Behind the Scenes at A.C.T.: An Interview with Flyman Colin Wade

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Among all the ropes and wires hanging backstage at the Geary Theater are two cords with rubber stoppers on the end. Their purpose: keep flyman and rock climbing enthusiast Colin Wade in shape. On a maintenance day between productions, we sat down with Wade to get a glimpse into the life of a flyman, the person in charge of raising and lowering (known as "flying") the various elements of the set design (curtains, walls, swings, etc).

Flyman Colin Wade. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
What’s your favorite thing about being the flyman?
I love being a part of the arts and the whole tech process. It’s nice to have the responsibility of running a crew, calling my own shots, and figuring out the best way to do things. It’s great to watch everything come together and to make it all happen. Flying something in and out is its own kind of art.

One of the things that you fly in and out on a regular basis is the front curtain.
That weighs 800 pounds. And no matter how many times we do it, it’s always a challenge. When you have an audience, there’s a lot of hot air in the house versus the cold air backstage. That can make the curtain blow up.

What has been one of the more complicated shows for you?
A Thousand Splendid Suns (2017) was a little complicated. When you have to time cues with sound—especially really long sound cues—it can be complicated. But it’s also fun because you get to be a little artistic with that kind of thing.

Set model, by scenic designer Andrew Boyce, for
A.C.T.'s 2016 production of The Hard Problem
In terms of complicated load-in [installing a set into a theater space], The Hard Problem (2016) was complicated. The ceiling for that show weighed about 3,000 pounds. We had to hand it in three pieces, two pipes per section. Getting it all balanced and put together was a challenge. We also had to have a bunch of rigging inside the ceiling in order to have walls that would fly out and travel. Getting it all dialed in was the most intense set that I’ve had to deal with.

What is one of the easiest shows for you?
A Christmas Carol is easy because we’ve been doing the same production for so many years. We have so many notes about how we have to breast a pipe [move a pipe] upstage three inches so we don’t hit something else. With every other show, we don’t know that until we do hit something.

What's something that the average theater-goer never gets to see?
See that chair hanging down? Once we have all the lights hung for a show, we need a way to focus the lights. So I bring the chair to the right height and snub [tie] it off so that if it gets added weight it won't go anywhere. Then someone takes a lift up to the chair, clips his or her harness to it, and rolls the chair down the I-Beam, focusing the lights as he or she goes.

The Skivvies Are Back!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Following their sold-out run this past holiday season with Holiday Roadkill, the Skivvies are bringing their unique brand of sexy and satirical musical performance back to A.C.T.'s Strand Theater for two performances on June 23 and 24. 

The Skivvies—Broadway stars Lauren Molina and Nick Cearley—are an award-winning comedy-pop duo who perform musical mash-ups of all your favorite songs on the ukulele, cello, and an array of quirky instruments . . . while stripped down to their underwear.

For Bay Area audiences looking out for the next generation of musical theater stars, check out the guests who'll be joining the Skivvies on the Strand stage: Broadway up-and-comer Matt Doyle (The Book of Mormon, Spring Awakening), Ray of Light Theatre's Courtney Merrell (The Rocky Horror Show), Marissa Joy Ganz (national tour of High School Musical), and A.C.T. favorite Lauren Hart (The Unfortunates, A Christmas Carol).

“We are thrilled to return to San Francisco,” says Molina. “The best part is that we are all coming together to celebrate Pride.”

Artwork for The Skivvies: Pride Rock.
The Skivvies: Pride Rock runs June 23 and 24 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Strong Women: The Women Who Influenced Janis Joplin Part Two

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

By Allie Moss

During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In A Night with Janis Joplin, running through July 9 at The Geary Theater, legendary singer Janis Joplin is joined onstage by five women who inspired her iconic voice: Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin. Here is a look at the lives of James and Franklin.

Etta James.
Courtesy Legacy Recordings.
Etta James’s (1938–2012) influence on America’s musical landscape is clear. Artists such as Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, and Janis Joplin all emulated James’s vocal style: rich, earthy, brassy tones that stretch from delicate high notes to bellowing low ones. James's most famous songs include “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “If I Can't Have You,” “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” and “I'd Rather Go Blind.” James won six Grammy Awards, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.

Aretha Franklin.
Courtesy Atlantic Records.
Aretha Franklin (b. 1942), the Queen of Soul, found success around the same time as Janis Joplin. In 1966, Franklin released the hits “Respect,” “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Since You've Been Gone.” Her fresh new sound blended gospel, pop, R & B, and soul, and she could sing musical runs that features smoky low notes, nasal middle tones, and a light, high belt all in the span of a few seconds. Franklin has performed at the inaugurations of both President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. In February 2017, she announced her retirement from touring, but not from music.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 9 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about these five incredible women? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series. 

Strong Women: The Women Who Influenced Janis Joplin Part One

Thursday, June 15, 2017

By Allie Moss

During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In A Night with Janis Joplin, running through July 9 at The Geary Theater, legendary singer Janis Joplin is joined onstage by five women who inspired her iconic voice: Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin. Here is a look at the first three.

Bessie Smith in 1936.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten. 
Courtesy Library of Congress.
Bessie Smith’s (1894–1937) distinctive throaty and full-bodied voice, knack for improvisation, and penchant for unexpected rhythms stand out as a clear precursor to the work of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Janis Joplin. Joplin was so inspired by Smith that in 1970, she had a headstone made for Smith’s unmarked grave which reads “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”

Odetta, 1961.
Photo by Jac de Nijs. 
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 
Janis Joplin first realized she could sing after expertly belting out a song by folk singer Odetta (1930–2008). Odetta studied opera and performed in the touring productions of Finian's Rainbow (1949) and Guys and Dolls (1950) before being introduced to folk music while on tour in San Francisco. She never looked back. Odetta’s most famous songs include “Down on Me,” “I’m On My Way,” and “Oh, Freedom.”

Nina Simone.
Photo by Ron Kroon. 
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Nina Simone (1933–2003) studied at Juilliard before becoming one of the voices of the Civil Rights movement. Her rasping high notes, gravelly low notes, and unstable pitch and timbre challenged industry ideas about how a female pop singer—especially a black female singer—should sound. She is remembered for her song “Mississippi Goddam,” which she wrote in reaction to the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963 and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing later that year.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 9 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about these five incredible women? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Our Sister Janis: An Interview with Laura and Michael Joplin

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

Among the thousands flocking to San Francisco for the Summer of Love in 1967 was the Joplin family. They had driven across the US from Port Arthur, Texas to see 24-year-old Janis perform with her new band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. For Janis’s siblings, Laura and Michael, the trip was life-changing.

Kacee Clanton in A Night with Janis Joplin. Photo by Joan Marcus.
As San Francisco kicks off its celebration of the Summer of Love—featuring A Night with Janis Joplin at The Geary Theater—we look back on the events of that summer from those who knew Janis best.

What was it like when your family went to San Francisco in 1967 to visit Janis?
Laura Joplin: That was the first time we’d been out of the state. We weren’t a family that traveled and we hadn’t really been out of Port Arthur, so to travel all the way across the West was incredible. To go to San Francisco and hang out with Janis was special.

What do you remember about the city?
LJ: Everything was so different: the music, the sound, the styles, the city itself. In Port Arthur, we had three or four buildings that were more than two stories high, but San Francisco was huge. At home, it’s hot and flat. San Francisco was cool, with mountains overlooking it. There was a lot of trying to take all that in. It sounds silly, but one thing I really enjoyed in San Francisco was seeing Janis’s dog. It made her so human, and because we also had a dog, it made her the person I grew up with.

Michael Joplin: I remember the Summer of Love. I was 14 years old, a wannabe hippie. We went to the Avalon Ballroom. We’d all heard of Chet [Helms, a major music promoter and the manager of Big Brother and the Holding Company at the time], and we’d met him way back. When we walked up the stairs to the Avalon as a family, Chet was standing at the top of the stairs to greet us. My parents were this white couple, fiftysomething years old, and going into the Avalon Ballroom, they were definitely out of place. But Chet was welcoming and wonderful. My parents said, “Oh my god, what’s going on?” I said, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” Later on I got to run lights at the Avalon Ballroom. That’s one of the high points of my life. It was freaking awesome.

How did you feel about seeing your sister onstage?
MJ: When she came out, I just saw Janis. But to my parents, the audience’s reaction to her was extremely significant. That was more important than what was happening onstage because my parents were able to see for the first time that Janis was getting recognition for what she was doing. They had been concerned about her, but at the Avalon, they saw that she might be okay.

LJ: The best part for all of us was realizing how happy she was there, how strongly she felt about what she was doing.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 9 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to read more of this interview with Laura and Michael Joplin? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

The Summer of Love and Janis Joplin

Thursday, June 8, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell

The Monterey International Pop Festival was the event that truly kicked off the Summer of Love in 1967 and launched the career of soul singer Janis Joplin, the focus of A Night with Janis Joplin, running through July 9 at The Geary Theater.

Jefferson Airplane playing at a festival in Marin County, California, 1967.
Photo by Bryan Costales. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The festival proved to be a turning point in Joplin’s career, but the organizers struggled to get her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and other San Francisco bands (including Jefferson Airplane) to agree to perform. The groups were infused with the culture of Haight-Ashbury and were against stardom, fame, and profit. They only agreed to play the festival after intense questioning about where the money was going. In the end, the festival was a huge success. A reported 90,000 people enjoyed the music and the perfect weather.

The rest of the summer was one long celebration filled with spontaneous concerts, protests, and public performances. “Every day was a parade, a procession,” says Stanley Mouse, an artist who became renowned for his psychedelic ’60s posters. New arrivals showed up all summer long, lured by the feeling that a revolution was underway and wanting desperately to be a part of it.

Not all of San Francisco was smitten with the hippies. Conservative San Francisco Chronicle editorials painted a dark picture of the new lifestyle, and transport officials, police officers, and government administrators denounced the long-haired migrants. When city officials refused to help manage the sudden population increase, the Haight-Ashbury community created its own social services, such as housing aid, legal assistance, and a free medical clinic that remains in operation today. For a few months in 1967, notions of a free society that may once have been dismissed as idealistic or romantic seemed attainable.

The Who, San Francisco, 1967. Photo by James Vaughan. Courtesy Flickr.
But by the end of the summer, the scene had soured. It had become flooded by young people interested in sexual and psychotropic experimentation but not in the hippies’ spiritual doctrine of love and understanding. The police were cracking down on drug possession, and tourists now took buses through the neighborhood to ogle this foreign subculture as though its members were animals in a zoo. The hippies knew it was time to move on. In October, performance artists held a funeral procession for “Hippie, devoted son of Mass Media,” and many hippies either returned home or moved north to Marin County.

The Summer of Love may have ended, but there was no stopping the cultural revolution from continuing elsewhere. The events of 1967 in Haight-Ashbury brought hippiedom into the mainstream, leading to sexual liberation, increased awareness of environmental issues, and the abolishment of the military draft, among many other changes. Now, 50 years later, A.C.T. celebrates and remembers that summer with the story of the woman whose music formed the soundtrack to it all: Janis Joplin.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 9 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the hippie movement and Janis Joplin? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

A Revolutionary Rock Star: Janis Joplin

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Janis Joplin—the bluesy singer at the center of A Night with Janis Joplin, which opens June 7 at The Geary Theater—“belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music,” says music journalist Ellen Wills. “Among American rock performers, she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator–recorder–embodiment of her generation’s mythology.”

Big Brother and the Holding Company. Photo by Albert B. Grossman, late '60s.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Janis Joplin rejected the accepted norms of how female musicians were supposed to behave and appear; she wore her hair naturally instead of perfectly coiffed in a beehive, and wore informal clothing instead of tailored, sequined gowns.

And, most importantly, she adopted a sexual persona onstage, acting as a woman who put her own pleasure first. Through songs such as “Get It While You Can,” Joplin became the figurehead of the second-wave feminist movement. In this song, Joplin discusses the prevailing view that women should postpone pleasure (i.e. sex) until they are married, and then should put off professional fulfillment for the sake of their children. Instead, Joplin advocated for women to embrace their sexual needs: “Hey, hey, get it while you can / Don’t you turn your back on love.”

Evanescence performing live at The Wiltern theatre in Los Angeles, California
on Tuesday November 17th, 2015. Photo by Justin Higuchi. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Joplin opened doors for female musicians, and her impact can be seen in the leading female musicians of today. Women are at the forefront of all the major music genres: rock (No Doubt, Evanescence, Joan Jett), pop (Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga), rap and hip-hop (Missy Elliot, Nicki Minaj), and country (Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood). Like Joplin, these artists are upfront about female sexual pleasure, societal double standards, and the power and strength of women.

Joplin’s larger-than-life personality, charismatic sexuality, laidback sense of style, whiskey-laced stage antics, and full-bodied performances may not share exactly the same artistic DNA as contemporary music’s tastemakers and trendsetters, but she was indisputably revolutionary in her time, and she paved the way for many of the female musicians who followed.

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 female musicians in the 1960s? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Behind the Scenes at A.C.T.: An Interview with A.C.T.'s Head of Sound Suzanna Bailey

Thursday, June 1, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Walking backstage to interview Suzanna Bailey, A.C.T.’s Head of Sound, was like entering a living room on Christmas Eve. New microphones had just come in for A Night with Janis Joplin, and Bailey was excited. Janis is an opportunity for Bailey to return to her roots in sound design. While studying theater in college, she ran sound for a punk band that brought her to the Bay Area.

As A.C.T. prepares to rock The Geary like it’s 1967, we caught up with Bailey to talk about running sound for a 1,000-seat theater, collaboration, and sweat-outs.

Is there a typical sound setup or is sound different for every single show?
For many productions, we use our rep system [the layout of a theater’s main microphones and speakers], and supplement it with specials [sound elements which are required to implement the design for a particular production]. The rep system is built around the idea that you need to be efficient with cost and time as you go from one show to the next.

A.C.T.'s 2011 production of Tales of the City. Photo by Kevin Berne.
With musicals, everything is different because it’s linked to the way the designer wants to work. His or her system may completely change my normal rep system, but usually they try to work around your hang and layout [where you already have microphones and speakers placed]. As far as playback goes, that changes from show to show depending on the number of effects and whether the actors are body mic-ed.

What were the most challenging shows to work sound for?
The show where I learned the most was Tales of the City (2011). I was working as an A2 [second audio assistant or engineer]. It’s a hard job but a satisfying one. You’re constantly monitoring microphones and checking placement. You’re there on the front lines before something malfunctions. You’re also a medic: icing people down, making sure they feel comfortable, getting them back onstage. That’s one of the things I like about that position; you’re taking care of the performers, not just putting their mics on them.

During Tales, sweat-outs [when sweat gets into the microphone element and alters the sound or causes it to fail] were constant. It was a constant race to get water out of the mics because it was a heavy song, heavy dance production. There was one performer whose mic sweated out right before a major song that lead into a dance sequence. Everyone thought it was a lost cause; because we didn’t know which element was malfunctioning, we needed to swap his mic and transmitter, and repatch the mic output to the board. As he was coming off to do a quick change, I managed to swap his mic in 26 seconds. In this type of work, the ensemble backstage is as important as the ensemble onstage.

Musician David Coulter in A.C.T.'s 2017 production of
A Thousand Splendid Suns. Photo by Kevin Berne.
What’s the advantage of running sound from the back of the orchestra?
It’s the best way to stay in touch. The connection I have with the actors being that close is something special. I can see them, I can feel their energy, their timing, their rhythm.

There’s nothing like working one on one with musicians and designers to create a living score for a production. With A Thousand Splendid Suns, musician David Coulter and I were not just repeating the same thing every night. I was firing off loops for him based not on a specific cue but on the rhythm of the scene of that performance. It wasn’t about being under the strict call of the stage manager. It was about how we were going to feel it tonight.

Being inside of the play, feeling the rhythm of the actors, the audience, and the musicians is a very special thing. It’s something that I don’t ever take for granted.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs from June 7–July 2 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

Little Girl Blue: The Rise of Janis Joplin

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell 

Kacee Clanton as Janis Joplin in A Night with Janis Joplin.
Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography.
Singer Janis Joplin—the focus of A Night with Janis Joplin, opening at The Geary Theater on June 7—is often hailed as the first female sex symbol in rock and roll. She paved the way for female singers to break down barriers of sexism in the music industry. But before she became a feminist icon, her folksy, bluesy tone formed the soundtrack to the 1967 Summer of Love.

Joplin first heard of the San Francisco music scene while staying with her aunts in Los Angeles in 1962. But it wasn’t until music promoter Chet Helms passed through Texas and heard Joplin perform that she became determined to try her hand at singing professionally.

The music scene in 1963 San Francisco had not yet moved to the neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury, which would have its heyday later; it was still largely in North Beach, which was populated by beat writers and folk musicians. Joplin performed at small gigs around the city and began to gain a fanbase.
After a brief return to Texas, Joplin returned to San Francisco and auditioned for a band: Big Brother and the Holding Company. The members of the band were blown away by her gritty, soulful voice. She was hired immediately, and within six days of arriving in San Francisco, she was performing with Big Brother.

With Big Brother, Joplin’s fame skyrocketed. The band played at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967 and was the only act to get an encore performance. By the end of 1967, it was making $2,500 a show, which was unheard of for a band that hadn’t yet released a full album. Cheap Thrills, featuring “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime,” would be released in 1968.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs June 7–July 2. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Janis Joplin and the Summer of Love? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

An Award Fit for a Prince: Tony Award Nominee John Douglas Thompson

Thursday, May 25, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Actor John Douglas Thompson in Long Wharf Theatre's 2012 production
of Satchmo at the Waldorf. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Our Prince of Denmark is nominated for a Tony Award! Before he returns to The Geary Theater to open A.C.T.’s 2017–18 season with Hamlet on September 20, John Douglas Thompson is up for a Tony for his performance as Becker in August Wilson’s Jitney on Broadway.

For Thompson, the preparation for a part is the same, whether it is written in Wilson’s lyrical dialect or Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. “I look for characters that have an Achilles heel that the character is conscious or unconscious of,” says Thompson. “Then I look for a catharsis that gives the character some evolution. Once I’ve found that, I start upon a course of rigorous research. If it’s a Shakespeare play, I read all the different editions and adaptations of that play, and I also study other productions to see what other people have done.”

Thompson’s preparation doesn’t just stop at studying the play. “During the process, I find some music that is what I would consider the character’s theme song. That’s a mysterious process, because I don’t actively seek it. It’s just something that speaks to me. I also set up situations in which I have the character that I’m working on talk to other characters that I’ve worked on: Tamburlaine, Othello, Brutus Jones from Emperor Jones. I try to imagine those conversations, even if the characters are from different centuries. It helps me find that particular character’s place in the universe of the play.”

Congrats John Douglas Thompson on your Tony Award nomination! We will be cheering for you on June 11!

Single tickets for Hamlet will go on sale in August. Click here to learn more about our 2017–18 season.

To Sir, With Love: A Celebration of Young Conservatory Director Craig Slaight

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

By Emily Hanna

Most people know Young Conservatory Director Craig Slaight as a director, producer, or teacher. I am probably one of the few that has known him solely as an administrator. Watching Craig at the helm of the Young Conservatory has been one of the greatest gifts of my career.

A.C.T. Young Conservatory Director Craig Slaight. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Sometimes seen as a ‘less glamorous’ role in the world of theater, administration is where the greatest demonstration of love and passion for your collaborators can be seen. In rehearsal, the work is instantly kinetic with the immediate rewards of artistic decision making. Running a program and thinking strategically for a community that is hungry for rigorous training and artistic expression takes discipline, perspective, and patience. Speaking as an artist, these are not instinctive but learned traits.

When I joined A.C.T.’s conservatory team, I quickly found the threads of the YC to be a carefully woven tapestry, the result of seasons of fine tuning. Classes, cabarets, new works, college prep, summer programming, local and international collaborations: I remember taking in the volume of opportunity for young actors and nearly being overwhelmed. It would take me more than a few months to understand the full scope of the program.

As I dived into the program, I watched Craig cycle through his rack of hats: taking the time to talk to a parent concerned about his or her student’s future or what class he or she should take, sitting down with a faculty member to offer advice and insight on curriculum and student dynamics, trading books with coworkers, and fortifying me with iced coffees and advice. One of my first and favorite nuggets from Craig was “We do not call them children or sheep to be herded about, they are young people.”

Craig’s championing of young voices extends beyond the landscape of commissioning new and unflinching works for this community. It is palpable in the culture of the program, from the language on our website to his investment in relationships with parents and students, to his faculty orientations and how he’s curated his office library. And what greater gift can a “grown-up” give you than to believe you, validate your experience, and foster your curiosity? As someone who constantly questions their adult status, my inner teenager lit up on my first day, settling into the gray chair in his office and listening to him count the ways of this program. No ego, no pretense. Just a man who put his heart into all the pieces of his work, stem to stern.

Thank you, Craig, for 29 years of enthusiasm, dedication, and passion. We will miss you!
Emily Hanna is the Young Conservatory and Studio A.C.T. Associate.

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.
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