Intimate Yet Foreign: An Interview with Hamlet Scenic and Costume Designer David Israel Reynoso

Friday, September 29, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman and Simon Hodgson

The Elsinore of A.C.T.’s Hamlet is a world swirling with rumor and falsehood. It’s filled with kings and courtiers who say one thing and do another. Scenic and Costume Designer David Israel Reynoso wanted the play’s set to reflect this duplicity. His vision incorporates majestic elements—towering walls and ramparts—but hints at the corruption embedded in Shakespeare’s text with heavy, abattoir-style sheeting through which we see images we can’t quite decipher. Is that Polonius we see hiding? Is it Claudius? “The space has a lot of partitions, nooks and crannies where people can spy on each other,” says Reynoso. “This idea that you don’t know where you are in relationship to anything and anyone is at the core of this play’s world.” We sat down with Reynoso to unravel some of the set’s secrets.

Set rendering by David Israel Reynoso for A.C.T.'s 2017 production of Hamlet.
This production of Hamlet is set in a world that is polluted, but the inhabitants of this world don’t seem to know it. What was your inspiration for this?

I was on a plane looking through one of the magazines in the seat back and came across a screen shot of a film called Red Desert, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. This image was of a woman in an early 1960s green coat, holding the hand of a little boy in a mustard coat. The landscape is very gritty. She’s standing on what look to be train tracks, but dirt has overtaken some of the tracks. Behind her is an enormous plume from a factory. The film became an incredible resource in terms of a landscape that has this perpetual pollution, these great plumes of poisonous smoke emanating.

How do you translate these images and ideas into a set?

Carey and I wanted to create a space that we felt we knew intimately and yet also felt completely foreign. We got this feeling when we looked at industrial landscapes, so we created a set that could be the inside of a factory or a warehouse, but isn’t so tied to one thing that it couldn’t be anything else. It needed to be a space like a fortress—where someone could wield a weapon—or a royal court, where someone could throw a fabulous party. We’re never able to peg what the space is.
Set rendering by David Israel Reynoso for A.C.T.'s 2017 production of Hamlet.
How does this setting relate to the costumes?

The only reason we are going this far in terms of structure in the space is because we have the counterbalance in what we are doing with the clothing. We want the clothing to feel grounded in a sense of reality. People are wearing clothes that we recognize. These are buttoned-up, well dressed, semi-sophisticated men and women—in juxtaposition to this space. You don’t know why these people allow themselves to reside in this polluted space when they’re trying to hold court. There’s something about having something soft and glamorous in a space like this. That tension is definitely implied.

Hamlet runs through October 15 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more of our interview with David Israel Reynoso, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

When Tech Meets Art

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

What does the internet know about you? San Franciscans on Market Street were intrigued today by a new installation in the lobby of The Strand Theater—The Glass Room Experience, a series of interactive displays focusing on web privacy and the personal data held by giant tech companies. The installation was backed by internet nonprofit Mozilla and Tactical Technology Collective, a German nonprofit focused on digital security awareness.

Two pieces in The Glass Room Experience's installation. 
This timely tech event comes as part of The Strand’s wider exploration of technology. On Monday, October 2, the theater will join the Goethe-Institut in presenting the Plurality of Privacy Project in Five-Minute Plays (P3M5)—a series of short, newly commissioned works, open to the community, investigating contemporary issues of digital privacy. A.C.T.’s commission, #CAMPTULELAKE by Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda (After the War, Monstress), juxtaposes the story of a Japanese American girl desperate for privacy amid a 1940 internment camp with today’s tendency toward digital oversharing.

In addition, The Strand is the venue for a new play, Clickshare by Lucas Kavner, which opens on Thursday, September 28. Focusing on a fictional web media company, Clickshare looks at the consequences of instant journalism and viral content.

The Glass Room Experience runs until October 3. Clickshare runs September 28–30. The Plurality of Privacy Project in Five-Minute Plays takes place on October 2, 12–1 p.m. All these events will take place at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street.

“The Play's the Thing”: An Interview with Hamlet Director Carey Perloff

Friday, September 22, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

As a Fulbright Fellow at Oxford University, Carey Perloff saw her first performance of Hamlet and was hooked. “The draw was Shakespeare’s language,” she says. “It was unbelievably seductive.” For the next 30 years, she crossed continents to see imaginative new renditions of the classic: Peter Brook’s version in Paris starring Adrian Lester, Jonathan Goad at Stratford, Jude Law on Broadway, and Diane Venora at The Public Theater. In her final year as artistic director of A.C.T., Perloff takes on Hamlet for the first time. We sat down to get a glimpse into her process, her passion for Shakespeare, and the story of producing Hamlet at A.C.T.

Hamlet Director Carey Perloff dicussing script edits with A.C.T.
Dramaturg Michael Paller. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
Why Hamlet now?

As Jan Kott says in Shakespeare: Our Contemporary, Hamlet is a sponge that absorbs all that’s happening politically, socially, and spiritually in a culture. I read the play the morning after Trump’s election, and I could see the landscape of a prince who goes to bed in an ordered kingdom and wakes up in a world where everything is fake news and nothing is to be trusted. It feels resonant. That said, I’m not interested in easy equivalencies, in making Claudius Trump. Our challenge as artists is to keep the metaphors of the play as alive as possible within the landscape of our own experience. Hamlet asks how we understand the relationship of our inner landscape to the world around us. Our inner landscape and the external world are always at odds with each other. That collision is what makes for drama.

Some of the Geary audience will have seen multiple Hamlets and will know the play well. How do you balance that expectation against your storytelling?

How is an audience ever going to hear “To be or not to be” fresh again? You have to figure out what is the catalyst that makes this character need to say these words at this moment. What you want to do for an audience is give them a window into how capacious, enormous, complex, and extraordinary the play is. It can be paralyzing to think, “What do I have to add to this play?” until you start to work on it. And then the play is so rich, you respond to it in the only way you can as human beings living at this moment in the world today.

For some San Franciscans, this may be the first time a new generation sees Hamlet. What do you want them to take away?

First of all, we cannot overestimate what it is for this major African American actor to play Hamlet on that stage. John's as good as it gets. And for a new generation, one of the thrills is hearing things for the first time. I heard it when I saw Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park this summer. Young people don’t know that when somebody says “It’s Greek to me,” that the phrase was actually coined by a character in Shakespeare. There is nothing like Shakespeare for making those discoveries. Hamlet is full of those. That’s the thrill of it.

runs through October 15 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more of our interview with Carey Perloff, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

M.F.A. Actors Go Viral in Clickshare

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

By Taylor Steinbeck

What Happens Next Will Shock You! 17 Tricks That Will Change Your Life! Clickbait titles such as these have infested the internet landscape. Clickshare, the M.F.A. production running September 28–30 at The Strand, aims to expose the clickable content to which we fall prey everyday. This new comedy, directed by Stephen Brackett, centers on Clickshare, a news media company parodying sites like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post. At Clickshare, overworked twentysomethings pump out articles about pregnancy rumors and wardrobe malfunctions. But chaos breaks out when a story on Sun Flu—a rapidly spreading disease—goes literally viral.

Artwork for the 2017 M.F.A. production of Clickshare.
In 2016, Macquarie Dictionary named “Fake News” the word of the year, and for good reason. With baseless stories blown up by mainstream media, Americans have grown increasingly wary of journalism. “Clickshare is poking fun at what journalism has become, what stories grab people’s attention now,” says third-year M.F.A. actor Justin Edward Keim. Clickshare writer Lucas Kavner capitalizes on this public mistrust by giving audiences a behind-the-scenes peek at the content creators who clog our Facebook feeds. Kavner himself was a staff reporter for the Huffington Post for three years, inspiring this hyperbolized satire. Keim plays Milano, Clickshare’s otherworldly, androgynous CEO. “It’s a fun character to play,” says Keim. “Milano is part Arianna Huffington, part James Bond villain, part crazy monster.” 

A.C.T. has been involved in Clickshare’s development from page to stage since its early drafts. In its initial in-house reading at A.C.T., Keim played the character of Colin (now played by third-year M.F.A. actor Justin Genna). The cast of M.F.A. actors later had the opportunity to work closely with Kavner as he fine-tuned the script. “It’s always been an enjoyable show, but now it feels more cohesive,” says Keim. “Lucas is a hilarious writer. His rewrites had us cracking up the first time we read them.”

Last spring, Clickshare was performed at the headquarters of the nonprofit tech company Mozilla, as part of Friday Drafts—a new play reading series wherein M.F.A. students present staged readings of new plays for a tech audience during happy hour. Keim, who read stage directions, noticed how receptive Mozilla team members were to Clickshare. Mozilla employees were active participants in the creative process, listening intently and offering feedback to the playwright. This engagement led to Mozilla co-sponsoring Clickshare’s production. “On the very first day of rehearsals we had props that we normally wouldn’t have so early on,” says Keim. “Because of Mozilla’s contribution, we were able to more clearly see what we were trying to create and just dive right into it.”

Lily Narbonne (L) and Justin Edward Keim (R) at the Mozilla hosted staged reading of Clickshare.
Clickshare is a bitingly clever commentary on the internet age and the people consumed by it. Holding a mirror up to our culture, Kavner spares no one as he illuminates the flaws of fast journalism, success-hungry millennials, and efficiency-obsessed corporations. 

Clickshare runs September 28­–30 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets.

“To Be or Not to Be”: The Iconic Speech’s Origins, Interpretations, and Impact

Friday, September 15, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

The opening line of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy is theater’s most iconic, most referenced quote. What’s less known is the famous speech’s history, with Hamlet’s earliest publications offering varying versions of its language. Also questioned is its meaning—is Hamlet contemplating suicide or is he weighing the consequences of murder? Though definitive answers are unlikely to arise, the questions “To be or not to be” asks have kept audiences, scholars, and actors engaged for centuries.

Hamlets "To be or not to be" speech as it appears in the three original editions of the play. Photo by Georgelazenby. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The first edition, or First Quarto (Q1), of Hamlet was published in 1603. Because the text is much shorter than later editions and its language is less poetic, it is nicknamed the “Bad Quarto” by scholars. “To be or not to be” in Q1 reads as:
To be, or not to be—ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep—is that all? Ay, all.
No, to sleep, to dream—ay, merry, there it goes
The soliloquy occurs in the play much earlier—in Act Two, just after Polonius arranges for Hamlet and Ophelia to meet—than in the later, more familiar editions of Hamlet which feature the speech in Act Three, scene one. Scholars have theorized that this Bad Quarto might have been produced based on the inaccurate memory of a Hamlet actor who sold the words to a publisher. Others believe that it was Shakespeare’s first draft or was an abridged version used for touring productions.

Both the Second Quarto (1604–05) as well as the First Folio (F1)—which was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1623—present the versions of the text that we know today. Directors usually choose between Q1 or F1 for the script, and make additional cuts as needed. For A.C.T.’s production of Hamlet, director Carey Perloff is working with Q2 using some F1 edits, and has “To be or not to be” where it appears in Q1 in Act Two.

Possibly more confounding than the soliloquy’s origins are its variable meanings, which have inspired much debate. Some actors and scholars interpret this speech as an exploration of life, death, and suicide. Finding himself in a world that he no longer recognizes and burdened with the task of avenging his father’s murder, Hamlet considers taking his own life. He is stopped in this thinking by the fear of what may come after death: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.” Others argue that Hamlet is considering the consequences of killing his uncle, an action that could result in his own death. “Conscience does make cowards of us all,” he says; knowing the consequences of this act, Hamlet hesitates.

Alluded to in everything from algebra jokes (“[2b | !2b] That is the expression.”) to children’s potty-training books (Linda Johns’s To Pee or Not to Pee), Shakespeare’s words can be found everywhere. Though it’s been heard time and time again, whether in-context or not, actors still manage to bring their own spin on the dramatic speech. Below are some of our favorite interpretations to prepare you for John Douglas Thompson’s “To be or not to be” at The Geary later this month.

In The King's Speech (2010) Colin Firth as King George VI recites the soliloquy as an exercise for his speech therapy.

Kenneth Branagh acts and directs in this rendition of Hamlet (1996). 

Prince Charles performs the opening lines of "To be or not to be" alongside actors Paapa Essiedu, Tim Minchin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dame Harriet Walter, David Tennant, Rory Kinnear, Sir Ian McKellen, and Dame Judi Dench for the Royal Shakespeare Company's 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death celebration, Shakespeare Live!

Hamlet opens September 20 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To learn more about the evolution of Shakespeare’s iconic soliloquy, read Dramaturg Michael Paller’s writing in Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

An Advocate for All: Introducing A.C.T.’s New Young Conservatory Director Jill MacLean

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory has a new leader at its helm: Jill MacLean is the inaugural holder of the Craig Slaight Young Conservatory Directorship. The position was named for her predecessor Craig Slaight who retired this year after almost three decades as the YC’s head. “I’m excited to work with the talented staff and faculty at A.C.T.,” says MacLean, “and to build on the incredible vision established by Craig Slaight.” MacLean was appointed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff in August. “We feel confident that Jill will honor the outstanding legacy of the YC,” says Perloff, “and lead us forward in new and exciting ways as we seek to make the experience of theater accessible to all young people in the Bay Area."

              A.C.T.’s Craig Slaight Director of the Young Conservatory Jill MacLean.
Having taught acting and musical theater at A.C.T. from 2008–12, MacLean was welcomed back with open arms by Perloff and fellow YC staff members. “Aside from being one of our favorite teachers in the YC,” says Perloff, “Jill has a wealth of experience working in theater and education.” The feeling is mutual for MacLean. “I am thrilled to join the A.C.T. family in my new role,” she says. “Combining my love of education and theater, while tapping into the rich artistic resources in the Bay Area and beyond, is a dream come true.”

Passionate about enriching the lives of young people through the arts, MacLean has dedicated more than 20 years to theater and education. She has experience as a director, actor, producer, teacher, and arts program administrator in both New York and the Bay Area. Before receiving an MFA in musical theater, MacLean taught English as a Second Language, Spanish, and drama as a public school teacher. She went on to teach at several Bay Area institutions, including Berkeley Repertory Theatre, StageWrite, and Word for Word.

In addition to teaching, MacLean was the Playwrights Foundation’s managing producer, producing the annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival. She also managed Z Space’s Youth Arts Program. At Lincoln Center Theater, she served as the directors lab assistant for five years, as well as its education associate, and interim associate director of education. She has directed productions for several organizations, including Notre Dame des Victoires in San Francisco, Las Positas College, Bay One Acts, and Sonoma State University.

For MacLean, theater isn’t just a mode of expression, but a tool for discovery. She believes in its ability to inspire young people, and sees the YC as an avenue for such opportunities. “The YC not only provides young actors with stellar theater training from some of the best teaching artists in the industry, but it also creates lifetime theater advocates and audiences,” says MacLean. “We want students who come to A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory to discover and experience new perspectives that empower them.”

To learn more about A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory, click here.

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