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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