The Dramatic Power of Thinking: Annie Baker's John

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

“Thinking is potentially as dramatic a force onstage as speaking,” says Ken Rus Schmoll, the director of A.C.T.’s production of John, currently running through April 23 at The Strand Theater. “Personally, I am obsessed with thinking onstage: what actors think, what characters think, how thinking actually occurs, how thinking is represented to be happening.”

Ann McDonough (Genevieve), Joe Paulik (Elias), and Georgia Engel (Mertis)
in A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Kevin Berne.
In John, the latest play from Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker, there is a lot of thinking and watching. Twentysomethings Jenny and Elias arrive late at night to a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg. Already tense and tired, they are greeted by the eccentric proprietor Mertis. Over the next 48 hours, the characters argue, discuss philosophy, and attempt to communicate with each other.

Baker presents these moments to us as realistically as possible. The set feels like a bed-and-breakfast. The lighting is more natural than theatrical. Even the dialogue feels natural. “We watch Annie’s plays unfold, with their real-time silences and events,” says Schmoll. The conversations of the characters in John is filled with the everyday false starts—hesitations, pauses, what people say, what they leave unsaid—that have become Baker’s trademark. “Ms. Baker may just have the subtlest way of exposition of anyone writing for the theater today,” says New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood.

Baker’s naturalistic writing has earned her comparisons with Anton Chekhov, not least by Isherwood. “There is something distinctly Chekhovian,” he says, “in the way her writing accrues weight and meaning simply through compassionate, truthful observation.” Baker herself is a fan of the Russian playwright, and wrote an adaptation of Uncle Vanya (produced in 2012 by Soho Rep. and starring Georgia Engel). “I love that his plays are ultimately about inner conflict, not outer conflict,” says Baker. “They’re plays about people in dialogue with themselves.”

Although the extended naturalism and real-time quality of Baker’s work has been a challenge to some audiences weaned on 90-minute shows, most critics have only focused on the rewards of Baker’s work. In her review of John, New Yorker writer Sarah Larson said, “I get mad when people complain about the length of Baker’s plays, or even joke about it. Three hours is insultingly long for a bad play or an indulgent play—ninety minutes can be too long—but three hours for a fantastic play not only isn’t onerous, it’s a gift.”

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

Act Two, Scene One: A.C.T. from the '90s to Today

Thursday, February 23, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

As A.C.T. gears up to celebrate its 50th birthday, we are taking a trip down memory lane. For Subscription Manager Mark Peters, that’s 30 years of stories and subscription order forms, productions and puzzles.

What was the first show you saw at A.C.T.?
The first A.C.T. production I saw was actually while I was in college. In class, we watched tapes of Cyrano de Bergerac (1972). The first show I saw at The Geary was King Lear in 1987. It was the first season after Artistic Director Bill Ball had left.

You’ve been here almost 30 years. What have been some of your favorite productions?
I saw Angels in America (1994)—both parts—every time we changed a cast. I went to both parts six times. That’s a commitment; each part is four, four-and-a-half hours. But it was amazing. Our angel was wicked; she had these big metal wings that could open and close. The theater we performed in (the Marines’ Memorial Theatre) didn’t have any fly space, so we had to work with a company to create this trestle that she was moved around on. 

A.C.T.'s 2013 production of Stuck Elevator. Photo by Julius Ahn.
I also really loved Stuck Elevator (2013). It was a very simple set—just an open elevator in the middle of the stage—but they did fantasy sequences and flashbacks around it as the main character was going in and out of consciousness. The music was beautiful. The second night I saw it, I gave a standing ovation. I don’t usually stand for anything, but that night I couldn’t help it. I was ripped out of my seat, standing up, screaming and yelling. It was amazing. Nothing beats that feeling.

I understand you were actually in The Geary when the Loma Prieta earthquake happened.
My friend Red and I had just gone downstairs for our lunch break. Diana, the bartender, was just coming in and starting to load up the ice for that day’s performance. I remember her saying, “Oh, we’re having an earthquake.” We all laughed but then BOOM BOOM BOOM. We looked at each other, our eyes as big as saucers. We went to run up the stairs, but plaster was dropping from the ceiling. We crammed ourselves into the men’s room doorway. I remember sitting there and thinking, "I’m dying today."
The Geary Theater after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Photo by John Sutton.
When it stopped, I thought we were going to get up to the lobby and look out into the street and see all the buildings flattened. That’s how it felt. The box office manager Michael McCarthy went to open the doors into the auditorium to check if anyone was in the theater, and there was dust everywhere. It looked like smoke, so we thought the theater was on fire. Luckily, it wasn’t, and no one was hurt.

Who are some of your favorite actors that you have seen on A.C.T.’s stages?
Anika Noni Rose. She was in the M.F.A. Program and her first season away from A.C.T., she won a Tony Award and thanked A.C.T. in her acceptance speech. Also Rene Augesen. She was transformative. When I went to see Celebration and The Room (2001), I didn’t even recognize her. Afterward, I looked in my program and was shocked to discover it was her. She was so much fun to watch, and just the nicest person offstage.

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

Morris Panych's 7 Stories at A.C.T.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

On the seventh-story ledge of an apartment building, a man stands. He pauses, ready to jump, but is suddenly interrupted by a string of neighbors and partygoers—a pair of murderous lovers, a suspicious shrink, and an ex-actor with a false mustache and 150 million reasons for marriage. In 7 Stories, Canadian writer and director Morris Panych weaves together multiple narratives involving gunshots, cocktails, nurses, God, and one particular umbrella to create a sharp and unpredictable dark comedy.

Artwork for A.C.T.'s 2017 production of 7 Stories.
Morris Panych is a prolific theater artist who has written more than 30 plays and directed 90 across Canada. He is the recipient of more than 50 awards for his work. He last collaborated with A.C.T. in 2009 when he directed his play Vigil. And before that, he staged his and Wendy Gorling's 2005 adaptation of The Overcoat, based on the nineteenth-century short story by Nikolai Gogol.

7 Stories runs February 22–25 at The Rueff at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. Click here to purchase tickets through our website

Inside the World of A Thousand Splendid Suns

Thursday, February 16, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Mariam, Laila, and Rasheed—the characters at the center of A Thousand Splendid Suns, running through February 26 at The Geary Theater—may have begun in the mind of author Khaled Hosseini and playwright Ursula Rani Sarma, but their personalities are rooted firmly in their native Afghanistan.

Approximately the size of Texas, Afghanistan is a land of extreme beauty and extreme geographic diversity, ranging from towering mountains to expansive plains to barren deserts. Winters there are harsh, and summers sweltering. In this dramatic landscape live 32.5 million Afghans, a mixture of religions, languages, and ethnicities.

A timeline of Afghan history. By A.C.T. Graphics Team.
In 1979, the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan to prop up a failing socialist government, but they were ill-prepared for the ferocious response of the Afghan people. When the Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, Afghans were hopeful that life would return to normal.

However, many of the militant groups that had fought the Soviets—known as the Mujahideen—turned against each other. The nation descended into civil war. One group shelled Kabul from the surrounding hills, while others fought for control of neighborhoods. It is during this dangerous period that Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns begins.

Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by Joe Burger, 2007. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Into this bloodshed burst a new group that looked like the answer to many Afghans’ prayers for peace: the Taliban. Spreading from the refugee camps in Pakistan in the early 1990s, the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan by 1996. Many Afghans welcomed it with open arms, seeing in its fierce religious beliefs a solution to the violence that had plagued the country for almost two decades.

The people’s celebrations were short-lived. The Taliban believed that impurity and vice were the root cause of the country’s problems. Through its Department for the Preservation of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice, the Taliban issued edict after edict banning anything that might entice people to sin. Women were forbidden from working, attending school, and leaving their homes without a male relative to escort them. This is the political and social world that Mariam and Laila must navigate in A Thousand Splendid Suns.

A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through February 26 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Afghanistan and the creation of A Thousand Splendid Suns? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

Relationships Take Center Stage at The Geary and The Strand

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Ah, young love! This Valentine’s Day, A.C.T. brings you productions that explore both sides of love: the bliss and the madness.

Childhood friends Tariq (Pomme Koch) and Laila (Nadine Malouf) in
A.C.T.'s 2017 production of A Thousand Splendid Suns. Photo by Kevin Berne.
In the world-premiere adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, running through February 26 at The Geary Theater, childhood sweethearts Laila and Tariq are torn apart by the violence of the Afghan Civil War. Is their friendship and love enough to keep them safe during these turbulent years and bring them together again?
Actors Stacey Yen (Jenny) and Joe Paulik (Elias) at a rehearsal
for A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
The couple at the center of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker’s John, which opens at The Strand Theater on February 22, have the opposite problem; they are trying to save their relationship. At the beginning of the play, Jenny and Elias have just arrived at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. They are on their way home to New York after spending time with Jenny’s parents in Ohio. But as soon as they are shown to their room, the bickering begins. Will this trip bring them closer together, or tear them apart?

A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through February 26 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. John opens February 22 and runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Want to know more about these two shows? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Director Ken Rus Schmoll on Annie Baker's John

Thursday, February 9, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman 

"John is like going over to a stranger's house and sitting in their living room talking for three hours," says director Ken Rus Schmoll. At the first rehearsal for John at The Strand Theater, Schmoll introduced the play to a rapt audience of A.C.T. trustees, executive producers, staff, and students. "You listen to the other person's story and wonder about his or her secrets. Maybe you ask a few questions, and receive a few answers, but you ultimately leave with both more understanding and less."

Ken Rus Schmoll, director of A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
John, written by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker and starring Georgia Engel (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), begins with the arrival of twentysomethings Jenny and Elias at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But in this old house filled with shelves of smiling dolls and tchotchkes, the cracks in their relationship begin to surface.

"Some plays pack a lot of information, ideas, and thoughts into their 90 minutes," says Schmoll. "You can lose track of time and feel like you've lived an entire lifetime. It's a dazzling experience, and an important one in the theater. But Annie's plays are attempting the inverse of that: to never quite lose track of time, to tell a story in which everything is just hinted at."

First rehearsal for John. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
For Schmoll, performing John in San Francisco now feels particularly meaningful. "I've been thinking a lot about the civil divide in our country right now, and the significance of doing a play set in Gettysburg, the site of the worst battle in our Civil War. And while John doesn't particularly address directly our current state, it does examine a world much larger than ourselves: the forces at work in that world and the boundaries that are beyond our comprehension. By pointing out this world, the play opens a door to a state of grace, a state of oneness. I don't know if we ever achieve this kind of oneness as human beings, but as [writer and political activist] Vaclav Havel said, 'It's easy to recognize our differences. What we have to do is try to remember how we're all the same.'"

John runs February 22 through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Strong Women: Mariam and Laila in A Thousand Splendid Suns

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, running through February 26 at The Geary Theater, Mariam and Laila must fight to hold onto their hopes and dreams in a world where violence and religious fundamentalism conspire to dash them.

These two strong women are thrown together by the tragedy of war. Laila’s parents have been killed in a bombing, and Rasheed—Mariam’s husband—has pulled her from the rubble into their home. Although Mariam is initially suspicious of this newcomer, the two women rally together to take care of a child.

Laila (Nadine Malouf) and Mariam (Kate Rigg, seated)
in A.C.T.'s 2017 production of A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Photo by Kevin Berne. 
The women’s dreams of a better life are further threatened by the arrival of the Taliban. This Islamic fundamentalist group believed that the country’s problems were due to sinful behavior. They quickly issued edicts against these vices, which included women attending school, wearing nail polish, and leaving the house without a burka.

Yet, Mariam and Laila are strong. They defy these rules in their quest for a better life, for their children and for themselves.

“What I was most drawn to in A Thousand Splendid Suns was its depiction of three generations of Afghan women, and its unveiling of a friendship between two women who in other circumstances would never have even met, let alone become bonded for life,” says A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff. When she and playwright Ursula Rani Sarma first sat down to discuss this story, they immediately agreed that these two incredible female characters would be the spine of the play.

Writing a play with women at the center was particularly important to Sarma. “At a time when there is still a balance to be addressed in terms of gender representation across all sectors, to create a piece of theater with such powerful women at its helm feels incredibly satisfying and timely,” says Sarma.

A.C.T.’s production of A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through February 26. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Afghanistan, the process of adaptation, and women’s rights? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

The Indescribable Beauty of the Saw: An Interview with Composer David Coulter

Friday, February 3, 2017

By Michael Paller

If you remember the didgeridoo, the ukulele, or the banjo playing from The Black Rider: Casting of the Magic Bullets at A.C.T. in 2004, you have heard the work of David Coulter. This British-born, Oakland-based musician specializes in unusual instruments whose sound is rarely heard by contemporary audiences—among his specialties are the jaw harp, the theremin, and the musical saw. During workshops for A Thousand Splendid Suns, we spoke with Coulter to learn more about sound art, saws, and the score for Suns.

Composer David Coulter in a rehearsal for A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Photo by Thomas Moore.
What is it about the sound of the saw that attracts you?
When played well it is capable of indescribable beauty. It contains passion and tenderness. The opposite extremes are also possible: it can be used to create horrific and excruciatingly ugly sounds. For a carpenter’s hand tool, it is capable of producing a vast and wide array of sonic possibilities.

What kind of saw do you use, a woodcutting one or a musical one?
All my saws are essentially produced with the intention of being used musically. I often play readymades—regular woodworking saws as found in a store—but for precision and the concert stage and recording studio, I nearly always use a saw made by a company called Mussehl and Westphal, based in East Troy, Wisconsin.

What other instruments do you play in A Thousand Splendid Suns?
I designed a thunder sheet made of sheet steel which I play with a variety of mallets, sticks, beaters, and bows. It is 48 inches by 24 inches and suspended from a frame, like a giant steel blade. It’s a bit like an enormous saw.

What sorts of discoveries did you make during the workshop process?
Working with [director] Carey Perloff, the biggest discovery is that you should never assume that what you thought was going to work will work. Be prepared for change. Be prepared for incongruous and unusual juxtapositions. I like to be surprised when I work; I also like to provide elements of surprise and wonder in my playing. Carey is extremely open to my sound world and has encouraged me to push it to the edges. I am excited to see how the music develops as we run the piece, and especially how I will evolve it when I am playing it eight times a week.

How will the music function in the play?
The music will hopefully function as a means to enhance the audience’s experience. Khaled Hosseini’s novel and Ursula Rani Sarma’s script are extremely powerful and, at times, simultaneously beautiful and brutal. I simply try to find a sound that corresponds with a feeling or a mood. That is one of the reasons I love music so much as a medium. It is capable of so many nuances, colors, and meanings.

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

Facing the Unknown: The YC's The Life to Come

Thursday, February 2, 2017

By Joelle Hagen 

Set in 1918, Timothy Mason's The Life to Come tells the story of eight young students in a small Minnesota town who are preparing for a school production of Macbeth. As the students explore Shakespeare's dark and violent tragedy, they watch their world crumble and contemplate what the future holds for them in this time of war.

Artwork for A.C.T.'s Youth Conservatory production of The Life to Come.
Today, the actors in our production face a similar situation to those students in 1918. They are watching the world around them grapple with war, hate, racism, and the fear of the unknown, and while they do not have much power to change it, they are stuck with the consequences of the decisions made by the generations before them.

In rehearsals, the cast and creative team have discussed the relevance of this play in the modern world. These teenage actors find themselves caught between being too young to carry much power and responsibility and too old to ignore what is going on in this volatile time. Producing this play is a way for these students to voice their perspective.

As the stage manager for this production, it has been a blessing to watch these young adults throw themselves fully into their roles with enthusiasm, bravery, and authenticity. It further proves to me that, now more than ever, art is a necessary vehicle for communication, empathy, and education. The gift of artistic expression provides a foothold to those struggling to understand and accept our current world state and contributes to a widespread conversation about concepts too overwhelming to take on as individuals. That is the inspiration I find everyday working with students and artists of all kinds. I look forward to sharing what we've created with the public!

The Life to Come runs February 7–11 in The Rueff at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. It is a co-commission with His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, Scotland and A.C.T. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Joelle Hagen is a Stage Management Fellow at A.C.T.
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