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Showing posts from October, 2017

Silence Speaking Volumes: Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds

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By Taylor Steinbeck
When Bess Wohl’s six characters arrive at the silent retreat in Small Mouth Sounds, they each are seeking relief from the “noisiness” of their lives. Looking for answers, they turn to the retreat’s offstage, omniscient-ish guru, but he guides them to look within themselves for answers. “Your brilliance, your juiciness, your spiciness, your grudges, your resentment, your enlightenment. It is all right here,” the Teacher says. “All you have to do is. Listen.” The silence of the retreat enables each of its participants to hear everything at an amplified volume: suffering, joy, frustration, desire. Small Mouth Sounds asks our noise-saturated society, what can we learn from silence?
In writing Small Mouth Sounds, Wohl’s use of silence was an experiment in mindful art-making. With a script almost entirely made up of stage directions, this play challenged her to dig deeper than dialogue to get to the core of her characters, and take on many of the same challenges that con…

The Strand Theater Celebrates 100 Years!

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By Taylor Steinbeck

Today, October 27, A.C.T.'s Strand Theater turns 100 years old. Since its sparkling renovation in 2015, The Strand has become a beacon of theatrical innovation and community engagement in the Bay Area. From presenting new plays in the New Strands Festival to sharing our stage with entertainers of all kinds through the @TheStrand series, A.C.T. has reinvented this historic theater. 
Located in San Francisco’s old vaudeville district, dubbed the “Great White Way” for its marquee lights, The Strand has been rooted in the arts since its 1917 foundation. Despite changes in the building’s name (it started life as The Jewel) and its offerings (it was once a silent film cinema), this venue was always a theater. But when operations closed in 2003, the building became derelict. In October 2013, A.C.T. began a two-year, $35-million transformation, converting the 700-seat cinema into a community destination featuring the Strand Cafe, the 283-seat Rembe Theater, and the 140…

Extreme Vulnerability: An Interview with Small Mouth Sounds Director Rachel Chavkin

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By Simon Hodgson

Rachel Chavkin is accustomed to theatrical challenges. The Tony Award–nominated director of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is steadily building a theater career encompassing productions that employ music, video, dance, and other multimedia. “I’m drawn to anything that asks me to make something that I’ve never lived in before,” says Chavkin, “that requires me to learn how to do something or create a different culture. That’s not only how I think about design, but it’s also how I think about performance style, the world of the play, or the culture that I’m forging onstage.” We sat down with Chavkin to discuss the humor and heartbreak of Small Mouth Sounds.
What was your process in terms of staging Small Mouth Sounds?

Once we had a cast, it became about doing it again and again and again. There’s this one moment in the entrance sequence that we call the “shoe carousel,” where all of the characters realize one by one that they are supposed to have taken off …

Meditation and McMindfulness: A Brief History of the American Wellness Industry

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By Elspeth Sweatman

Like the characters in Small Mouth Sounds, many of us turn to mindfulness as way of connecting with ourselves and our surroundings. But mindfulness in America today seems a contradiction in terms; it is not only a means to help us relax and recharge, but also a business powerhouse, raking in an estimated $4.2 billion a year. This juxtaposition of relaxation and commerce, however, has only appeared in the last 50 years.
Mindfulness first arrived in America in the 1840s, as Buddhist Asian immigrants poured into California in search of gold, and East Coast academics became enamored of the religion and the esoteric man at its center, the Buddha. For these academics, mindfulness was just another aspect of Buddhism to be studied, not practiced in its own right. However, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, increasingly stringent laws brought Asian–US immigration to a standstill and rising ethnic tensions curtailed interest in Buddhism.

After World War II,…

Looking Within: M.F.A. Third-Year Actors Present Personal Anthems

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By Taylor Steinbeck

For A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Class of 2018, this is the moment of truth. After over two years of intensive training, they have reached their final year as acting students. In light of their impending departure, the actors have been challenged to dig deep for their upcoming musical revue, Now. Here. Us., which runs this weekend only. “The actors are performing songs to which they feel a personal connection,” says director Milissa Carey, “Each song celebrates their individual artistry and style.” We spoke with four of these actors to find out what their song means to them.

Beatriz Miranda on “My House” (from Matilda): One of the biggest discoveries I have made during this time is how grateful I am for my home. The farther away I travel from my family, my childhood room, my apartment in Puerto Rico, and everything that has shaped me until now, the easier it is to feel disconnected from it all. But being a nomad has taught me how to understand the value of the small…

Double Identity: Hamlet's Avenging Sons

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By Elspeth Sweatman

In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses doubling—the mirroring of characters, situations, plot points, themes, and rhetorical devices—to make his characters and the world of Elsinore more intriguing and explore the themes of identity, power, and truth at the heart of the play. One of the more noticeable uses of this device is that there isn’t just one man in the play avenging his father’s death; there are three.
Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras all lose their fathers: Hamlet at the hands of his uncle Claudius, Laertes at the hands of Hamlet, and Fortinbras at the hands of Hamlet’s father. Although all three vow to avenge their fathers’ deaths, they go about accomplishing this task in completely different ways. Hamlet gathers evidence of his uncle’s guilt before acting. Laertes returns from France immediately and demands to know who killed his father; he is only stalled in his quest for vengeance by his grief at his sister’s death and Claudius’s urgings to wait for an opportune m…

Observing Silence: An Interview with Small Mouth Sounds Playwright Bess Wohl

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By Simon Hodgson

Small Mouth Sounds started life at a silent retreat, though playwright Bess Wohl didn’t know that at the time. She only showed up at the retreat to spend time with a friend. “I didn’t even realize that we were going to be in silence,” she says. But the experience triggered her storytelling instincts. By the end of the first day, the playwright was secretly making notes. “All I knew,” says Wohl, “was that I wanted the play to begin with a speech that ended with the words, ‘We shall now observe silence.’ I liked setting myself that challenge, but didn’t know where I’d go from there.” The play began to take shape after finding a home in Ars Nova, a New York–based incubator of new work. Small Mouth Sounds soon became an Off-Broadway hit. As the production’s national tour arrives on the West Coast, we caught up with Wohl to talk about bringing silence to The Strand.

What were the storytelling challenges (and opportunities) of silence?

Part of my interest in working with sile…

Like Climbing a Mountain: An Interview with Hamlet Actor John Douglas Thompson

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By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Reviewers have lauded John Douglas Thompson’s performance in A.C.T.’s production of Hamlet. Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times says Thompson “shatteringly portrays the melancholy Dane” in a way that “heightens the plight of a character forced by treacherous circumstances to relinquish his youthful ideals.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Lily Janiak says “Thompson’s crisp and loving enunciation of every consonant” is a “testament to the power of classical training if there ever was one.” We sat down with the Tony Award–nominated actor to gain insight into his process as an artist and how he approached creating this demanding role.

The character of Hamlet has almost 1,500 lines. How much of a challenge was this to take on?

When I did Tamburlaine the Great, people would ask me, “Why are you doing it?” Here’s a play in which I had 1,700 lines, more lines than Hamlet, a larger role than anything in Western literature. Part of the attraction was that it was …

How Writing Small Mouth Sounds Changed Its Playwright’s Life

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By A.C.T. Publications Staff
Mindfulness is seemingly everywhere: touted by celebrities, your boss, your best friend, online, at the gym, and in your local bookstore. Many of us are searching for ways to disconnect from our increasingly busy lives and reconnect with ourselves. This longing is at the core of A.C.T.’s new comedy, Small Mouth Sounds, which begins performances at The Strand next week.

Written by Drama Desk Award winner Bess Wohl, the play follows six strangers as they struggle to find inner peace during a weeklong silent retreat. They are guided by an unseen guru who encourages the retreaters to look within themselves for answers. The guru recommends that these men and women practice mindfulness, or exist consciously in the present moment, as a key to unlocking the self.

The meaning of mindfulness shifts depending on its context, but as it is used in Small Mouth Sounds (and largely in modern Western society), it is associated with self-care and self-knowledge. Through bei…