Seizing the Summer with Young Conservatory Classes

Thursday, July 27, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman 

Every summer, families pack their bags and head on vacation. For some, it's a chance to unwind and relax. For others—like fifth-grader Marcella Motilla from Los Angeles—it is an opportunity to further her acting training with A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory.

2017 YC Summer student Marcella Motilla. Photo by Veronica Motilla.
For two weeks, Motilla and her mother Veronica moved to the Bay Area while Marcella took the YC’s Junior Acting class, where she worked on storytelling, immersing herself in a character, and building confidence. “It was hard to be away from home the first day,” says Veronica. “But when I picked up Marcella and saw how excited she was and how much she enjoyed it, it was worth it.”

Under the tutelage of M.F.A. Program actor Charlie O’Rourke and teaching artist Naomi Sanchez, Marcella furthered her acting through scene work and excerpts from Newsies The Musical, a musical about the New York City newsboys strike in 1899. At the final performance, she played the great she-bear in “Bearskin” and sang the opening solo in the song “Seize the Day” from Newsies.

“I feel I am better at transmitting emotions and am more confident onstage,” says Marcella, who already has one eye on the 2018 classes. “I really enjoyed my two weeks here and if my parents would send me back next summer, I would gladly return!”

For more information about A.C.T.'s Young Conservatory, click here. The next YC production is Homefront, running August 8–19 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

The Butterfly Effect: An Interview with Black Butterflies Director Lauren Spencer

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Artwork for 2017 production of Black Butterflies.
“We’re at a moment of true crisis. No one is really acknowledging the disappearance of our young girls of color,” says Black Butterflies director Lauren Spencer. “They are the fastest growing population in juvenile hall. An entire population is disappearing behind walls. And it’s not that people aren’t doing anything about it, but the girls are so hidden and forgotten.”

Black Butterflies, which runs through July 29 at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, aims to bring those stories into the light. This world premiere production centers on three young girls of color who find themselves caught in a stifling web of educational neglect, calcified courts, and an overwhelmed incarceration system. Pushed out of society, they must fight to survive with their humanity, dignity, and individuality intact.

Written by award-winning playwright Darren Canady, Black Butterflies is the latest play commissioned for A.C.T.'s Collaborative Youth Arts Project. Now in its third year, CYAP brings together a diverse group of young actors from the Bay Area to create a play articulating the needs and challenges of youth in today’s world. The project supports the cultivation of new work and serves young actors from three arts communities: A.C.T.’s Education & Community Programs, the Young Conservatory, and Destiny Arts in Oakland.

During rehearsals for Black Butterflies, we spoke with director Lauren Spencer about the production and some new developments to CYAP.

This play deals with weighty topics. How have you approached these in the rehearsal room?
A lot of the cast have family members who have dealt with incarceration or with the judicial system. Many are dealing with being girls of color in school and the expectations around that: being told that you need to be good, keep your mouth shut, dress appropriately, don’t be too opinionated, don’t be too free. My approach has been to honor and acknowledge that they have a wealth of experience that they can bring to the rehearsal room which will make the piece more alive. It’s my job to create space for that, to create as much freedom and permission to use their own experiences to inform their performances.

The cast and creative team of Black Butterflies.
One thing new about CYAP this year is the scale of community engagement surrounding the production. What organizations have you partnered with?
We reached out to community organizations that work with system-involved girls and their families, like Each One Reach One and the Young Women’s Freedom Center. After one of the performances, there will be a panel where representatives from these organizations will talk about their work.

We’ve also partnered with youth artists to approach this topic from different artistic mediums, not just theater. We have two poets from Youth Speaks who came to rehearsals and created poems that they'll perform on opening night. We also have some student artists who have designed work for the show that will be displayed in the lobby.

Why this story now?
This nationwide problem is not going to change unless each individual takes responsibility for raising our youth. We need to be present for our young girls and figure out creative ways to do that.

Black Butterflies runs July 25–29 at The Rueff at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, and at Destiny Arts Center in Oakland August 4–5. Click here to purchase tickets. Each show will be followed by a short additional performance, panel discussion, or Q&A. To learn more, click here

Behind the Scenes at A.C.T.: An Interview with Head Carpenter Miguel Ongpin

Thursday, July 20, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

It’s easy to spot Miguel Ongpin, A.C.T.’s Head Carpenter. Just look for his signature orange baseball cap or listen for his booming laughter. When in doubt, head towards his shrine: a collection of posters—including John Sayles’s Lone Star—that Ongpin brought to liven up his backstage kingdom.

Head Carpenter Miguel Ongpin. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
Before a performance of Battlefield, we sat down with Ongpin to get some insight into the life of a theater’s stagehand and carpenter.

How did you get into theater?
I had fun doing the productions in high school, whether that was being in them or helping backstage. So I thought, “Oh, that’s a good way to meet people in college.” So I did it in college at UC Berkeley. I acted—ha!—in a couple plays, and then I stage-managed a bunch of plays. The guy who ran the theater told me, “If you really want to make money and do theater, you become the stagehand. At least we always work.” [laughs]

So after college I started working as a non-union stagehand at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, and at California Shakespeare Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. I did that for a couple of years to build up my skill set. Then Ed Raymond [A.C.T.’s former technical director] told me to join the union so I could work at A.C.T. I began as a flyman until the 2005–06 season, when I became the head carpenter.

What has been the most challenging show to work on?
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets (2004). There was not a lot of automation in that; it was all manual stuff. It was a lot of what I call “stupid theater tricks.” It wasn’t like the last show we did, Needles and Opium, where it was projection. This was making a tree spring up. But it was fun because everything had to be done manually and still be spot on.

A.C.T.'s 2003 production of Urinetown. Photo by Kevin Berne.
The hardest shows set-wise were Tales of the City (2011) and Urinetown (2003). They were bears. For Urinetown, there were these two towers downstage. It took a couple of weeks to put them up. The show had just come from Broadway and they hadn’t pared down the set for the road. But it was fun, and that was a good show.

What are you looking forward to in A.C.T.’s upcoming 2017–18 season?
Hamlet with John Douglas Thompson. That guy’s awesome. He’s such a nice guy and so hard-working. It was a pleasure to work with him when he was here with Satchmo at the Waldorf (2016). I can’t wait to work with him again.

Dear Future Fellow: A Letter to the Incoming 2017–18 Season Fellows

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

July and August at A.C.T. sees the arrival of the 2017–18 season’s fellows. All year, the fellows work in A.C.T.’s many departments, from artistic and marketing to education, development, and more. They are a part of the mainstage productions, the New Strands Festival, the Downtown High School Residency program, the season gala, and the M.F.A. Program and Young Conservatory productions.

2016–17 Season Fellows Victoria Mortimer and Jessica Katz. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
From the keyboard of a former fellow, here is some advice for our incoming colleagues.

Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Work in the VIP Lounge, usher in the theater. Attend the conservatory hours. You never know, you may get to share an elevator with Tom Stoppard, exchange emails with Annie Baker, or show A Thousand Splendid Suns author Khaled Hosseini to his seat.

2016–17 Season Fellows Decorating The Geary.
Photo by Amy Hand.
Enjoy the perks of being a fellow. In November, the fellows gather at The Geary Theater to decorate the theater for the holidays. In the spring, they take part in the New Strands Festival, and produce their own show in A.C.T.’s Costume Shop. These are unique; savor them.

Explore and investigate. Go over to The Costume Shop and see the amazing work they do. Go behind the scenes at The Geary. Chat with people who work in development, in education, in artistic, and in company management. Go say hi to the fellows over at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. See shows throughout the Bay Area. You never know what you might discover.

It’s a journey. There is so much to learn and take in at A.C.T. There are days that will challenge you as an artist and as a team member. Just take a deep breath. The fellowship is a year long for a reason.

Remember to eat lunch. It sounds dorky, but it’s important. Take a break, go out on our patio, enjoy San Francisco’s weather, and say hi to our resident seagull.

We can't wait to meet you all and see what amazing things you will accomplish during the 2017–18 season.

For more information about A.C.T.’s Fellowship Program, click here.

A Year in Our Life: A.C.T.'s 50th-Anniversary Season Highlights

Thursday, July 13, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Thank you for playing your part in our 50th-anniversary season! Here are our top ten highlights from a year full of mainstage performances, visits from theater legends, new works, conservatory classes, and community days.

1. Kacee Clanton (Janis Joplin in A Night with Janis Joplin) singing the national anthem at a San Francisco Giants game.

2. Visits from theater legends Tom Stoppard and Peter Brook, M.F.A. Program alumni Annette Bening and Mark Harelik, and stars Georgia Engel and Darren Criss.

3. The Ma-Yi Theater Company's residency at the New Strands Festival. Ma-Yi playwrights included Lauren Yee (The Great Leap), Don Nguyen (The Man From Saigon), and Dustin Chinn (Snowflakes, or Rare White People).

4. Our 50th birthday party at The Geary, complete with our own ice cream flavor, courtesy of Humphry Slocombe.

5. The publication of A Five-Act Play: 50 Years of A.C.T. by our resident dramaturg Michael Paller.
Artwork for A Five-Act Play: 50 Years of A.C.T. by Michael Paller.
6. Incredible sets ranging from a neuroscience institute to the palace of Westminster and the streets of Kabul, from simplicity to a tchotchke-filled bed-and-breakfast and a rotating cube.

7. Reaching out to communities in the Bay Area through community days, play readings, and other events.

8. The launch of A.C.T.'s new podcast, Theaterology.

9. Introducing San Francisco audiences to work by international playwrights, including Ursula Rani Sarma, Robert Lepage, Mike Bartlett, and Lachlan Philpott.

10. Celebrating Craig Slaight, who stepped down as director of the Young Conservatory after 29 years.

What were your highlights of A.C.T.'s 2016–17 season? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter. To see the great shows coming up next season, click here.

Janis Joplin: Trendsetter

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Soul singer Janis Joplin—the musician at the heart of A Night with Janis Joplin, running through July 16 at The Geary Theater—blazed a trail for female musicians. But here are four other trends that Joplin started that you may not know about.

Janis Joplin. Photo courtesy of Albert B. Grossman Management.
One: Joplin was the first female singer to perform barefoot. Now, almost every female singer seems to do this: Taylor Swift, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Florence Welch, and Patti Labelle, to name just a few.

Two: Joplin began the trend of celebrities recruiting famous artists to tattoo them. San Francisco tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle gave Joplin a tattoo on her left wrist in 1970. He has also tattooed Cher and Joan Baez.

Three: Joplin introduced the autoharp (a chorded zither) to popular music. Autoharp was frequently used in blues and country music, but Joplin helped bring it to the attention of rock musicians.

Four: Joplin loved fur. In fact, liquor manufacturer Southern Comfort bought Joplin a lynx fur coat to thank her for bringing so much attention to their product.

Many of these trends were parts of Joplin’s personality from a young age. An article about her in her school newspaper at UT Austin in 1962 began “She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levi’s to class because they’re more comfortable, and carries her autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song it will be handy. Her name is Janis Joplin.”

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 16 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Janis Joplin and her legacy? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

An Extraordinary Adventure: An Interview with A Night with Janis Joplin Director Randy Johnson

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

The music world is a sweet spot for Randy Johnson, the creator and director of A Night with Janis Joplin, which is currently running through July 16 at The Geary Theater. Johnson has created productions about Conway Twitty, Keely Smith and Louis Prima, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Carly Simon, Elvis Presley, and Patsy Cline. But soul singer Janis Joplin holds a special place in Johnson’s heart.

As Johnson prepared to bring A Night with Janis Joplin to The Geary Theater, we caught up with him to talk about discovering the hidden side of Janis.

A Night with Janis Joplin Director Randy Johnson.
Photograph © Eric LaCour. 2010.
You’re known for productions focusing on iconic musicians, but A Night with Janis Joplin has a more personal connection for you. Why?
When I was a kid, one of the first albums I bought was Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills. And the first person I saw in concert was Nina Simone [the soul singer who appears in A Night with Janis Joplin as one of Joplin’s musical inspirations] at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles. So when the Joplin family reached out to me, those connections were the spark that created A Night with Janis Joplin.

You met with Michael and Laura Joplin, Janis’s brother and sister, after which you were given access to their archives about Janis. How did you use that material to create this musical?
I knew that the show couldn’t be an outsider’s opinion of her life, as that would be a disservice to both the woman and the audience. When you read biographies and some cradle-to-grave bio-musicals, they are made up of other people’s opinions of the artist.

I was fortunate enough to live with Janis and her material and get to know her only through her words, her music, and her family’s recollections. For a month I turned off the cable TV and the internet, and through Janis’s writing and music I lived in her world. I let Janis do the talking and I listened. I learned everything about Janis firsthand. I wanted it to be from the source. There’s no revisionist history. Through family recollections and the journals of Janis herself, I came to realize that here was this woman who made her ordinary life an extraordinary adventure.

What aspects of Janis did you find in your research that are less well known?
What surprised me the most was the joy in her life, her sense of humor, and her intellectual spark. At an early age, when she first become successful, she understood that what she said onstage influenced a whole lot of people. I read in her letters that she understood the responsibility.

Janis was not just some drug-fueled hippie chick singer. Her influences ran deep and wide. She was an intellectual, she was an artist, she was deep and thoughtful, she loved Broadway musicals, and she had a great sense of humor. She had such a short amount of time on earth—what she accomplished is astounding. I came not only to like Janis as a singer but to respect the woman that lived a deep, joyful, and complex life.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 16 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to read more of our interview with Randy Johnson? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.
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