An Extraordinary Journey: An Interview with Playwright Ursula Rani Sarma

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

“Adapting to the theater from another medium is really a collaboration from the moment you begin writing,” says Ursula Rani Sarma, the Irish Indian playwright adapting A Thousand Splendid Suns for the stage. “I imagine it as a process of discussion with the original material, a conversation that allows me to seek out the vital dramatic elements and reimagine them on the stage.” Just before rehearsals for A.C.T.’s production started, we caught up with Sarma to talk about adaptations and Afghanistan.

A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff, novelist Khaled Hosseini,
and playwright Ursula Rani Sarma.
Why were you interested in adapting A Thousand Splendid Suns for the Geary stage?
Not only had I huge respect and admiration for the novel itself, but I also responded both intellectually and emotionally to the strength and determination of its central female characters. I found the setting and landscape incredibly evocative, and I fully appreciated how Khaled [Hosseini] had managed to make sense of the complexity of the political situation in Afghanistan at a particular moment through the emotional journeys of the central characters. In doing this, he made their story feel both familiar and recognizable. I jumped at the chance to adapt such strong material for the stage and have enjoyed every step of the process.

Which parts of this process were the most special?
I enjoyed the quiet moments when I was working on the adaptation alone in front of my computer. I felt incredibly close to Mariam, and working on the script every day and finding a way to bring her to life made for some very special moments. As a writer, these solitary and still moments with the characters are the most precious to me.

How have the workshops at A.C.T. helped your process?
It is only when the words take flight in the rehearsal room that the real magic of theater comes into play. Working alongside Carey and the rest of the creative team has been rewarding and inspiring. When you can hear a script brought to life by actors, and when you can converse with them about the characters they are playing, it brings an entirely new dimension to the play.

Why is A Thousand Splendid Suns particularly suited for the stage?
The theater is one of the best mediums with which to explore complex human relationships like the ones at the center of A Thousand Splendid Suns. As in the novel, the relationship between Mariam and Laila—trapped in a violent home, reaching out to each other—forms the spine of the play. The difference is that on the stage, the characters will take on a physical existence while an audience bears witness to their extraordinary journey.

A Thousand Splendid Suns begins February 1 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about the creation of A Thousand Splendid Suns? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Theaterology: A.C.T.'s New Podcast

Thursday, January 26, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell

Did you know that A.C.T. has a new episodic podcast called Theaterology?

Hosted by Resident Dramaturg Michael Paller and created by me, Publications Associate Shannon Stockwell, each episode of Theaterology dives deep into the plays on our stages. Some episodes are interviews with artists and actors; some are This American Life–style documentaries; some are informative and engaging discussions of historical and contextual topics explored in the plays.

Artwork for Episode 5 of Theaterology. By Shannon Stockwell.
The first season of Theaterology began with our first show of the season, King Charles III. The hit play was about the newly crowned King Charles III fighting against Parliament to keep the press free in the United Kingdom, despite the rampant injuries caused by the tabloid press. The episode, therefore, was an enlightening explanation of the history of press freedom in the United Kingdom, going all the way back to the birth of the printing press.

One of my favorite episodes so far was “A Mask I Do Not Fit,” about the work that the Education & Community Programs Department has done with Downtown High School. A Mask I Do Not Fit was the name of a play created by the DHS students along with A.C.T. and 826 Valencia. The students grappled with the complicated subjects of gender and sexuality and presented a powerful final performance. Along with attending their final performance and talkback, I also spoke with A.C.T. Education & Community Programs Fellow Stephanie Wilborn about the work that the students had done and her hopes for their futures.

Equally exciting has been the opportunity to interview some artists I truly admire, like Brenda Meaney (who played Hilary in Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem) and Bill Irwin (whose On Beckett just closed at The Strand Theater). I find that actors are intimately connected with the plays in which they perform because they have committed the words to memory; whenever someone does something over and over again, they are bound to make new and fascinating discoveries about it. This was definitely true of Meaney and Irwin.

Coming up next is my interview with Khaled Hosseini, author of A Thousand Splendid Suns, the stage adaptation of which (written by Ursula Rani Sarma) will premiere on the Geary stage in February. I’m a huge fan of Hosseini’s writing and philanthropy, and it was truly a privilege to hear him talk about his life, his work, and his hopes for this production. Look for it in early February.

A.C.T. is devoted to engaging our audience before and after productions, and Theaterology—perfect for listening to on your commute or while you do dishes —is our newest way to invite you in.

Visit and subscribe to our Soundcloud to listen to Theaterology, as well as recordings of Prologue and Symposium discussions!

Artistic Visions Ignite at A.C.T.'s Sky Festival

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

M.F.A. Program Actors  Akilah A. Walker and Adrianna Mitchel
in Topdog/Underdog. A.C.T. Sky Festival 2017. Photo by Jay Yamada.
Last week, the studios of 30 Grant were a hive of activity, as the Master of Fine Arts Program actors strutted their stuff during A.C.T.’s Sky Festival. In just four short days, they proved that you only need a good text and great actors to make a magical piece of theater.

This year’s festival was a melting pot of artistic visions. American plays from such stalwarts as Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, John Patrick Shanley, and Suzan-Lori Parks were performed next door to classics like Faustus and Tartuffe and newly devised one-man shows, written by the M.F.A. Program actors.

Sky Festival is a unique event in A.C.T.’s calendar. It is one of the few times where you can see actors perform so close to you that they are almost in your lap, where you can see Conservatory Director Melissa Smith act alongside first-year M.F.A. Program actors, and where you can see students try their hand at directing alongside their teachers.

Here are some pictures from some of this year’s great shows.

M.F.A. Program Actors Narea Kang and Rivka Borek
in Doubt: A Parable. A.C.T. Sky Festival 2017. Photo by Jay Yamada.
M.F.A. Program Actors Leonard Thomas, Peter Fanone, Thom Beau, Patrick Andrew Jones, 
Stephen Wattrus, Charlie O'Rourke, Justin Genna, Carlos Andrickson, and Julie Adamo
in We Sold Rome! A.C.T. Sky Festival 2017. Photo by Jay Yamada.
M.F.A. Program Actor Jerrie Johnson in The Crooked Room.
A.C.T. Sky Festival 2017. Photo by Jay Yamada.
 Congrats to everyone for a terrific Sky Festival!

Act One, Scene One: A.C.T.'s First Production at The Geary Theater

Thursday, January 19, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Fifty years ago this Saturday, A.C.T.’s first production at The Geary Theater opened. And under those bright lights was actor Ken Ruta. Here are his memories of that magical evening, and the early years of A.C.T.

Ken Ruta as The Player and Larry Carpenter as Guildenstern in A.C.T.'s
1972 production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Photographer unknown.
When did you start at A.C.T.?
I was in the first play of the first season. Molière’s Tartuffe. I still remember opening night. Most of us were offstage at the beginning, and one of the actors was very nervous. He couldn’t stop stuttering. One of the great ladies in the company slugged him in the back. That cured him.

Since it was Molière, it was written in Alexandrines, 12 beats to a line. Not iambs, which are ten [He demonstrates by tapping on the table.] Well I was the first person opening night to forget his lines. I had to ad lib in Alexandrines! I remember the door opening and the wonderful actress Sada Thompson looking at me, as if to say “What the-?”

What other shows were you a part of in that opening season?
I was in Endgame. I was the blind one, and the other guy, Rene Auberjonois, was rehearsing in another show and was also playing the lead in Tartuffe, so I had to rehearse the Beckett play alone with the director. But since I was blind it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to see anybody anyway. The first time we rehearsed the show together was the dress rehearsal.
Ken Ruta and Rene Auberjonois in A.C.T.'s 1967
production of Endgame. Photo by Hank Kranzler.

Because the character was blind, I never opened my eyes through the whole performance. I remember one night someone was making noise in the audience, but I just kept talking. When the show ended, I asked the other actors “What was all that going on?” Rene, who was playing Clov, said “A guy had a heart attack in the audience and they were pulling him out of his seat and pumping him. The medics came in and took the guy out and you just kept talking. So we kept talking.” [He laughs.]

What are some of your favorite memories from those early years?

William Ball’s original A.C.T. production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in April 1969. It was heaven. It was a great treat doing that show, because the audience was filled with young people who were interested in theater coming to see the show again and again. It ran for three seasons at the Geary.

Stay tuned for upcoming events related to our 50th anniversary, including our birthday celebration on March 18th.

Be a part of A.C.T.'s history. Share your A.C.T. stories with us! 

A.C.T.'s Sky Festival

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

There is drumming on the roof of A.C.T.’s administrative offices at 30 Grant Avenue. For seasoned A.C.T. staff, that sound means only one thing: Sky Festival. This annual festival of plays, one-man shows, and collaborative productions are put together by the Master of Fine Arts Program actors. Last year’s festival included Annie Baker’s The Aliens, a brand new work called 2.5 Asians, and a comic smorgasbord entitled 25 Plays in 50 Minutes.

M.F.A. Program Actors Stephen Wattrus, Alan Littlehales, and
Patrick Andrew Jones in The Aliens. Sky Festival 2016. Photo by Jay Yamada.
For these hard-working actors, it is a unique opportunity. “Sky Festival gives us the opportunity to create art that we are truly passionate about,” says third-year M.F.A. Program actor Albert Rubio. “It provides us a space where we can—as Mrs. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus would say—‘take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!’”

Sky Festival is not just an exciting time in the Conservatory; it is a hotly anticipated event for everyone at A.C.T. “Sky Festival is one of the most exciting times of the year at A.C.T.,” says Curriculum & Training Specialist Jasmin Hoo. “It’s a whirlwind of creativity, passion, and community. It’s a chance for the M.F.A. Program actors to truly express their own unique artistic voices. For me, it was very meaningful to share about the Asian American experience in theater through our Sky Festival project last year, since our point of view is often underrepresented on the stage. Likewise, I learned so much about the M.F.A. Program actors by watching their pieces, hearing their stories, witnessing their aesthetic, and seeing their artistic passions come to life.”

Jasmin Hoo, Narea Kang, and Christina Liang in 2.5 Asians.
Sky Festival 2016. Photo by Jay Yamada.
This year's shows range from newly created one-man shows to classics of the modern American stage. To everyone involved in the festival, break a leg!

Lovely, Crazy Mirror: An Interview with Novelist Khaled Hosseini

Thursday, January 12, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell

“There’s a collective experience that you have with an audience in the theater that is difficult [to create] anywhere else,” says novelist Khaled Hosseini, whose best-selling work A Thousand Splendid Suns is being adapted for the Geary Stage. “There’s a sense of immediacy for theater, which simply can’t be created [elsewhere]. On the right night, the room is permeated with something that’s really tangible—very difficult to describe, but very, very powerful.”

Before rehearsals for A Thousand Splendid Suns began, we spoke with Hosseini about the theater and his writing.

Khaled Hosseini. Photo by Elena Seibert.
What has attending the workshops for A Thousand Splendid Suns been like for you?
I think, as an author, if you’re allowing your work to be adapted into another art form by somebody else, you should divorce yourself from the idea that anything you said or wrote is going to appear in the other format. Some things work in one format and don’t in others. And so, for me, to come to a workshop, I’m seeing my book through this lovely, crazy mirror. Its structure is different, but it’s the same soul, the same people.

For me, it’s fascinating to see somebody else’s take on a story that otherwise would just be static in my own head. When you write a book, you’re not just telling one story, because no one’s going to read a book and have the exact same experience as another person. So there’s no real version of the book anyway. Everyone has a different experience. People respond to different characters for all sorts of different reasons.

I think it’s far more interesting to get a peek into somebody else’s interpretation of your work, so I love the workshops. I love seeing the different actors breathing life into the characters, even if they’re just sitting and talking. I love seeing how [playwright] Ursula [Rani Sarma] has worked with structure. It was just so much fun.

Why do you think the story of it still remains crucial to tell today?
We’re living in a time when we are inundated, through television and social media and smartphones and everything, with stories from that region, and they all sound the same. They’re all stories about guys that behead people, that kill minorities, and brutality and suffering.

A story like this can remind people that these are human beings; that every person under a veil, every refugee walking across plains—every single one of those [people] has a universe inside them, a life, an entire history, and a long, long history of things that they wanted, of hopes that they had. I think that’s important to understand: you can’t just categorize people [under] self-serving umbrellas. These are individual human beings. I think that’s what any [art] form, be it theater or novels or movies, can do. They can bridge that gap and transport you into the shoes of somebody else. And through that experience, you begin to view the group in a richer way.

A Thousand Splendid Suns begins February 1 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Join us on January 17 at The Geary Theater for Khaled Hosseini In Conversation, where he will be chatting with A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and playwright Ursula Rani Sarma. Click here to reserve a ticket through our website.

Bill on Beckett: An Interview with Bill Irwin Part Two

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

With On Beckett opening at The Strand Theater tonight, we caught up with master clown and A.C.T. favorite Bill Irwin to talk about his five decades immersed in the words of Samuel Beckett. Back in December 2015, Irwin performed On Beckett in a brief engagement of three shows—all of which sold out. Now he’s back at The Strand for a longer run. “The Strand is a good box for this package,” he says. “It’s a space with a good sweet spot in relation to the audiences’s seats. It feels right in size, physical contours, and checkered history. It’s the right spot for the sharing I have in mind.”
Bill Irwin. Photo courtesy of Concept Artists.
How does your clowning experience inform your performance of Beckett’s work?
It’s as much instinct as anything else. These two threads of work—baggy-pants comedy and Samuel Beckett’s writing—they just seem to connect. Beckett and his family went to the variety theater often; a point which his biographers make. His descriptions of physical business, his stage directions, and his description of characters’ costuming often seem to echo the business of music-hall comics. When it came to casting, Beckett was interested in baggy pants practitioners: Chaplin, Keaton. He was not a “clown-writer”—he wasn’t writing for clowns—but he seemed an aficionado.

What has been your favorite Beckett-related experience?
I don’t have a single favorite experience—but sometimes speaking his language, and combining it with motion, or certain character movement through my body, can begin to feel strangely right—joyful even. It feels it may be reaching an audience in a way that I’d like it to, perhaps in a way Mr. Beckett might.

I wouldn’t presume to know Mr. Beckett’s intentions in his writing—he famously said that he doesn’t claim to know them either—but sometimes things feel close to something valuable. The passages I’ve included in On Beckett are mostly passages that I’ve had in my head, that I’ve worked with as a performer for a long time. I want to share them with audiences. I hope to share the place they’ve come to occupy within me.

On Beckett runs January 10 to January 22 at The Strand Theater at 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Check our website for tickets.

Bill on Beckett: An Interview with Bill Irwin Part One

Thursday, January 5, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

Bill Irwin. Photo courtesy of Bill Irwin.
Bill Irwin may be best known to Bay Area audiences as a master clown, but he has also spent five decades immersed in the words of Samuel Beckett. It was in the late ’60s, as a student at UCLA, that he was introduced to Beckett’s language. In 1987, after exchanging brief letters with the playwright, Irwin met Beckett in Paris. The following year, Irwin joined Steve Martin and Robin Williams in Waiting for Godot at Lincoln Center Theater.

Over the last two decades, Irwin and A.C.T. have developed a partnership for his Beckett explorations. In 2001, he performed Texts for Nothing at The Geary Theater, and in 2012, he followed up with Endgame, directed by Carey Perloff. On Beckett represents his third and most personal Beckett collaboration with A.C.T. The idea began to take shape three years ago. After a handful of performances around Seattle in 2014, Irwin presented the embryonic production the following year in three shows at The Strand, a theater that is rapidly building a reputation as a home of dynamic new work. How he’s back in San Francisco for a longer engagement at A.C.T. Before Irwin arrived at The Strand, we caught up with him to talk about Beckett, biographers, and baggy pants.

What is your first memory of Samuel Beckett’s plays?
The first thing I ever read was Act Without Words I. I was struck by the style and clarity of the stage directions (it’s all stage directions). Very memorable—though it’s ironic to me now because that play is one of Beckett’s writings that calls to me least, at present. I’m drawn to his use of spoken language now.

What was it like meeting Beckett?
It was 30 years ago; I was about to play Lucky in Godot—that’s what we spoke of most. I was very stiff, nervous, and not as knowledgeable about his work as I wish I’d been. I wish I could meet him now—with his voice and language having echoed in my mind. I’d have asked about Texts for Nothing and about the structure of Godot and Endgame.

Contemporary playwrights are sometimes compared to Beckett. What makes him such a yardstick?
His is an unforgettable voice, whether it’s your taste or not, and he changed everything. Anyone whose characters look at questions of existence—with humor, not pedantry (and sometimes humor about pedantry)—is going to get compared to Mr. Beckett.

On Beckett opens on Tuesday, January 10 at The Strand Theater at 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Check our website for tickets.

New Year, New Works at A.C.T.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff 

Happy New Year! Here are some things to look forward to in the next few weeks:

From left: Bill Irwin. Photo courtesy of Concept Artists. Composer David Coulter. Photo by Thomas Moore.
Show Artwork for A Thousand Splendid Suns. Photography: ©Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images News/Getty Images. 
Design: David Mann Calligraphy/Stephen Raw. 
Playwright Ursula Rani Sarma. Author Khaled Hosseini. Photo by Elena Seibert. 
Show Artwork for John. By A.C.T. Graphics Team.
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