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Showing posts from April, 2017

Simplicity Onstage: Peter Brook on Battlefield

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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? 

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 goo…

The Mahabharata: The Epic behind Peter Brook's Battlefield

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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.

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 Duryodha…

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

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By Madelene Tetsch 

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

I identify with Orlando in this moment. While my life is certainly shorter and simpler than Orlando’s, I also have trouble reconciling all of my interests, circumstances, and choices so that they amount to one clear picture. This is true for my life in the theater, where I am still trying to figure out where I best fit and contribute. And so, it was a wonderful relief to be a part of the 2017 Fellowship Project…

Reinvention: Jean Cocteau in Needles and Opium

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By Shannon Stockwell 

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

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

Astonish is precisely what Cocteau spent his entire life trying to do. Until his death in 1963, he was a whirlwind of artistic activity as he attempted to impress and amaze. Although today he is best known for his filmmaking—he made six films over the course of his life, the most famous being La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast)…

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

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By Elspeth Sweatman

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

“On closing night, she came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘I’m gonna write a play for you,’” said Engel in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner. That play is John, which is currently running at The Strand Theater through April 23.

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

“Annie has an incredible ear for humanity,” says Engel in an interv…

Mentorship in Action: Horton Foote's Tomorrow

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By Nathan Correll and Elspeth Sweatman

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

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

Paired with The Actor is another of Foote’s short plays, Blind Date. Hilarious and unflinchingly honest, it imagines a meeting of t…

Needles and Opium: The Backstage Pass

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By Simon Hodgson 

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


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


When the cube is rotati…

Spirit of the Age: the Paris of Needles and Opium

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By Jess Katz

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

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

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) is famous for his contributions to the existen…

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

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By Elspeth Sweatman 

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

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

Addiction and Creativity in Needles and Opium

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By Shannon Stockwell 

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

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

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis knew that drugs wouldn’t increase his creative capacity when he increasingly began using heroin in 1949. “I wasn’t never into that trip that if you shot heroin you might be able to play like Bird [Charlie Parker],” he says in his autobiography. He started using the drug because of the depression he felt upon returning to America follo…