A Sneak Peek at A.C.T. in 2018

Friday, December 29, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Happy New Year! Because of patrons and theater fans like you, 2017 was a shining year for A.C.T. This year we celebrated our 50th anniversary, staged the world premiere of the hit new play A Thousand Splendid Suns, welcomed audiences to our second annual New Strands Festival, and kicked off the new season on a high note with Tony Award–nominated actor John Douglas Thompson as the prince of Denmark. As we look ahead to 2018, here is a sneak peek at A.C.T.’s upcoming shows that are sure to dazzle in the new year.

Show artwork for A.C.T.'s 2018 production of The Birthday Party.
The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter at The Geary Theater, directed by Carey Perloff (January 10–February 4, 2018)

A star-studded cast takes the Geary stage as A.C.T. returns to the mysterious world of Harold Pinter in our first staging of his groundbreaking play The Birthday Party. Tony Award winner Judith Ivey joins Stratford Festival star Scott Wentworth and A.C.T. favorites Marco Barricelli and Firdous Bamji for this darkly comic British drama.

Vietgone by Qui Nguyen at The Strand Theater, directed by Jaime Castañeda (February 21–April 22, 2018)

Bold, vivid, and utterly fresh, Vietgone is an irreverent new comedy from one of American theater’s most innovative and lauded new playwrights. In this contemporary twist on the classic story of boy meets girl, three young Vietnamese immigrants leave their war-torn country for an eye-opening road trip across the bewildering and foreign landscape of 1970s America.

Heisenberg by Simon Stephens at The Geary Theater, directed by Hal Brooks (March 14­–April 8, 2018)

In a bustling London train station, free-spirited American Georgie unexpectedly kisses mid-70s British butcher Alex, and sets his world reeling. When she turns up in his shop a few days later, he is suspicious. Is she really attracted to him, or is there a longer con on the cards? As Alex is drawn into Georgie’s anarchic world, his conventional life becomes chaotic, uncertain, and undeniably richer.

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3) by Suzan-Lori Parks at The Geary Theater, directed by Liz Diamond (April 25–May 20, 2018)

From Pulitzer Prize–winner Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) comes an explosively powerful and lyrical new play set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. In this epic take on the Odyssey, Southern slave Hero faces a terrible choice: to earn his freedom by fighting for the Confederacy alongside his master, or to stay home with the woman and family he loves but remain a slave.

A.C.T.'s Geary Theater in 2017. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A Walk on the Moon by Paul Scott Goodman and Pamela Gray at The Geary Theater, directed by Sheryl Kaller (June 5–July 1, 2018)

Based on the award-winning film, this stunning new musical unites the landscape of Borscht Belt comedy, the radical spirit of sixties revolution, and the electricity of two newfound romances to create a soaring and original rock and roll score.

To learn more about the 2017–18 season, click here. Information about season subscription packages can be found here.

My Walk-On Role at A.C.T.'s A Christmas Carol

Friday, December 22, 2017

By Julia Ludwig

Most years, A.C.T.'s annual gala auctions a behind-the-scenes experience and walk-on role for the production of A Christmas Carol. As a part of my special events fellowship at A.C.T. during the 2016–17 season, I had the chance to chaperone our younger walk-on role participants. It was a fun and engaging experience, and I won't soon forget taking a bow on the Geary stage with the entire Christmas Carol company.

Julia Ludwig dressed in her costume for the 2016 production
of A.C.T.'s A Christmas Carol. Photo courtesy Julia Ludwig.
One of my favorite parts of the process was trying on costumes at A.C.T.'s costume shop. With more than 20,000 costumes, there are rows of colorful clothing and accessories from every era you can imagine—it's a dream closet. Once the costume team took my measurements, they picked out some options for me to try on. I loved the shoes I got to wear.

On the day of the performance, I met the two children I would be walking on with at the stage door an hour before the show. We were told that we'd be crossing the stage a few times during the town scenes and then we'd be included in an ensemble number toward the end of the show. Before getting into costume, we warmed up for the performance by playing some improvisation games and practicing vocal exercises with the other young actors. 

After warm-ups, stage manager Karen Szpaller and her team walked us through our "track" (theater lingo for stage blocking). Even though I'm a seasoned performer, I was feeling a little nervous! Karen encouraged us to get into character by coming up with backstories for our performance—this helped me get into the right headspace.

The finale of A.C.T.'s 2016 production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Since we weren't onstage until the last scene of the show, we waited to get into our costumes until the first act had ended. With the help of A.C.T.'s costume dressers, we were dressed up in Victorian garments and ready to be a part of Carol's winter wonderland. At just the right moment, Karen called us to our places and we walked into the spotlight. Even though we had rehearsed, nothing can prepare you for the energy and excitement you feel from the audience as you step into the light.

During this scene, we shook hands with the villagers and sung the joyous finale song with the entire cast. The show ends triumphantly when Tiny Tim says, "God bless us, everyone" and then snow falls from the sky. In this moment, the magic of theater takes over. After this, the curtain comes down, and the cast scurries offstage to their places for curtain bows. As walk-ons, we were the first to take our bow, so we stood directly behind the curtain and waited for a beat. When the velvet curtain flew up, the lights were too bright for us to see a single face, but we could feel the love of the roaring audience. The Geary Theater is a magnificent space and I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to grace its historic stage.

Julia Ludwig was A.C.T.'s 2016–17 Special Events Fellow. She is currently at Marin Theatre Company as its Development Associate.

A Christmas Carol runs through December 24 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Diving into the Past: M.F.A. Actor Lily Narbonne's Carol Experience

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

By Taylor Steinbeck

Beautiful and haunting, the Ghost of Christmas Past's sweeping entrance across the Geary stage is one of the most memorable moments in A.C.T.'s time-honored classic, A Christmas Carol. The actor who plays the ghost each year is tasked with the unique challenge of being strapped into a swing and hoisted above the audience, all the while maintaining an air of elegance. Third-year Master of Fine Arts Program actor, and self-proclaimed daredevil Lily Narbonne was undaunted by this though. We sat down with Narbonne to chat about defying gravity, embracing the past, and scaring Scrooge.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Lily Narbonne) in
A.C.T.'s 2017 production of A Christmas Carol.
What can you tell me about Christmas Past’s costume?

She has an ethereal, otherworldly nature about her and the costume reflects that. In Charles Dickens’s original text, he describes her like a light, so in our production, she is supposed to be the embodiment of a flame. What’s amazing about the costume is that it’s one of costume designer Beaver Bauer’s original creations from the first production of Carol. And you can kind of tell because it has some wear to it, but it really works since it’s Past’s costume.

There’s also a lot of secrets with the costume. Underneath the dress I have these biker shorts and the harness for the swing over them. So that’s kind of brilliant, I didn’t realize that it would be as compact as it is, so it can easily go onto the costume.

How has the swing been? Are you comfortable in it?

It’s great! I love heights actually. I like cliff jumping—I haven’t done it in a while, but I used to dive into quarries in Massachusetts. So yeah, being in the swing is exhilarating. It’s like 25 feet or so up in the air. But that’s not the challenge. The hard thing for me is landing the graceful dismount in a way that isn’t noticeable.

What has it been like performing on the Geary stage for the first time?

Amazing! I’ve been on the Geary stage a couple of times for readings and classes, but it’s a completely different story when you’ve got awesome actors like Jim Carpenter (Scrooge) to work with and a whole intense costume and a wig.

Draper Keely Weiman and M.F.A. Program actor Lily Narbonne during her costume fitting.
Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
This is the first year that Christmas Past doesn’t sing her song. Is there a reason for that?

Every ghost used to have a song, but over the years, they’ve gradually been cut, so Christmas Past's was the only one that still had one. For this year’s production, our director Domenique (Lozano) wanted her presence to be more terrifying, and the song just made her seem too friendly and warm, which doesn’t really make sense given that Jacob Marley tells Scrooge, “You will be haunted by three ghosts.” Scrooge can’t be so willing right away to follow her into the past. And that’s just not our world right now. It’s not easy to sway people who are emotionally blocked or are money-hungry. It’s takes work.

What has been your favorite part of this experience so far?

It’s been wonderful to work with the Young Conservatory actors. They have so much energy—it’s contagious. And then the adult company has performed Carol so many times that they do it with such ease. They’re also so open-hearted to us. So it’s been a really amazing transition from my third year of the M.F.A. Program into this professional opportunity.

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

Behind the Scenes at A.C.T.: An Interview with Wardrobe Supervisor Mary Montijo

Friday, December 15, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman 

Mary (Beatriz Miranda) and Fred (Oliver Shirley) in A.C.T.'s 
production of A Christmas CarolPhoto by Kevin Berne.

A Christmas Carol was the first production Wardrobe Supervisor Mary Montijo worked on when she joined A.C.T. 12 years ago, and it remains one of the most challenging. “It’s an exercise in controlled chaos,” she says. “There are so many actors—usually 50, with more than half of them from the Young Conservatory—and so many costumes: more than 1,000 individual pieces!” Before the “controlled chaos” of this year’s Carol began, we sat down with Montijo to learn more about the life of a wardrobe supervisor.

For someone not in theater, what does a wardrobe supervisor do?

In a nutshell, we make sure every actor is always in the right costume, head-to-toe, at every point throughout the show. There’s a lot more to it than that, though. Here at A.C.T., the wardrobe supervisor acts as a liaison between the costume designer, the costume shop, and the actors.

What does that mean? 

We convey information to the actors for each costume look, and make sure the designer’s vision is followed throughout the run of the show. We also work with stage management to set up a costume flow—so we know where every costume piece is throughout the show—and work with the actors to choreograph quick-changes. Sometimes costumes need to be “quick-rigged” in order to make the costume changes in the allotted time—often only seconds!

 What about once the show is up and running?

The wardrobe supervisor is in charge of maintaining the costumes: repairs, laundry, arranging for dry-cleaning. And once the show closes, we oversee the organizing and packing of the costumes, either for transport back to the costume shop, or on to the next venue.

Costumes for A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.

What are some of your favorite shows that you have worked on?
There are so many I’ve really enjoyed: Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter (2009), Arcadia (2013), Indian Ink (2015), and A Little Night Music (2015). But I would have to say my favorite was Old Hats (2014).

Is there anything else about wardrobe supervising that you would like people to know?

You will never need a gym membership! I make so many trips up and down stairs from the dressing rooms in the basement to the stage level, carrying baskets of costumes, that I get a good workout every performance.

A Christmas Carol
runs through December 24 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. For more information about A.C.T.’s costume shop, click here.

Masters of Merry-Making: Returning YC Actors in Carol Part Two

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

With A Christmas Carol pulling in crowds at the Geary Theater, we reached out to five of our Young Conservatory returning actors—Alejandra Zavala (11 years old), Mattea Fountain (12 years old), Maximilian Wix (12 years old), Pilar Rivas (11 years old), and Seth Weinfield (13 years old)—to ask about their Carol experiences. This is Part Two.

The Young Conservatory actors of the 2017 production of A Christmas Carol.
What is your favorite part of the show?

Pilar Rivas: My favorite part of the show is the beginning. Everything is so bright and lively. My favorite part about being in the show is meeting all the wonderful people.

What has been the most challenging part of being in the show?

Mattea Fountain: I live in the East Bay, so it's a solid hour of travel from home to the theater, and then another hour back. Over the course of two months that is hard on me and my family. I usually don't get all eight days of Hanukkah with my family, but I do get to celebrate with my theater family! Each role brings new challenges: learning lines, projecting, learning a new dance—that's what keeps it interesting.

Seth Weinfield: Two-show days can be hard. It’s especially hard to keep your energy up for the second show, but a coffee run really helps!

What have you learned by being in A Christmas Carol?

Alejandra Zavala: I have learned to do things that I never imagined I could ever do. For example, twirling my hips as a Turkish fig in a way that makes the audience laugh with joy. A.C.T. has opened my mind to have fun even when I'm put under pressure.

How have you grown as a performer?

Max Wix:
 I have learned that if you make a mistake, the adult actors do a really good job of improvising, which makes the audience think that you were supposed to make the mistake all along. Someday, I’ll be able to improvise as well as the older actors.

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

The Cast of Small Mouth Sounds Recalls Their First Performances

Friday, December 8, 2017

By Taylor Steinbeck

Though Small Mouth Sounds is closing at The Strand this weekend, over at The Geary Theater, performances of A.C.T.'s annual production of A Christmas Carol are just beginning. In Carol, 29 members of the cast are made up A.C.T.'s Young Conservatory students, with many of these young actors making their professional acting debut. To celebrate its opening tonight, we reached out to some of the Small Mouth Sounds cast to find out about their first memories of performing.

Judy (Cherene Snow) and Joan (Socorro Santiago) share a moment in A.C.T.'s production
 of Small Mouth Sounds. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Ben Beckley (Ned): There are recordings of me acting out fairy tales with my grandmother when I could barely talk, but my first vivid memory of performing was the exit applause I got in the sixth grade as the Artful Dodger in a straight adaption of Oliver. That, and a mildly disastrous middle school production of Antigone the same year.

Cherene Snow (Judy): My first performance was in kindergarten in Little Red Hen, but only my mother remembers this. After acting in my first film—Cooley High (1975)—I knew I wanted to be a performer for the rest of my life.

Connor Barrett (Jan): In middle school, my class co-wrote a play with our amazing teacher, Mr. James Sylvia and we got to perform it. It was either an homage to Noël Coward, or we just heavily ripped him off.

Edward Chin-Lyn (Rodney): My first memory of performing was as a narrator in an elementary school play. I froze onstage and ran off—I was a shy kid. I later found my way into acting during college after taking an introduction to acting class as my arts elective.

Socorro Santiago (Joan): I was seven years old, performing Abbott and Costello skits on the street with my sister.

Orville Mendoza (Teacher): I started singing in church when I was six or seven. There was a Christian acting troupe that came to our church and they needed a boy to play Isaac in the recreation of Abraham and Isaac. I was chosen. The acting bug bit me!

A.C.T.’s production of Small Mouth Sounds ends this Sunday, December 10, at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the production? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Comedian Colin Quinn to Deliver Laughs @TheStrand

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

In need of some laughs to ease the stress of this holiday season? Funnyman Colin Quinn has got you covered. The former Saturday Night Live cast member will be bringing his latest one-man show, One in Every Crowd, to A.C.T.’s Strand Theater for five performances running from December 14–17.

Artwork for Colin Quinn: One in Every Crowd.
Quinn’s appearance at The Strand will be his only West Coast stop during his 2017–18 North American tour, which will have him performing across the US and Canada. The New York native is returning to the road after taking a seven-year break to write and perform comedy shows for Broadway audiences. His most recent show, The New York Story, was directed by Jerry Seinfeld and was released on Netflix in 2016. To get a feel for Quinn’s unique brand of comedy, take a look at the trailer for his Netflix stand-up special below.

Equipped with razor-sharp wit and an eye for observational humor, Quinn’s smart jokes and engaging stories are sure to entertain. This season Quinn isn’t the only acclaimed comedian performing in A.C.T.’s @TheStrand series. Three-time Emmy Award winner Louie Anderson will also be presenting a limited engagement this January. With these two comics coming to The Strand this winter, San Francisco is about to be served up some serious laughs.

Colin Quinn: One in Every Crowd
runs December 14–17 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

The Man Behind the Magic: An Interview with Carol Scenic Designer John Arnone

Friday, December 1, 2017

This interview is adapted from the Christmas Carol edition of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

A dazzling treat for the eye, A.C.T.’s annual production of A Christmas Carol has become a Bay Area holiday tradition over its 13-year run. We looked back at our 2010 Q&A with Carol scenic designer John Arnone to find out what inspired the set’s beautiful and haunting visuals.
The concept sketch for the set of A.C.T.'s Christmas Carol. By John Arnone.
How did you approach designing the set?

As a team, we discussed the town and its atmosphere, the context for the piece, which is Dickens’s London. We wanted to convey the feeling of the congestion and the industrialization, as well as the paranoia and fear. Then we discussed the interiors, and the fact that there is only one interior that is real: Scrooge’s bedroom. It’s very claustrophobic, which I think is a metaphor for how dark Scrooge’s life has become.

How did you get the idea for the Ghost of Christmas Future as a puppet?

You never see [Christmas Future] in full detail, so you never really know what you’re looking at. It’s more of a frightening, hovering presence, and it serves as a sort of host for the last part of the production, which is what we call the “nightmare sequence.” Christmas Future became a part of the scenery—it is surreal and otherworldly and larger than life.

The set model looks very colorful, though.

The town does look colorful, but it’s also very dark. We were looking at some artistic techniques, such as watercolor, that could be abstract, dreamlike, and impressionistic—and also somewhat frightening.

Set model for the "nightmare sequence" of A Christmas Carol. By John Arnone.
Can you talk about the “vortex” part of the nightmare sequence?

Yes, the vortex is a painted drop, on which the lighting designer will project a sort of spinning gobo [a thin patterned metal disk placed in a spotlight and projected onto the stage, creating shadow effects], so that the audience’s point of view will become somewhat disoriented. There’s a scenic net of gravestones that match the gravestones on the ground. They will become animated, and the lights will start to strobe, so that it looks like they’re flying through the air. The overall effect is of vertigo and disorientation.

After the nightmare sequence, we have about 20 seconds to set up the town and restore everything onstage for the last scene of the play. The [backstage] crew never stops, not even during intermission. Once they begin, it will be like choreography for the four people who are operating the show. And it is really is up to them to make the show happen every night.

Come celebrate the holidays with us! A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol runs December 1–24 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Masters of Merry-Making: Returning YC Actors in Carol Part One

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

The Christmas Carol cast is filled with veterans of the Geary stage, from Scrooge to Tiny Tim. Every December, A.C.T. stalwarts James Carpenter and Anthony Fusco (our Scrooges), as well as original company member Ken Ruta (Jacob Marley), share the stage with several Young Conservatory actors who are performing in the show for the fourth or fifth time. With performances beginning this Friday at The Geary Theater, we reached out to five of our returners—Alejandra Zavala (11 years old), Mattea Fountain (12 years old), Maximilian Wix (12 years old), Pilar Rivas (11 years old), and Seth Weinfield (13 years old)—to ask about their Carol experiences. This is Part One.

The Young Conservatory actors of the 2016 production of A Christmas Carol.
How have you changed as a person throughout your three seasons in A Christmas Carol?

Alejandra Zavala: I am more confident and comfortable because now I feel like I know what I am doing. I am a much more focused person than I was in second grade (when I started acting at A.C.T.). I feel like now I understand what my acting teachers expect of me and that I can now fulfill their expectations.

How have you grown as a performer?

Seth Weinfield: The first time I was in Carol, I didn’t know how to project my voice as well as I can now. I’d never performed in a theater that big. Now I’m comfortable performing in front of a thousand people.

What is your favorite part of the show?

Maximilian Wix:
My favorite part of the show is the Cratchit dinner because it shows the poverty of Victorian London, and a family coming together to express gratitude for what little they have. They may not have much, but they are excited to have everyone together to enjoy a Christmas feast.

What has been the most challenging part of being in the show?

Pilar Rivas:
I think the most challenging part of being in the show is saying goodbye to everyone I’ve met, even if I get to see them again next year.

What have you learned by being in A Christmas Carol?

Mattea Fountain: Even though I am not a big person, I have learned that I can make a big impact on how others feel. Performing in A Chirstmas Carol for many years, I’ve learned from the adult actors and the M.F.A. Program actors how the professional acting world works and that playing isn’t just for kids.

Come celebrate the holidays with us! A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol runs December 1–24 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Meditation: There's an App for That

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

By Taylor Steinbeck

In Small Mouth Sounds—now playing at The Strand Theater—six people longing to reconnect with themselves and their surroundings embark on a five-day silent retreat. While there, they practice mindfulness under the guidance of an unseen teacher, who encourages them to embrace stillness. There are many benefits of taking a moment to breathe and recharge, but you don’t have to leave on a retreat to experience this peaceful state. What if we told you that you can have access to your very own meditation guru right from your smart phone? In anticipation of A.C.T.'s Tech Night next week, we put together a list of our top three favorite meditation apps.

Headspace's interface. Art by Chris Markland.
Headspace: This user-friendly guided meditation app offers a 10-day beginner’s course that guides its users through the basics of meditation and mindfulness using charming, colorful animations. Small Mouth Sounds actors Orville Mendoza (Teacher), Connor Barrett (Jan), and Ben Beckley (Ned) have all used this app throughout their time with the production and highly recommend it.

Simple Habit: Based here in San Francisco, Simple Habit’s meditation app is designed for busy people, offering audio-guided meditations as short as five minutes. The app hosts sessions led by multiple teachers, so if you prefer one teaching style to another, there are options available. There are also specific meditations designed for your particular mood or situation that day, exploring topics like stress, self-esteem, and relationships.

Simple Habit's interface. Courtesy of Simple Habit.
Insight Timer: For the more experienced meditator, Insight Timer times your self-guided meditation session and provides a customizable library of chimes and bells to use throughout it. Once you’ve finished your daily session, the app logs it, so you can track your progress.

Interested in learning more about the intersection between tech and mindfulness? A.C.T. is hosting a Tech Night that will begin with a happy hour at The Strand Theater's bar before the November 28 performance of Small Mouth Sounds. Following the show, there will be a panel discussion exploring how technological innovation has impacted the mindfulness industry. Click here to find out more information about this InterACT event.

Small Mouth Sounds runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about mindfulness and the production? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

A Trip to the Meditation Room

Monday, November 20, 2017

By Taylor Steinbeck

At 8:55 a.m. this morning, I set out to track down one of the few peaceful spots in the hustle and bustle of San Francisco’s Financial District: WITHIN Meditation. WITHIN’s meditation studio offers 30-minute guided meditation sessions focusing on mindfulness—the practice of being conscious of the present moment. Like the characters in Small Mouth Sounds, I had some trouble embracing stillness at first (especially since I had never meditated for more than ten minutes before). 

WITHIN Meditation. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
When I arrived at the meditation room, I slipped out of my shoes and plopped down onto one of the cushions. A group of other meditation newbies filed in. Our teacher, Hannah Knapp (also WITHIN’s co-founder), began the session by asking us to close our eyes and listen to our surroundings. Located on Sansome Street, WITHIN’s cozy studio is tucked between busy alleyways, so whenever a bus passed, the thin walls shook. Initially, I found this off-putting, but Hannah instructed us to welcome the noise: “Let the sounds wash over you like a wave.”

Just as I was beginning to find myself immersed in my environment, I was brought back to my body when my stomach let out a gurgle. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. Another distraction came in the form of a latecomer, who scurried into the room a few minutes into the meditation, not unlike Alicia’s tardy appearance at the retreat in Small Mouth Sounds. As I started to worry that I had lost hold of my meditation mojo, Hannah reminded us, “If your mind wanders, just gently bring it to your breath.” Inhale. Exhale. Back in the zone.

Hannah asked that we set an intention for the day. In Small Mouth Sounds, the six characters also set an intention for their five-day retreat. In the play, the teacher defines an intention as “a mantra. Your private wish. A hope for yourself.” For that day, my intention was to accept joy and to observe the beauty around me. As we breathed and thought on our intentions, Hannah said again and again: “Breathe into your intention. Breathe out what does not serve you.”

The cast of A.C.T.'s 2017 production of Small Mouth Sounds. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
With the ding of the meditation chime sounding the session’s end, we slowly opened our eyes, departing from our meditative states. Hannah thanked our group for choosing to start the day with stillness, and one by one we left the studio. When I returned outside to the busy streets of Downtown San Francisco—amongst the shoving and the honking and the jackhammering—I felt a sense of serenity I'd never experienced in the city.

Interested in experiencing meditation for yourself? A.C.T. is hosting a free meditation workshop led by Spirit Rock meditation Center teacher Dawn Scott. This InterACT event will be held in The Rueff at The Strand following the December 3 matinee performance of Small Mouth SoundsClick here to find out more information.

Small Mouth Sounds runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about mindfulness and the production? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

This Is Your Brain on Meditation

Friday, November 17, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell

Meditation is having its heyday in the Western world these days. Many people, from sports figures (Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll) to CEOs (Oprah Winfrey), espouse the benefits of taking a few moments out of each day to breathe, be still, and be in the moment. There are several reasons why people turn to meditation. In fact, mindfulness—the practice of being aware of one’s self and surroundings—has so many supposed benefits, it might seem at first glance to be nothing more than a pseudoscientific fad. But researchers around the world have been studying meditation using scientific methods and have made some surprising and convincing discoveries about its effectiveness, particularly the way that it can cause physical changes in the human brain.

Monk Barry Kerzin meditating with an electroencephalogram for neuroscience research.
Photo by Antoine Lutz. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In 2003, a group of scientists led by University of Wisconsin–Madison psychologist Richard J. Davidson performed a study on a group of 25 people who took part in an eight-week mindfulness course. Their brain activity was measured before and after the course. The 25 participants were compared to a control group which was measured at the same times. The scientists discovered that the meditators had significant increases in a process called “left-sided anterior activation,” which is associated with an increase in positive emotions. This may be why meditation is such an effective treatment for mental illnesses that are marked by a decrease in positive emotions.

Meditators have also claimed that their mindfulness practice has contributed to lower levels of stress. A 2013 study done by researchers in Pennsylvania found that the amygdala (two almond-shaped groups of nuclei located in the inner part of both hemispheres of the brain) shrinks in the brains of meditators. When faced with a stressful situation, the amygdala sends messages to the body, instructing it to release hormones (such as adrenaline) that cause the “fight or flight” response. It may be that the more robust the amygdala is, the more powerful the response. In meditators, however, the amygdala tends to be smaller, which might mean that they are better able to allow the more rational parts of their brains to control their responses to stressful situations, allowing meditators to remain calm under pressure.

Also investigating the connection between meditation and serenity, a group of researchers led by UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Eileen Luders studied the brains of a group of 44 meditators. Luders and her researchers discovered greater amounts of gray matter in the right orbital-frontal cortex and the right hippocampus. Both of these regions are associated with emotional regulation and response control, offering a physical explanation for why meditation helps practitioners to remain calm and positive.

Meditation, therefore, seems to have a positive effect on mental health. Why can't we know for certain? Because, when all is said and done, we still don’t quite understand exactly how the brain works. But maybe the connection between meditation and the brain can provide a clue.

Small Mouth Sounds runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the neuroscience of mindfulness and the production? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
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