The Music of Needles and Opium

Thursday, March 30, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman 

On March 30, the Prince of Darkness takes over The Geary. In Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis succumbs to the bliss and torment of heroin addiction, displacement, and love, only to rise again and create some of his most iconic music.

Wellesley Robertson III (left) and Olivier Normand in Needles and Opium. Photo by Tristram Kento.
The Davis we meet in Needles and Opium is a far cry from the global superstar that he became. In 1948, Davis was just 22 years old. He was a leading player in New York City’s 52nd Street jazz clubs and arrived in Paris with the Tadd Dameron Quintet to play in the Festival International de Jazz. In the city of light, Davis found that audiences were much more receptive to the quintet’s radical new form of jazz—bebop.

Bebop was music for your ears, not your dancing feet. In contrast to the Dixieland style (popularized by swing bands during the 1930s), bebop was built on polyphony (each member of the ensemble is melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically independent from the others). As a result, the style was dominated by virtuoso players like Charlie Parker (saxophonist), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), and Thelonious Monk (piano).

For those two weeks in Paris, Davis was treated like a god. But when he returned to New York City two weeks later, he was brought down to earth with a jolt. There was no work to be had. Depressed and frustrated, he turned to heroin as a distraction. His creativity deserted him, and he became too sick to play.

Only after Davis kicked his habit cold turkey did his creativity return. In the years following his recovery (1954–57), he formed a new quintet and recorded 22 albums, including Miles Davis All Stars Volumes 1 and 2 (1955), Walkin’ (1957), and ’Round About Midnight (1957). Led by the unique lyrical, smoldering, metallic quality of Davis’s trumpet with his stemless Harmon mute, Davis’s quintet—trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass, and drums—became the pinnacle of the jazz movement at the time.

Miles Davis and Howard McGhee, September 1947. By William P. Gottleib.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1957, Davis returned to Paris as a jazz musician celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. At Orly Airport, he was greeted by film director Louis Malle, who wanted him to create the soundtrack for his latest film, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, 1958). Davis agreed.

The soundtrack became the impetus for a new sound for Davis, one that would define the next ten years of his career and push jazz into new territory. Because Davis didn’t have time to rehearse with the group, he decided to create music based around a mode—a single scale—rather than chord progressions. This allowed the players to have more freedom in the melodic and harmonic lines.

Back in the US, Davis continued to experiment with modes. Freed from the rigidity of chord progressions, he was able to leave more space in his solos, play fewer notes, and in a smaller range. It simplified his music, giving it an incredible emotional poignancy. Davis used this new sound for perhaps one of the most influential of his jazz albums, Kind of Blue (1959). This style became known as “cool” jazz.

Needles and Opium opens March 30 and runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Love Jazz? Join us on April 13th and 20th for Jazz in Fred’s Bar after the show! Music artist Jessica Lá Rel will be performing.

In Memoriam: Joan Sadler

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

A.C.T. mourns the loss of Joan Sadler, one of our most energetic and beloved board members, who passed away on Sunday, March 26.

Joan Sadler and Carey Perloff at the
2013 A.C.T. Conservatory Awards Luncheon.
Joan has been a part of A.C.T.’s family since the beginning. Just after moving to the Bay area in 1966, she attended the opening night performance of Tartuffe, A.C.T.’s first production in The Geary Theater. She was so moved that she immediately began supporting the company, bringing her tireless creative energy and experience as a freelance actor, broadcaster, visual artist, and photographer to the company’s volunteer organization, the Friends of A.C.T. She then served as secretary and vice president of the California Association for A.C.T., a fundraising foundation that helped keep the company afloat as it established itself in San Francisco.

When founding artistic director William Ball retired in 1986, Joan was active in A.C.T.’s reorganization, serving as president of the newly formed A.C.T. Board of Trustees from 1987 to 1989. She helped guide the organization as it undertook the search for a new artistic director.

After her retirement, Joan served on A.C.T.’s Conservatory Committee. She was particularly inspired by the role the Conservatory plays in contributing to the strength of A.C.T., and the culture of San Francisco. In 2002, she established the annual Joan Sadler Award, given to a third-year A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program actor for his or her exemplary work, both as a student and as a graduate who will represent the highest standards and traditions of the theatrical art.

Joan Sadler, H. Harrison Sadler, and William H. Draper, III. 1967.
In 2013, Joan received A.C.T.’s Benefactor Award for her tireless support and nurturing enthusiasm for the next generation of theater artists.

“Joan Sadler was one of the true ‘founding mothers’ of A.C.T.,” says Artistic Director Carey Perloff. “It was she who always said that the most important thing about A.C.T. was its focus on the future. She was passionate about the M.F.A. Program and watched with incredible pride the success of our graduates. I think the reason Joan seemed vital and young to me well into her nineties was the joy she took in the new, in the risk-taking, in artistic dreams and bold adventures. She just delighted in watching the creative process. A week before her death, I had the most vigorous conversation with Joan about our 50th Anniversary Open House at the Geary; she was immensely frustrated she couldn't be there herself, and wanted all the gossip and all the news! I know now she is looking down on us with those sparking eyes and enormous grin, urging us to keep the great experiment alive. Bless you, Joan!”

Annie Baker's John and the Uncanny

Monday, March 27, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

In Annie Baker’s John, running through April 23 at The Strand Theater, the word “watch”—in all its derivations—is used 37 times: 22 in the dialogue, and 15 in the stage directions. But what does it mean to watch and be watched? What does it feel like?

A doll. Photo by Em Cecile, 2011. Courtesy of Flickr.
You walk into an art gallery. As you move from painting to painting, you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You become hyperaware of those around you. You react to every movement, every sound. Your brain is sensing a threat, but from where? Then, you realize: the eyes in the paintings are following you. You are being watched.

The reason some people feel this way in an art gallery is because the human brain is “designed to read faces for important information about intentions, emotions, and potential threats,” says journalist Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. As human beings, we look to the eyes for important social cues and information about our environment. By looking at someone’s eyes and following his gaze, say social psychologist Ilan Shrira and professor Joshua D. Foster, we can tell how he is feeling, what he likes or doesn’t like, and what might be a potential danger in our surroundings. So watching and being watched helps us to communicate and keeps us safe.

But why does our brain react to inanimate objects, like paintings or dolls? They don’t have preferences or emotions. The human brain responds like this because it cannot fully distinguish between a living person standing in front of us and the image of a person—whether it’s a doll, a painting, or a photograph. The brain continues to read faces for information and guidance as to how we should behave.

Because our brains take time to distinguish between the face of a human being and the face of an inanimate object, we view them in the same way: as a source of information and a potential threat. We attribute to objects human characteristics—like an inner life—and expect them to operate by human social codes. When they don’t, we become wary. We become caught between something that is familiar (it has a human-like face) and yet unfamiliar (it doesn’t speak or express emotion). “However much we know that a doll is (likely) not a threat,” says McRobbie, “seeing a face that looks human but isn’t unsettles our most basic instincts.”

John runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about Annie Baker, the uncanny, and being watched? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

Walking Down Walls: The Visual World of Needles and Opium

Thursday, March 23, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell

A technological transformation is taking place on the Geary stage. Actors are putting on their harnesses and walking down the walls of a revolving cube in Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium, which runs from March 30 to April 23 at The Geary Theater.

Needles and Opium is an exploration of creativity, addiction, and loneliness. It follows the lives of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, and a lovesick man named Robert (based on Robert Lepage). As these tales interweave, projections swirl, the entire set revolves, and the actors burst out of the walls and floor.

These technological and acrobatic feats are signature elements for Lepage, whose theatrical credits include two Cirque du Soleil shows. But they are not just for show. To Lepage, the spinning cube that makes up the main element of Needles and Opium’s scenic design reflects the vertigo caused by opium, heroin, and love. The way the actors (Wellesley Robertson III and Olivier Normand, both trained acrobats) have to clamber and adjust their balance as the cube spins evokes feelings of struggling to stay on one’s feet when love is lost or found. And being confined to that cube could mimic the claustrophobia and loneliness of being an outsider in a place that you do not call home.

Lepage believes the key to theater is transformation—not just of characters, but of the mise-en-scène. He says: “[I am] drawn to plays in which the characters are transformed, but also to plays in which the sets are transformed and matter transcended. It’s incredible to be able to travel through time and place, to infinity, all on a single stage.”

Needles and Opium runs from March 30 through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Strong Women: Mertis and Genevieve in John

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In John, running through April 23 at The Strand Theater, two characters command center stage: Mertis and Genevieve, not just women but older women. 
Genevieve (Ann McDonough) and Mertis (Georgia Engel) in
A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Kevin Berne.
At first glance, 72-year-old Mertis—played by Georgia Engel—is a woman who is fulfilling a role we associate with older women; as the owner of a bed-and-breakfast, she has taken on a nurturing, mothering role. She cooks breakfast for her guests and has tea and treats always on hand. Together with her friend Genevieve (aged 85), Mertis provides advice to Jenny and Elias, two twentysomethings who are staying at the b and b.

But we quickly realize that there is much more to Mertis. She has incredible intellectual curiosity. She has read H. P. Lovecraft and Neoplatonist texts. She has memorized dozens of collective nouns for birds: a flock of ducks, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks. Behind her sweet voice and love of tchotchkes lies a woman of complexity and quiet strength.

This characterization grew out of the connection between Georgia Engel and Annie Baker. “I worked with Georgia for the first time in 2012 on a production of Uncle Vanya, and I felt like the two of us understood each other completely,” said Baker in an email interview with A.C.T. “I started writing John for her, and I kind of built the whole play around her. Our work together and our mutual love and understanding was a big part of the process.”

Mertis’s friend Genevieve also does not conform to the typical old woman stereotype. At the age of 85, she is not afraid to talk frankly about her body or express her opinion. She joins Mertis in discussions of hefty and varied topics from dolls to country singer Ferlin Husky to the numinous.

It was these two juicy roles for senior actresses that drew director Ken Rus Schmoll to John. “These are two roles for actresses in their seventies that are complex, far from the stereotypical ‘old ladies’ that permeate popular culture,” he says. “Old age, though not necessarily a hallowed state of being, is where wisdom fructifies.”

John runs through April 23 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about the creation of John and the numinous? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

A Golden Celebration: A.C.T.'s 50th Birthday Party

Thursday, March 16, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

This weekend, A.C.T. celebrates its golden anniversary: 50 years in San Francisco. What better way to honor this milestone than with all of you!

A.C.T.'s Geary Theater, 2011. Photo by Drew Altizer.
On March 18, A.C.T. will host a 50th Anniversary Open House at the Geary Theater. Festivities will include: a behind-the-scenes tour of our historic theater, the opportunity to sit in on a Young Conservatory class, a performance by our Master of Fine Arts Program actors, and a special ice cream flavor from Humphry Slocombe.

In the evening, A.C.T. giants like René Aberjonois and Michael Learned, M.F.A. Program alumni Dan Clegg and Alex Morf, and current M.F.A. Program actors will take part in a reading of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, a play that was directed by A.C.T.’s first Artistic Director William Ball 50 years ago.

The 50th Anniversary Open House and the reading of Under Milk Wood are both free and open to the public, but reservations are required. Click here to reserve tickets through our website.

Intimacy and the Numinous: An Interview with John Playwright Annie Baker Part Two

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

By Michael Paller

Here is Part Two of our interview with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker, whose play John is currently running at The Strand Theater through April 23.

Elias (Joe Paulik) and Jenny (Stacey Yen) in
A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Can you say something about how John came about? I read that you got interested in reading “uncanny texts like Hoffmann and Bruno Schulz and German Expressionist films.” Does what you’re reading often find its way into what you’re writing? And where else did this play come from, if you can say?
John came out of years of reading and thinking, and yes, what I’m reading always finds its way into my work. Reading is part of writing for me. One book that was a huge influence on John was Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, which then led me to all these other texts by Bruno Schulz and E. T. A. Hoffmann and Daniel Schreber. Let’s see . . . what else influenced the play? William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, a lot of Kierkegaard and Rudolf Otto, an essay by Rilke on dolls, Jung’s autobiography, Freud’s essay on the uncanny, various trips to Gettysburg and the people I met there, and Georgia Engel herself. I worked with Georgia for the first time in 2012 on a production of Uncle Vanya, and I felt like the two of us understood each other completely. I started writing John for her, and I kind of built the whole play around her. Our work together and our mutual love and understanding was a big part of the process. And then of course, there’s the young couple in the play, and the madness of being in a relationship that needs to end. Certain relationships I had in my twenties made me feel like I was going totally bonkers. And while I’d always been resistant to writing a “relationship play,” I was intrigued by making the somewhat young and immature central relationship part of a larger, more expansive musing on madness, and intimacy, and the numinous.

One of the things the play seems to be about is the possibility, or the sense, that we are being watched all the time—or watched over, which can be either a sinister feeling or a comforting one, and by either some large, invisible force or by the small, inanimate objects that surround us. Do you have any sense about what, if anything, is out there concerning itself with us? Do you feel that sort of presence yourself? Is it comforting, or sinister?
Wow. Well, I love these questions. They’re big ones. I’m not sure I feel comfortable answering them in a public forum. They’re definitely questions I’ve thought about a lot and I was thinking about all of them while writing the play. I think the best way to know my thoughts on this subject is to read or see the play. Basically everything every character says, even when they’re disagreeing with each other, encapsulates how I feel about the matter. They’re all different sides of myself and my feelings surrounding the issue. Around the time I hit 30, someone very wise said to me something like: “Thinking you know what someone else is thinking is the definition of madness.” Or maybe they said: “Trying to figure out what other people are thinking will drive you mad.” And as simple as it sounds, it kind of blew my mind. I’d expended so much energy in my first 30 years trying to know and anticipate what other people were thinking and then convincing myself that I’d figured it out. There is also the danger, of course, of trying to figure out what God is thinking. And that’s a different brand of the same madness.

John, like others of your plays, takes place in a single location, the ground floor of a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg. You’ve said that you’re interested in “trapping people in one space.” Why? Is that an aesthetic impulse, a psychological one, or something else?
I think it’s both an aesthetic and a psychological impulse (or I can’t really un-entwine them). It’s just something that theater can do really, really well that film and television can’t: trap you in a box. The restriction of and the literal borders around the stage space have always been thrilling to me. And when I write it’s really helpful to me to say to myself: we only see what happens in this space. What happens outside of it is unknown. That said, because I’ve done it so much I think I should really challenge myself to have a lot of locations in one of the next plays I write. I don’t want the single space thing to become too habitual.

John runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about John, Baker, and the numinous? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

Chronicling History: An A.C.T. History Book

Friday, March 10, 2017

By Simon Hodgson 

When A.C.T. started planning its 50th-anniversary season, the company's management team tasked Resident Dramaturg Michael Paller with writing a book to celebrate this milestone. The result is A Five-Act Play: 50 Years of A.C.T., which will be published by Chronicle Books on April 27.

Artwork for A Five-Act Play: 50 Years of A.C.T. by Michael Paller.
Organized approximately by decade, A Five-Act Play is a historical retrospective. "The first period, from 1967 to 1979, was an era of triumph, culminating in the Regional Theater Tony Award in 1979." By contrast, says Paller, "The '80s were largely a disaster, with financial troubles, William Ball leaving as artistic director, and ending in the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989." Since then, he says, there's been a sense of rebirth—with the renovation of The Geary Theater in the 1990s and the creation of the three-year Master of Fine Arts Program—and regeneration, most recently with the opening of The Strand Theater in 2015.

"A.C.T. has always been about the future of the art form," says Artistic Director Carey Perloff. "And the best way to anticipate the future is to understand the past. With A Five-Act Play: 50 Years of A.C.T., we renew our vows and explore our legacy in a beautiful volume that covers all the plays, people, programs, educational initiatives, community partnerships, new works, tours, and much more. It will be a book to treasure."

To reserve your copy of A Five-Act Play: 50 Years of A.C.T., click here.

Real Things Turned Strange: An Interview with John Scenic Designer Marsha Ginsberg

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

By Simon Hodgson

In Annie Baker’s John, running through April 23 at The Strand Theater, the set is as much of a character as the four actors that inhabit it. Before rehearsals started, we sat down with scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg to get her thoughts on the real realism of Baker.

Elias (Joe Paulik) in A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Kevin Berne.
What kind of research have you done for John?
We started with the journey that Ken Rus Schmoll and I made to Gettysburg in May 2016. We went to several bed-and-breakfasts in the town and we retraced the travels the young couple makes in John—the road tour through the historic battlefield and the Dobbin House, which has a diorama displaying the crawl space used by slaves in the Underground Railroad. It was interesting to get into Annie Baker’s head and to understand the environment that affected the play and also witness firsthand the hauntedness of Gettysburg.

We found out that many of the period houses in the town were used as Civil War–era hospitals. The townsfolks’ homes were put into service to treat the staggering numbers of wounded soldiers. We visited a woman who showed us a bloodstain on the floor of her house—the blood had seeped so deeply into the wood that it was still visible.

Annie Baker has been closely involved in the design of this production. What has that been like?
It’s unique for a playwright to feel such a faithful obligation to the tone of the thing. In the design process, Ken and I have been very involved with Annie. I’ve shown her the model and then different wall treatments. One of the features of this play is the uncanny and real things turned strange, so I feel responsible to create the kind of atmosphere in which that can happen. In other plays you can make theatrical shortcuts, still creating realism, but it’s a theatrical version of realism.

When you see a living-room set in American theater, it’s unusual that you would have a ceiling because of budget constraints and because a ceiling often requires other ways to consider theatrical lighting. That’s just a vocabulary that’s become normalized in theater. And so the audience readily accepts it. But Annie’s plays make different requirements of the creative team. She’s interested in a very particular kind of real realism. You see it in the language, the way that people take pauses, and the length of her plays—because they’re not condensed in a theatricalized way. She’s interested in the way that time happens in real life.

John runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about Annie Baker, the set, or Gettysburg? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

Madness and Intimacy: An Interview with John Playwright Annie Baker Part One

Thursday, March 2, 2017

By Michael Paller

As A.C.T. prepared for John, now running through April 23 at The Strand Theater, we caught up with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker over e-mail for a quick Q&A. Here is Part One.

You’ll be here for some rehearsal. Very often we’ll have a playwright here if the production’s the world premiere (as Ursula Rani Sarma was recently for A Thousand Splendid Suns), but rarely does a playwright choose to come once the play’s had a major production, especially in New York. We had John Guare here for Rich and Famous because he did some significant rewriting, Tom Stoppard for The Hard Problem, and Bruce Norris for Clybourne Park. But they’re exceptions. What brings you here for this production? 

Playwright Annie Baker. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.
I’m here because of Ken Rus Schmoll (the director) and Marsha Ginsberg (the set designer), and our cast, which includes the amazing Georgia Engel, who was part of the original cast in New York City. I’ve always wanted to work with Ken and Marsha, and the other three actors in the cast, too. So this is a rare opportunity for me—usually the production in New York is the only one you get with collaborators whose work you know well and deeply respect. But this time it’s all these people I love and admire in one of my favorite cities in the country in a really great space at a really great theater . . . you get the picture. Also, this play had basically no development process. I wrote it in solitude, we did one reading of the finished draft, and then suddenly we had three weeks of rehearsal process, which, because of the length of the play, basically meant we were on our feet blocking it from day two. I’ve always wanted a little more time with this play, and am excited to do what we call in theater “table work”—just sitting around for a few days musing about the text before we get on our feet. Talking to Ken about the play has been so pleasurable; he totally gets it, and I feel like his delicate, weird, hilarious sensibility is perfect for it.

You also teach. You could spend your time away from writing by reading or traveling. Why do you teach? Where are you teaching now? When you teach, do you have students read plays? Whose plays do you like to use and why? Do you use your own?
Well, if I only wrote plays and read I wouldn’t make enough money. When you’re a playwright you either have to teach or go to Hollywood. And while I do write movies and television occasionally, I’m pretty selective about the projects I take and I don’t want to have to be constantly hustling for a gig or writing stuff I think is evil. So teaching is a meaningful way to supplement my income. That said, I’ve taught before while being paid next to nothing, so clearly it’s something I’m drawn to that’s important to me. I do believe in helping the next generation of artists succeed and make interesting work. And I don’t want to be Unto Myself all the time. For me the writing process is all about looking inward, and teaching is a way to, without a deadline and without a looming production, just sit with a group of people and talk about what it means to make theater in these times. I’ve also found a wonderful gig at Hunter College—I teach with the playwrights Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Brighde Mullins, whom I adore—and we only let in five MFA Playwriting students a year. Picking those five people and mentoring them over the past couple of years has been a pretty special experience. To answer your third question, I do have them read plays but I have them read a lot of other stuff too. Books by painters and sculptors, essays, novels, etc. I never assign my own plays. That’s pretty much the most embarrassing thing I can imagine. I do talk about my process with them, and what I’m struggling with that particular week. I’m always just as lost as they are.

You’ve said that when you teach, one of the most important things is to make sure that your students are not being automatic about the choices they make about how to write. What do you mean by that?
Hmm, I don’t remember saying that. I’m sure I did. I guess I want my students to look at the choices they make as writers and make sure they’re not making them because that’s what they think a play is supposed to be, or that’s the kind of thing a play is supposed to have in it. I want them to be iconoclasts.

John runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about Annie Baker and the creation of our production of John? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 
Welcome to the A.C.T. social community blog!
Join in the conversation, engage with fellow theater lovers, and enjoy amazing offers throughout the season.