietnamese intelligence agent who forges a complicated friendship with Richard Armitage, a charismatic US officer who would later become George W. Bush’s deputy secretary of state.

The third Ma-Yi play, Snowflakes, Or Rare White People by Dustin Chinn, is set in a non-dystopian future in which the dwindling white American population is protected by the federal government. When two of the last White Americans are brought to Nueva York’s Museum of Natural History and are “freed” by a disgruntled activist, is America ready for their return?

“These are all writers who are zeroed in on today’s American culture—its contradictions, its divisive politics, its future,” says A.C.T. Associate Artistic Director Andy Donald. “We could not be more thrilled to share Lauren, Don, and Dustin’s searing, often hilarious, deeply personal, and poignant work and watch it continue to grow with this esteemed group of directors and our San Francisco audience.”

For more information about this year’s New Strands Festival, running May 17–21 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St, click here.

Simplicity Onstage: Peter Brook on Battlefield

Thursday, April 27, 2017

By Michael Paller

Here is a short section of my interview with legendary director Peter Brook, whose Battlefield is currently running at The Geary Theater through May 21.

I saw Battlefield in Paris in 2015. It struck me that the simplicity of the production was greater than that of The Suit, or before that Tierno Bokar (2004), let alone The Mahabharata or The Cherry Orchard. Here you have four actors, simple costumes that don’t belong to any specific historical period, and a few props, all supported by beautiful lighting and a drummer, Toshi Tsuchitori. What are you searching for in this lifelong journey of honing down? 

Director Peter Brook. © Ernesto Rodriguez.
You mustn’t try to make me into a philosopher with theories. It’s just the opposite. I’ve always said that I’m not an artist, I’m an artisan, which means that—like all artisans, from bakers to shoemakers to weavers—I try to do my trade better, which can be judged by simple criteria anyone can recognize. When you do something clumsy and wasteful and ugly, it’s less good than if it is finer and cleaner.

Over the years, I’ve never in my life consciously said, “We must look for simplicity.” One the contrary, as a young man, I plunged into all the joys of every sort of elaboration and used every device that the theater could give. And I gradually found that, while these devices were intoxicating and thrilling to use, there was a human quality that was covered up as a result. And as I gradually became more interested in the human being than in the machinery around him or her, I began not to eliminate, but to let things drop away by themselves, and I saw that something more was coming through.

It’s what happens if you’ve got an old picture you’re trying to restore and you know there is something there. You know that there is not only a tree, but there are also beautiful leaves on the tree, and they’re not coming through. So you clean it and clean it and clean it, and suddenly—you’ve done nothing, it was always there—it comes through. That’s the way we work. My collaborators and I encourage one another to have gags, to think up things to throw about in rehearsal, or suddenly say, “Wow, what a good idea!” That’s what happens at the beginning. And then gradually, as we go on, we see that last night’s marvelous idea is no good at all.

We do extensive previews during which we develop the work enormously. Before it was the fashion, we played to all sorts of audiences outside the theater as well as in the theater. Gradually we found that before this ominous thing called “the first night,” there had to be a long process not only with ourselves (which are what rehearsals are considered to be), but also one with an audience. And so the more we could bring in a few people, then a few more people, then gradually more people watching, the more it became a two-way process—and in that way, all sorts of rubbish fell away.

Battlefield runs from April 26 through May 21. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to hear more from Peter Brook? Join us for an In Conversation with the legendary director, his artistic collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, and A.C.T. Resident Dramaturg Michael Paller on May 1. Click here to reserve tickets. Or purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series. 

The Mahabharata: The Epic behind Peter Brook's Battlefield

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell

The ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata is the longest known poem in human history. It is roughly 15 times the length of the Bible and 7 times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. It encompasses such a breadth and depth of the human experience that it has inspired legendary theater director Peter Brook to adapt it for the stage twice: his nine-hour Le Mahabharata (1985) and Battlefield, which runs at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater from April 26 through May 21.

A seventeenth-century depiction of the battle of Kurukshetra.
Artist unknown. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 
Although there are several subplots in the Mahabharata, the main narrative is the story of the rivalry between two sets of cousins: the Kauravas (a hundred brothers descended from demons, led by Duryodhana, the eldest) and the Pandavas (five sons of Pandu who are descended from gods, led by Yudhishthira). Both sides of the family think they are the rightful heirs to the throne of the Kuru kingdom (located in northern India), currently occupied by Pandu.

When Pandu dies, both Yudhishthira and Duryodhana want to take the throne. The kingdom is divided in two, but peace doesn’t last. The Kauravas challenge the Pandavas to a rigged game of dice. When the Pandavas lose, they must live in exile in the forest for 13 years.

When they return, the Kauravas won’t give them their half of the kingdom back. War breaks out, and many die in a great battle. The exact death toll varies from translation to translation; Battlefield says 700,267,000 soldiers died (that’s more than double the population of the United States). After 18 days of fighting, Yudhishthira is victorious and is crowned king.

In the wake of this carnage is where Battlefield begins. Yudhishthira must now find a way to rule over a divided people. How do you rule justly after such a battle? How do you navigate through a world where good can exist within evil, and evil within good?

It is these questions that led Brook and his collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne back to the Mahabharata. “We wanted to speak about what happens after the battle,” says Brook. “On both sides, the leaders go through a moment of profound questions: the ones who won say ‘victory is a defeat’ and the ones who lost admit that ‘they could have prevented that war.’ In the Mahabharata they at least have the strength to ask these questions.”

Battlefield runs from April 26 through May 21 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the Mahabharata and Brook’s adaptations of it? Join us for an In Conversation with the legendary director, his artistic collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, and A.C.T. Resident Dramaturg Michael Paller on May 1. Click here to reserve tickets. Or purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Playing Many Parts: The A.C.T. Fellowship Project 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

By Madelene Tetsch 

Artwork for Orlando, the 2017 Fellowship Project.
Created by Karen Loccisano.
In the final act of Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando, this year’s Fellowship Project running April 20–23 at A.C.T.’s Costume Shop, the titular character laments not having one true and definable identity. Orlando, who is at this point a woman, cannot find a way to unify all she has experienced within herself. How can someone who has lived hundreds of years, under the cultural confines of two genders, feel as though they are one whole and complete person? Orlando longs for a single self that will encompass all of the varied and sometimes conflicting experiences of life.

I identify with Orlando in this moment. While my life is certainly shorter and simpler than Orlando’s, I also have trouble reconciling all of my interests, circumstances, and choices so that they amount to one clear picture. This is true for my life in the theater, where I am still trying to figure out where I best fit and contribute. And so, it was a wonderful relief to be a part of the 2017 Fellowship Project—a theatrical production chosen, produced, and staged by members of A.C.T.’s Fellowship program—where assuming multiple roles was not only encouraged, but essential.

To make this project a success, it was imperative that each fellow involved take on numerous responsibilities. We each had official roles that correspond to our departments at A.C.T. However, those titles don’t show the group effort required to make this show a reality. Every fellow was a fundraiser, every fellow volunteered to work events, every fellow signed up to help with front of house, or load-in, or strike. The pressures of producing the show entirely on our own forced us to stretch ourselves and contribute in ways we might not have imagined at the onset.

A.C.T. Fellows Madelene Tetsch, Victoria Mortimer, and Jess Katz 
during a costume fitting for Orlando. Photo by Emilianne Lewis.
The same held true in the rehearsal room. Our dramaturg is our stage manager as well as our assistant director, and her comprehensive understanding of the play was immeasurably valuable. Each actor portrays more than one character, and it was a delight to see the full range of our cast’s talent and skill. There, fluidity and variety did not hinder or distract us, but helped us shape the show.

As Orlando wonders whether she has an identity at all, the Queen comforts her, saying “you are many things to many people.” In an age that seems to value specialization above all, this is a rare opportunity to take ownership of a project in many capacities. I am grateful to A.C.T. for not only providing the fellows training and experience in our own departments, but allowing us to explore the many possibilities available in theater. Hopefully, the audience will also come away from this show feeling less pressure to define themselves rigidly, and instead find joy in the many different ways they are themselves.

Orlando runs April 20–23 at The Costume Shop, 1117 Market Street. Email to reserve tickets. For more about A.C.T.’s Fellowship Program, click here.

Madelene Tetsch is the Development Fellow at A.C.T. 

Reinvention: Jean Cocteau in Needles and Opium

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell 

When Needles and Opium creator Robert Lepage was first introduced to French writer, film director, and visual artist Jean Cocteau in the 1970s, he immediately recognized a kindred spirit. Here was another artist whose interest in the relationship between form and content mirrored his own.

Olivier Normand in Needles and Opium. Photo by Tristram Kenton.
From a young age, Jean Cocteau was entranced by all forms of art: painting, drawing, sculpture, writing of every kind, dance, opera, theater, and music. In 1909, Cocteau met Sergei Diaghilev, the manager of the iconic Ballets Russes. When Cocteau expressed interest in working with the ballet, Diaghilev responded, “Etonne–moi.” (“Astonish me.”)

Astonish is precisely what Cocteau spent his entire life trying to do. Until his death in 1963, he was a whirlwind of artistic activity as he attempted to impress and amaze. Although today he is best known for his filmmaking—he made six films over the course of his life, the most famous being La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast) in 1946—he also produced four novels, seven plays, seven poetry collections, four autobiographical works, thousands of drawings, several essays, and a handful of sculptures.

Despite his extensive creative output and his friendship with many members of the Parisian avant-garde, he never quite achieved the same level of fame as other artists of his time. Because of his ability to participate in so many fields, many of his contemporary critics called him an “acrobat,” a show-off without the intellectual substance to back up his art.

“No doubt the sheer variety of his output contributes to his discredit by exposing him too much and emphasizing his about-faces,” says biographer Claude Arnaud. “But he was incapable of premeditation. . . . He didn’t know if what he did was excellent or insipid: he just did, the way blacksmiths forge or bees gather pollen.”

Needles and Opium runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Jean Cocteau and Robert Lepage? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

The Role of a Lifetime: Georgia Engel in Annie Baker's John

Saturday, April 15, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Imagine having your first lead role come your way at the age of 68. That is what happened to Georgia Engel (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) after she played a small role in an adaptation of Uncle Vanya by contemporary American playwright Annie Baker.

Georgia Engel (Mertis) in A.C.T.'s 2017 production
of John. Photo by Kevin Berne.
“On closing night, she came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘I’m gonna write a play for you,’” said Engel in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner. That play is John, which is currently running at The Strand Theater through April 23.

In John, Engel plays Mertis, the eccentric proprietor of a Gettysburg bed and breakfast who can best be described as a “cross between Betty White and Yoda.” Behind her sugary voice and love of tchotchkes lies an incredible intellectual curiosity. She loves H. P. Lovecraft and romantic comedies equally. She has memorized dozens of collective nouns for birds: a flock of ducks, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks.

“Annie has an incredible ear for humanity,” says Engel in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “The most profound part of what she does it give you a little nonjudgmental look at how funny we human beings are and how we struggle to find happiness.”

It is Baker’s ability to create such complex characters that has brought Engel back to this bed and breakfast again and again. Engel first played Mertis in John’s premiere at Signature Theatre Company in 2015. And after John’s run at A.C.T. ends in April, Engel is flying off to play the role again at London’s Royal National Theatre in 2018.

John runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Annie Baker and Mertis's eclectic interests? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.  

Mentorship in Action: Horton Foote's Tomorrow

Thursday, April 13, 2017

By Nathan Correll and Elspeth Sweatman

“I relate to Horace, Jr. more than any other character I’ve had the privilege of playing,” says Young Conservatory actor Nathan Correll about Horton Foote’s The Actor, one of two short plays that make up Tomorrow, which runs April 18–22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. “First, I was born in Houston, Texas, and lived around the same area as this character. Second, I grew up around a family that wasn’t exactly used to the idea of having an actor in the family, though they believed in me a lot earlier than Horace’s parents do.”

YC actor Nathan Correll in Punk Rock, 2016.
Photo by Jay Yamada.
The Actor, commissioned by the YC, is an autobiographical play that tells the story of Foote’s own reckoning as a teenager. Growing up in Depression-era Texas with the dream of becoming an actor, Horace must stick to his convictions amidst ridicule from his peers and fear of failure from his parents.

Paired with The Actor is another of Foote’s short plays, Blind Date. Hilarious and unflinchingly honest, it imagines a meeting of two fragile teens manipulated by adults with personal agendas and offers up a world where teenagers are wiser and more grounded than the adults.

The adults in both of these plays are played by two A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program actors. “Working with the M.F.A. Program actors has been an amazing experience,” says Correll. “From the table-read to the scene-partner work, they amaze and wow me every second. Their work ethic and complete emotional and physical commitment to the work has been inspiring. In my final monologue as Horace, I talk about my parents, and the looks in their eyes as I share these memories with them reflect a complete commitment to the text.”

These two short plays are the last A.C.T. show directed by Young Conservatory director Craig Slaight, who retires in May. “Since my first class at A.C.T., Craig has watched and encouraged my work,” says Correll. “It is difficult to put into words how much I have learned and how much I value Craig. He has taught me not only to value the words on the page and the development of my character, but also to recognize and incorporate everything that is happening around me.”

“Playwright Horton Foote was a mentor for Craig and I am proud that Craig is my mentor. I am honored to be a part of Craig’s last directed play as the director of the Young Conservatory and value the connection created and passed down from mentor to student as a continuous connection from past to present. He means the world to me, and no doubt, many others in the theater community.”

Tomorrow runs April 18–22 at The Rueff at A.C.T. Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Needles and Opium: The Backstage Pass

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

By Simon Hodgson 

While audiences have been dazzled by the onstage acrobatics of Needles and Opium, the backstage choreography demanded by this striking production is equally impressive. On a special behind-the-scenes tour for press and A.C.T. executive producers last Friday, three members of the Needles technical crew revealed some of the techniques and tools behind this extraordinary show.

The tilted cube itself is 10-feet square, made of plywood panels on an aluminum frame. Tour Manager Charlotte Ménard said it weighs around three tons. It is powered by a 3000-watt step motor manufactured by Québec-based set design company Scène Éthique. The cube rotates on a central axis, with the motor running almost soundlessly. On the small platform built above the motor, Video Manager Thomas Payette makes sure the show is unfolding according to plan, with infra-red cameras tracking the movement of the cube and the crew and projecting the images onto his two monitors.

When the cube is rotating, the scene changes need to happen quickly and precisely, even in almost total darkness. Stagehand Julien Leclerc described a moment when Pierre Gagné, the head stagehand, has a window of two seconds to remove a chair before the cube’s “floor” turned to become a wall. If he doesn’t take the furniture cleanly, it will crash down onto the set.

Precision and practice are vital for this crew. Every aperture in the cube’s sides—which open and close throughout the show to represent windows, doors, and a hotel bed—needs to be secured from both sides so that it doesn’t fly open at the wrong moment.

The same detailed attention to safety applies to the actors’ gear. Leclerc showed us a coil of charcoal gray rope used to secure actors Olivier Normand and Wellesley Robertson III as they move nimbly inside the rotating set. The rope was a 12-strand synethetic cable reportedly stronger than metal. “This was originally developed by the military,” he said. “The breaking strain is 5,600 pounds, so we’re not even tickling the material.”

The technical demands of Needles and Opium mean that the crew, the equipment, and the actors must work together with complete trust. It’s one of the reasons why, says Ménard, this show features the unusual sight of the technical crew taking a bow at the end of the play. “It’s a way to thank them and to show the audience how many people are responsible for this production.”

Needles and Opium runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the aesthetic of Robert Lepage? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Spirit of the Age: the Paris of Needles and Opium

Saturday, April 8, 2017

By Jess Katz

In Needles and Opium, running at The Geary Theater through April 23, theater artist Robert Lepage weaves together the lives of Parisian filmmaker Jean Cocteau and jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. But he also populates the play with the spirits of Paris’s leading philosophers and artists.

Simone de Beauvoir. Photo by Brassai, 1944. Courtesy Flickr.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) was the author of several works, foremost among them Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex, 1949), one of the foundational texts in second-wave feminist theory and criticism. Along with penning revolutionary treatises and authoring critically acclaimed fiction, de Beauvoir unapologetically broke with tradition in her personal life. She never married, never had children, nurtured a lifelong relationship with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and had myriad lovers (men and women). Her intellectual appetite and her relationship with Sartre have cemented her status as a postwar Paris provocateur.

Jean-Paul Sartre. Photographer unknown, 1965.
Courtesy Dutch National Archives

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) is famous for his contributions to the existentialist movement with novels (La nausée, or Nausea, 1938), philosophical essays (L’être et le néant, or Being and Nothingness, 1943), and plays (Huis clos, or No Exit, 1944). His philosophical stance was deeply tied to his work as a writer. His novels and plays are concerned with representing people as close to their unvarnished selves as possible. These representations are often highly unflattering as his characters struggle with dignity and confront their capacity for cruelty and the consequences of their actions.

Juliette Gréco. Photo by Ron Kroon/Anefo, 1966.
Courtesy Dutch National Archives.

Juliette Gréco (born 1927) is a renowned French actor and singer who has been active in Paris culture and arts since the late 1940s. In 1949, she met jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. The relationship that bloomed between them defied conventions of race and distance. Davis loved Gréco but rejected marriage, because he worried that racism toward him would negatively affect her career abroad, particularly in the US. Gréco went on to become a leading French actor and musical artist. She released her latest album in 2015 at the age of 88.

Needles and Opium runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Paris in 1949? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Jess Katz is the Artistic Fellow at A.C.T. 

The Illusion of Normality: An Interview with John Director Ken Rus Schmoll

Thursday, April 6, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman 

"I find John terrifying, but find it impossible to pinpoint why," says director Ken Rus Schmoll. "That's what attracts me to it. It's like driving down a road in the fog. You can only see a few yards ahead of you, and you never seem to arrive at your destination." As the New York–based director prepared to direct the haunting John—running through April 23 at The Strand Theater—we caught up with him to chat about bed-and-breakfasts, playwright Annie Baker, and presenting reality onstage.

Director Ken Rus Schmoll. Photo by Zack DeZon.
What is your favorite thing about John
I love the characters. Each of them is deeply knowable and deeply mysterious. One of the play's preoccupations is how different generations relate to one another. In addition to the young couple, there are two roles for actresses in their seventies that are complex, far from the stereotypical "old ladies" that permeate popular culture. Old age, though not necessarily a hallowed state of being, is where wisdom fructifies.

What research have you done for John
Scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg and I went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and knocked on the doors of bed-and-breakfasts. We were invited into many of them and sent hours with the various proprietors looking through rooms, photographing architectural details, taking notes on how they were decorated and organized. Secretly, we were compiling mental portraits of the proprietors themselves, to understand the type of person who would choose to run a B and B.

What conversations have you had with the design team? 
Mostly about naturalism. The primary setting is more or less an exact replica of a bed-and-breakfast. We've been focusing on the minutiae of real life—actual objects that have wear, that have history; the way sunlight streams through a window; and how conversations in another room sound through walls.

What makes Annie Baker's plays powerful? Why do they resonate with so many people?
They are generous with audiences. There is something immediately recognizable in each of her plays, often the setting (a movie theater, a bed-and-breakfast), sometimes a situation (friends hanging out). At the same time, she does not fill in every detail of the story. She allows space for the audience to project themselves into her worlds and to wander among the thoughts of the characters and their own thoughts, too. Annie's plays are like a communal garden divided into individual plots, where each audience member may plant whatever he or she prefers.

What are the challenges of performing John at The Strand Theater? 
The Strand is so oddly shaped! As a former movie theater, it is quite deep. The front row of the orchestra and the last row of the balcony provide vastly different viewing experiences. The challenge is to create intimacy with each audience member.

John runs through April 23 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about the creation of John and the numinous? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Addiction and Creativity in Needles and Opium

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell 

In Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium—running through April 23 at The Geary Theater—we are confronted with a familiar image: a drug-addicted artist. But is there a connection between addiction and creativity?

Olivier Normand as Jean Cocteau in Needles and Opium. Photo by Tristram Kenton.
Many people initially assume that artists use drugs to enhance their creative abilities. Scientifically, there is some truth to this: drugs alter a person’s state of mind, leading them to stumble upon ideas they may not have developed while sober. But these substances can also severely inhibit a person’s ability to act on those new ideas. And sometimes, it turns out that the drug does nothing at all.

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis knew that drugs wouldn’t increase his creative capacity when he increasingly began using heroin in 1949. “I wasn’t never into that trip that if you shot heroin you might be able to play like Bird [Charlie Parker],” he says in his autobiography. He started using the drug because of the depression he felt upon returning to America following his trip to Paris in 1949; his music wasn’t appreciated in the US like it had been in France. And he missed Juliette Gréco, the singer he had fallen in love with in Europe. Heroin wreaked havoc on his creativity, his body, and his happiness. It wasn’t until he detoxed in 1954 that his joy returned, and with it, his creativity.

Filmmaker and artist Jean Cocteau’s addiction initially had nothing to do with his art. He starting using opium to numb the pain he suffered after the death of Raymond Radiguet, the object of his affections. He grew to love opium, and yet even in his book Opium: The Diary of His Cure, in which he espoused the wonders of opium, he rarely mentioned that he felt it enhanced his creativity. In fact, says biographer Claude Arnaud, it had the opposite effect; it rendered him lethargic, so he didn’t feel the fiery need to create that he experienced while sober.

The connection between addiction and creativity has not been studied with conclusive results. When all is said and done, the causes of addiction are as varied as addicts themselves. Some artists may use drugs because they erroneously believe that they enhance creativity. Some may turn to substances to ease the mental stress that comes with the territory of being an artist.

No matter what the cause, addicted artists have complicated relationships with their substances of choice. Cocteau and Davis loved the way that drugs made them feel at first, but addiction took its toll on their happiness, their wellbeing, and their work. What is important to remember is that there is always something behind addiction, and if this is never addressed, the addiction will not go away. As Cocteau said in Opium, “If you hear someone say: ‘X . . . has killed himself smoking opium,’ you should know that it is impossible, and that this death conceals something else.”

Needles and Opium runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

The Music of Needles and Opium

Thursday, March 30, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman 

On March 30, the Prince of Darkness takes over The Geary. In Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis succumbs to the bliss and torment of heroin addiction, displacement, and love, only to rise again and create some of his most iconic music.

Wellesley Robertson III (left) and Olivier Normand in Needles and Opium. Photo by Tristram Kento.
The Davis we meet in Needles and Opium is a far cry from the global superstar that he became. In 1948, Davis was just 22 years old. He was a leading player in New York City’s 52nd Street jazz clubs and arrived in Paris with the Tadd Dameron Quintet to play in the Festival International de Jazz. In the city of light, Davis found that audiences were much more receptive to the quintet’s radical new form of jazz—bebop.

Bebop was music for your ears, not your dancing feet. In contrast to the Dixieland style (popularized by swing bands during the 1930s), bebop was built on polyphony (each member of the ensemble is melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically independent from the others). As a result, the style was dominated by virtuoso players like Charlie Parker (saxophonist), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), and Thelonious Monk (piano).

For those two weeks in Paris, Davis was treated like a god. But when he returned to New York City two weeks later, he was brought down to earth with a jolt. There was no work to be had. Depressed and frustrated, he turned to heroin as a distraction. His creativity deserted him, and he became too sick to play.

Only after Davis kicked his habit cold turkey did his creativity return. In the years following his recovery (1954–57), he formed a new quintet and recorded 22 albums, including Miles Davis All Stars Volumes 1 and 2 (1955), Walkin’ (1957), and ’Round About Midnight (1957). Led by the unique lyrical, smoldering, metallic quality of Davis’s trumpet with his stemless Harmon mute, Davis’s quintet—trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass, and drums—became the pinnacle of the jazz movement at the time.

Miles Davis and Howard McGhee, September 1947. By William P. Gottleib.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1957, Davis returned to Paris as a jazz musician celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. At Orly Airport, he was greeted by film director Louis Malle, who wanted him to create the soundtrack for his latest film, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, 1958). Davis agreed.

The soundtrack became the impetus for a new sound for Davis, one that would define the next ten years of his career and push jazz into new territory. Because Davis didn’t have time to rehearse with the group, he decided to create music based around a mode—a single scale—rather than chord progressions. This allowed the players to have more freedom in the melodic and harmonic lines.

Back in the US, Davis continued to experiment with modes. Freed from the rigidity of chord progressions, he was able to leave more space in his solos, play fewer notes, and in a smaller range. It simplified his music, giving it an incredible emotional poignancy. Davis used this new sound for perhaps one of the most influential of his jazz albums, Kind of Blue (1959). This style became known as “cool” jazz.

Needles and Opium opens March 30 and runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Love Jazz? Join us on April 13th and 20th for Jazz in Fred’s Bar after the show! Music artist Jessica Lá Rel will be performing.

In Memoriam: Joan Sadler

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

A.C.T. mourns the loss of Joan Sadler, one of our most energetic and beloved board members, who passed away on Sunday, March 26.

Joan Sadler and Carey Perloff at the
2013 A.C.T. Conservatory Awards Luncheon.
Joan has been a part of A.C.T.’s family since the beginning. Just after moving to the Bay area in 1966, she attended the opening night performance of Tartuffe, A.C.T.’s first production in The Geary Theater. She was so moved that she immediately began supporting the company, bringing her tireless creative energy and experience as a freelance actor, broadcaster, visual artist, and photographer to the company’s volunteer organization, the Friends of A.C.T. She then served as secretary and vice president of the California Association for A.C.T., a fundraising foundation that helped keep the company afloat as it established itself in San Francisco.

When founding artistic director William Ball retired in 1986, Joan was active in A.C.T.’s reorganization, serving as president of the newly formed A.C.T. Board of Trustees from 1987 to 1989. She helped guide the organization as it undertook the search for a new artistic director.

After her retirement, Joan served on A.C.T.’s Conservatory Committee. She was particularly inspired by the role the Conservatory plays in contributing to the strength of A.C.T., and the culture of San Francisco. In 2002, she established the annual Joan Sadler Award, given to a third-year A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program actor for his or her exemplary work, both as a student and as a graduate who will represent the highest standards and traditions of the theatrical art.

Joan Sadler, H. Harrison Sadler, and William H. Draper, III. 1967.
In 2013, Joan received A.C.T.’s Benefactor Award for her tireless support and nurturing enthusiasm for the next generation of theater artists.

“Joan Sadler was one of the true ‘founding mothers’ of A.C.T.,” says Artistic Director Carey Perloff. “It was she who always said that the most important thing about A.C.T. was its focus on the future. She was passionate about the M.F.A. Program and watched with incredible pride the success of our graduates. I think the reason Joan seemed vital and young to me well into her nineties was the joy she took in the new, in the risk-taking, in artistic dreams and bold adventures. She just delighted in watching the creative process. A week before her death, I had the most vigorous conversation with Joan about our 50th Anniversary Open House at the Geary; she was immensely frustrated she couldn't be there herself, and wanted all the gossip and all the news! I know now she is looking down on us with those sparking eyes and enormous grin, urging us to keep the great experiment alive. Bless you, Joan!”

Annie Baker's John and the Uncanny

Monday, March 27, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

In Annie Baker’s John, running through April 23 at The Strand Theater, the word “watch”—in all its derivations—is used 37 times: 22 in the dialogue, and 15 in the stage directions. But what does it mean to watch and be watched? What does it feel like?

A doll. Photo by Em Cecile, 2011. Courtesy of Flickr.
You walk into an art gallery. As you move from painting to painting, you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You become hyperaware of those around you. You react to every movement, every sound. Your brain is sensing a threat, but from where? Then, you realize: the eyes in the paintings are following you. You are being watched.

The reason some people feel this way in an art gallery is because the human brain is “designed to read faces for important information about intentions, emotions, and potential threats,” says journalist Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. As human beings, we look to the eyes for important social cues and information about our environment. By looking at someone’s eyes and following his gaze, say social psychologist Ilan Shrira and professor Joshua D. Foster, we can tell how he is feeling, what he likes or doesn’t like, and what might be a potential danger in our surroundings. So watching and being watched helps us to communicate and keeps us safe.

But why does our brain react to inanimate objects, like paintings or dolls? They don’t have preferences or emotions. The human brain responds like this because it cannot fully distinguish between a living person standing in front of us and the image of a person—whether it’s a doll, a painting, or a photograph. The brain continues to read faces for information and guidance as to how we should behave.

Because our brains take time to distinguish between the face of a human being and the face of an inanimate object, we view them in the same way: as a source of information and a potential threat. We attribute to objects human characteristics—like an inner life—and expect them to operate by human social codes. When they don’t, we become wary. We become caught between something that is familiar (it has a human-like face) and yet unfamiliar (it doesn’t speak or express emotion). “However much we know that a doll is (likely) not a threat,” says McRobbie, “seeing a face that looks human but isn’t unsettles our most basic instincts.”

John runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about Annie Baker, the uncanny, and being watched? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

Walking Down Walls: The Visual World of Needles and Opium

Thursday, March 23, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell

A technological transformation is taking place on the Geary stage. Actors are putting on their harnesses and walking down the walls of a revolving cube in Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium, which runs from March 30 to April 23 at The Geary Theater.

Needles and Opium is an exploration of creativity, addiction, and loneliness. It follows the lives of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, and a lovesick man named Robert (based on Robert Lepage). As these tales interweave, projections swirl, the entire set revolves, and the actors burst out of the walls and floor.

These technological and acrobatic feats are signature elements for Lepage, whose theatrical credits include two Cirque du Soleil shows. But they are not just for show. To Lepage, the spinning cube that makes up the main element of Needles and Opium’s scenic design reflects the vertigo caused by opium, heroin, and love. The way the actors (Wellesley Robertson III and Olivier Normand, both trained acrobats) have to clamber and adjust their balance as the cube spins evokes feelings of struggling to stay on one’s feet when love is lost or found. And being confined to that cube could mimic the claustrophobia and loneliness of being an outsider in a place that you do not call home.

Lepage believes the key to theater is transformation—not just of characters, but of the mise-en-scène. He says: “[I am] drawn to plays in which the characters are transformed, but also to plays in which the sets are transformed and matter transcended. It’s incredible to be able to travel through time and place, to infinity, all on a single stage.”

Needles and Opium runs from March 30 through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.
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.