Showing posts from 2018

Behind the Scenes: Our Costume Shop Crew Prepares for A Christmas Carol

By Annie Sears

Fifty actors, more than 1,000 costume items, and immeasurable excitement. This will be the 42nd year that our Costume Shop crew has crafted the onstage kaleidoscope of colors, patterns, and textures that is A.C.T.'s Christmas Carol, and the process is well underway. Over the last few weeks, each actor has visited our Costume Shop for a personal fitting.

Actors may have begun developing their character psychologically, but with the addition of a costume, they get a sense of how their character feels physically. From dainty earrings to the intricate texture of the Ghost of Christmas Past’s sleeves, our costume shop crew makes sure everything fits perfectly and that the actors have the range of motion needed to portray their character.

The duration of each fitting ranges from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the actor’s number of costume changes. Some actors, such as third-year M.F.A. student Jerrie R. Johnson, will wear four entirely different costumes in a single perfo…

What You Won't See Onstage: A Conversation with Men on Boats Props Designer Jacquelyn Scott

By Annie Sears

Men on Boats is pure fun, asking actors and audience members to pretend, laugh, and play together—from dangling off the edge of a cliff to eating mealy apples around a campfire. Props Designer Jacquelyn Scott leaned into the sense of playfulness, deciding that some props would be physically present onstage while others would be mimed. “The lack of a physical prop really encourages the audience to use their imagination, and jump in on the action,” says Scott. “The swells and rapids on this daring journey down the Grand Canyon are created by both actor and audience member—it's melodramatic and exciting and fun!” We recently sat down with Scott to hear more about how removing something actually adds to the storytelling in Men on Boats.

How did you decide which props would be present and which would be mimed?
We wanted to find a balance between the set, props, and boats that gave just enough information, but really let the audience stretch their imagination. We introduce…

Rereading the Book, Revisiting the Role: Actor Anthony Fusco on Preparing for A Christmas Carol

By Elspeth Sweatman and Annie Sears

The holiday season is a time of traditions: hot chocolate and candy canes; humming the same tunes and baking the same treats; feasting and exchanging gifts with family and friends. For some—such as actor Anthony Fusco—A.C.T.’s Christmas Carol is a large part of the holiday ritual.

Fusco is an A.C.T. regular, having appeared in over 35 mainstage productions. He’s been involved with A Christmas Carol for the last 17 years, first playing Bob Cratchit in the Dennis Powers and Laird Williamson adaptation. After A.C.T. transitioned to Paul Walsh and Artistic Director Emerita Carey Perloff’s adaptation, James Carpenter assumed the role of Scrooge and Fusco was his understudy. “That first year, I went on when Jim got sick, having never rehearsed the role onstage!” says Fusco. “That was exciting!” The role is demanding, as Scrooge never leaves the stage. So Fusco and Carpenter now share the part. We recently sat down with Fusco to hear about what it’s li…

Invention and Discovery: An Interview with Men on Boats Director Tamilla Woodard

By Simon Hodgson

For Men on Boats Director Tamilla Woodard, the audience’s experience is her benchmark. “When theater is successful,” she says, “we laugh, we cry, we forget where we’ve been. That’s what I’m after.” Woodard is rapidly developing a reputation as a director who really draws audiences into her stories, whether in immersive works staged in hotel rooms or on proscenium stages such as A.C.T.’s Rembe Theater. As Woodard prepared for rehearsals, we spoke with her about the voyage of exploration in Men on Boats.

What makes Men on Boats a show for a Bay Area audience?

The Bay is still a frontier, not only across the physical environment, but also the political and social justice environments. It’s a place of adventure, a place where people find unknown territory, and a place where movements start. It’s the perfect city for this play.

How is Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus shifting the audience’s perspective for adventure tales such as Powell’s?

Often, hero stories have been the terr…

When Truth Is Out of Fashion: Christine Adaire Directs M.F.A. Students in The School for Scandal

By Kayla M. Kaufman, Artistic Fellow and The School for Scandal Assistant Director

A world where truth is questioned, lives are manipulated by lies, and virtue is unfashionable—no, this isn’t today’s American society, but the 18th-century London high society of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. A.C.T.’s Head of Voice Christine Adaire is directing her own steampunk-infused adaptation, which our second-year M.F.A. students will present November 8–17. In this classic comedy, Lady Sneerwell and Joseph Surface spread lies to ensnare their loves, the Teazles fight for power within their marriage, while Sir Oliver uses disguises to reveal truth. But when society is built on a web of lies, can the truth be untangled? We sat down with Director Christine Adaire to hear more.

What drew you to direct The School for Scandal?

I’m very concerned about this moment in time, this post-truth era, with different versions of truth and alternative facts. A lot of this play is about gossip…

Reimagining Ourselves: A.C.T.’s Director of Dramaturgy and New Works Talks Men on Boats

By Joy Meads 

On the first day of rehearsal for Men on Boats, sound designer Kate Marvin played a sample of the music she was creating for the show. She had vividly captured the iconic sound of western adventure familiar from a thousand movies and television shows. The stirring rhythms and soaring strains called up memories I didn’t know I still held inside me: tales of audacity, strength, courage, and the heroic acts of rugged men. These stories helped shape my earliest ideas of leadership, tenacity, and the indomitable American spirit. I suspect many of you can relate.

The heroes of these stories were, of course, inevitably male and relentlessly white, and I later came to understand the narrow and contorted view of reality they offered. With a few, notable exceptions, people of color were erased, flattened, or vilified, and rigid, binary gender roles were scrupulously maintained. On the first page of the script for Men on Boats, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus challenges us to reimagine…

Dare to Rock the Boat

By Hannah Clague, Education & Community Programs Fellow

On the first page of her play Men on Boats, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus gives a note on casting: “The characters in Men on Boats were historically cisgender white males. The cast should be made up entirely of people who are not. I’m talking about racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid, and/or non-gender-conforming.”

In creating an event to accompany A.C.T.’s mainstage production of Men on Boats, we in A.C.T.’s Education & Community Programs department wanted to reflect Backhaus’s vision. Just as the playwright created a world in which actors from a variety of genders are given voice to tell John Wesley Powell’s story, we wanted to produce an event that provided a space in which people of a variety of genders could tell their own.

I remember sitting in Mrs. Ross’s fifth-grade US History class, flipping through the pages of our History Alive! textbooks (cue my classmates…

Small Stage, Grand Canyon: How Did Men on Boats Scenic Designer Nina Ball Do It?

By Annie Sears

Men on Boats is a play in all senses of the word. It plays with traditional gender roles. It asks actors to play historical figures they’re not, and it asks audiences to play along. For Scenic Designer Nina Ball, it started by playing with paper. We recently sat down with Ball to hear about the challenge and triumph of transforming the limited Strand stage into the vast Grand Canyon.

What does your design process look like?

My design process follows a general shape that works for me, but has variations show to show. There is usually a lot of research followed by sketching, floor plans, and 3D modeling. A scale model usually follows, along with all the design drawings. But sometimes, like with Men on Boats, I go straight to a physical model. We wanted to play with the moving walls, so I did a lot of ripping of paper and playing.

For Men on Boats specifically, where did you find inspiration?

Much of my inspiration came from the Grand Canyon itself. It’s so amazingly beauti…

The Blend for Blood: Behind the Scenes of Hookman

By Annie Sears

Stage blood: one of those special effects that’s entirely disgusting, yet entirely fascinating. The Young Conservatory’s production of Lauren Yee’s Hookman incorporates a lot of stage blood, and Devon LaBelle, head of the prop shop at San Francisco State University, has concocted the perfect recipe. LaBelle first made this mixture for Hookman’s world premiere at Z-Space in 2015, and Special Effects Designer Jenny Cedillos is resurrecting it for our production. Blood may be the result of injury, but this blend is entirely harmless—even edible! So how do they do it?

1/4 cup beet powder 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon of xanthan gum 2 quarts of waterInstructions 
Sift dry ingredients together. Slowly add dry powder mixture to water, stirring continuously to avoid any lumps. Refrigerate for up to one week. If you’re looking for thicker blood sprinkle in more xanthan gum until the mixture reaches the desired consistency. Incorporate it onstage! Want to “eww” over th…

Blood, Gore, and More: An Interview with Hookman Director Allie Moss

By Annie Sears

As Halloween approaches, the Young Conservatory is preparing something spooky: Lauren Yee’s psychological thriller Hookman. Director Allie Moss, who also serves as A.C.T.’s Literary Manager and Artistic Associate, describes the show as “a slasher comedy about trauma.” It’s a coming-of-age-story for Lexi, who has just moved away to college and experienced some pretty crazy events—like a lunatic running around and slashing girls’ throats. We sat down with Moss to hear about this thrilling and thought-provoking play.

What draws you to this script?

The story centers on a 17-year-old college freshman, and we don’t often see stories with a young woman as the central character. Her story is important, and it’s written in the vernacular of young women. It uses language that often gets dismissed or coded as informal or unimportant. That’s very attractive to me. The script also offers a really interesting perspective on trauma. It explores trauma as something that’s …

Sharing the Stage & Sharing a Home

By Annie Sears

It’s a big week for the Anderson-Gnapp family. Rod Gnapp is currently performing on The Geary as Stan in Sweat, which closes Sunday. His wife Arwen Anderson will soon grace The Strand as Goodman in Men on Boats, which begins previews tomorrow.

Both Gnapp and Anderson are A.C.T. veterans. You may have seen Anderson most recently in Heisenberg (2018) or Gnapp—a graduate of A.C.T.’s M.F.A. Program—in The Realistic Joneses (2016). They met while working on Magic Theatre’s 2009 production of Mauritius, directed by Loretta Greco, who also directed Sweat. Later that year, they were cast in another play at Magic called Mrs. Whitney. Gnapp started flirting with Anderson—who was playing his character’s fifth wife—during that show, and they’ve been together ever since. Last summer, they performed together in Marin Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet as Gertrude and Claudius, and their four-year-old son Rowan was a consistent rehearsal presence, romping through the outdoor amphitheater as…

Performing Their Authentic Selves: Third-Year M.F.A. Students Prepare a Cabaret

By Annie Sears

In crafting this year’s M.F.A. productions, Conservatory Director Melissa Smith promised “a panoply of theater that will challenge and grow our students.” Third-year actors are seeing that promise come to fruition. They recently explored complex, serious characters in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and next week, they’ll explore a different kind of performance, a performance that doesn’t require a character: musical cabaret.

“Music is so primal,” says Avanthika Srinivasan. “It’s ingrained in our human nature. It’s how we express emotions, communicate, and connect with each other. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking to be emotionally vulnerable, but as actors, we’re always trying to practice being vulnerable.”

“Preparing a cabaret is about coming forward with myself alone,” says Carlos Andrickson. “It’s a very exciting opportunity to show our audiences who I am outside my actor craft.”

Not only will M.F.A. students perform as their authentic selves, but they’ll also perform m…

Everyone Aboard! Embark on the Colorado River with the Cast and Crew of Men on Boats

By Annie Sears

Everyone aboard! We snuck into the first rehearsal for Men on Boats—playing at The Strand from October 17—and got an early look at the cast and creative vision for this subversive and exciting adventure.

Men on Boats follows one-armed, Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell and his team of nine explorers as they traverse the Green and Colorado Rivers, ultimately “discovering” the Grand Canyon. Historically, these expeditioners were white, cisgender [a person whose gender identity is the same as the gender assigned at birth] men. But when the story is mounted on A.C.T.’s Strand stage, the characters will be embodied by a racially diverse cast of female-identifying actors. The script toys with traditional gender conventions, and because the script also contemporizes language and offers opportunities for bold physicality, it does so through comedy.

“You are embarking on bringing to life what I think is a masterful—do we say mistress-ful—play,” said Artistic Director Pam MacKi…

Intro to Reading, Pennsylvania: More Than a Monopoly Property

By Annie Sears

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Sweat—playing through October 21 at The Geary—is set in Reading, Pennsylvania. If you’ve played Monopoly, you know the town. It lends its name to one of the game’s most desirable properties: the Reading Railroad Company, which proved an industrial giant throughout Reading’s history. Whether you’ve already seen Sweat or are planning on seeing it in the next few weeks, here’s a little background information on the town Sweat’s characters call home.


Reading is located in the southeastern portion of Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half drive northwest of Philadelphia. Reading sits on the Schuylkill River, which runs all the way to Philadelphia and connects to the Delaware River. Historically, this location proved extremely profitable, as the river made it easy to transport bulk cargo.

1748: Reading is founded by Thomas and Richard Penn, the sons of famous English settler William Penn, as in Pennsylvania. They select th…

Insight Into Sweat: An Interview with Playwright Lynn Nottage

By Simon Hodgson

Playwright Lynn Nottage has always raised up the voices of the forgotten, the unsung, and the marginalized. Years before winning her second Pulitzer Prize for Sweat (her first was for Ruined in 2008), she worked for Amnesty International. We spoke with Nottage about her connection with steelworkers and the months she spent researching Sweat in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Which voices really resonated when you went to Reading?

What stood out in Reading was not the individual stories, but the collective story. These were, by and large, middle-aged white guys who had invested in the American Dream and had assumed they would work in their jobs until they were ready to retire, and have these fabulous pensions and health plans. They were broadsided when they woke up one morning to be told, “The life that you knew is no longer going to exist.” It forced them to rethink their identity and their relationship to the Horatio Alger myth [that hard work leads from rags to riches].


Insight into Sweat: Boom and Bust in the Rust Belt

By Simon Hodgson

Geology was destiny for 19th-century Pennsylvania. In the 1860s, when the process of making steel out of iron ore, coal, and limestone was refined, the state had all of the raw materials necessary for the production of steel at scale. Combining minerals, river transport links, manufacturing experience, and access to Pittsburgh investment, Pennsylvania was poised to create the metal of the future.

As the United States rebuilt infrastructure shattered by the Civil War, steel companies across Pennsylvania grew into major national corporations. The greatest, U.S. Steel, was formed in 1901 by a merger between three companies. Aided by favorable government oversight in the 1920s and fueled by military contracts during World Wars I and II, it became a virtual monopoly. By 1946, America was manufacturing more than half of the world’s steel.

All around the Great Lakes, cities were prospering thanks to the steel industry. The labor was physically demanding and dangerous, but fo…

Insight into Sweat: An Interview with Director Loretta Greco

By Elspeth Sweatman

When A.C.T.’s new artistic director Pam MacKinnon asked Loretta Greco—artistic director of the Magic Theatre—to direct playwright Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, Greco immediately said yes. She felt the power of the Pulitzer Prize–winning drama when it premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, and knew she wanted to explore it further. We sat down with Greco as design plans were being finalized to discover what it is about Nottage’s work and The Geary Theater that excites her.

Sweat will be your fifth play for the Geary stage. What’s special about this space?

The thing about The Geary is there are plays where you want to take advantage of the pomp and circumstance, and then there are plays where you need the immediacy. Sweat requires immediacy. The characters are a family, and that bar is like their living room. We want to extend that so the audience feels that they’re in that bar, too.

Scenic designer Andrew Boyce and I also want to capture the beauty of Reading. Wi…

History with the Play, History with Each Other: M.F.A. Students Present Three Sisters

By Annie Sears

Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) is one of the most well-known theater-makers of all time—from The Seagull (1896) to The Cherry Orchard (1904) to Three Sisters (1901), which our third-year M.F.A. students will perform next week. Rehearsals began three weeks ago, but their excitement was sparked long before that. Our M.F.A. students have a special history with this play, and their history with each other makes it the perfect selection.

Students first tasted Chekhov’s complexity their first year. In a course with former Head of Voice Jeff Crockett, they explored several Chekhov plays, but Three Sisters was their favorite. “There's something about this particular mixture of loneliness, desire, and humor—iconic traits in all of Chekhov's work—that resonated with my class,” says Caleb Lewis. “So over the last two years, we’ve subtly campaigned to put on the full show.”

“When the topic of shows came up in meetings or over email,” says Jerrie R. Johnson, “a…

Insight into Sweat: The Dramatic Appeal of Bars

By Elspeth Sweatman

Whether writing a slapstick comedy, a sci-fi action flick, or a tense family drama, writers for both stage and screen have been drawn to bars. The bar in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat (which starts previews at The Geary on September 26) is an excellent example. Most of the play takes place in a bar; it’s where mill workers spend their time between shifts. So why would Nottage—and so many other storytellers—choose this setting? What does the presence of alcohol add dramaturgically to a story?

Often nicknamed the truth-telling serum, alcohol affects the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where rational thought and decision-making occur. For storytellers, this creates moments of incredible humor—take actors Stockard Channing, Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, and Dianne Wiest howling with laughter and calling each other “witch” after downing too many midnight margaritas in the film Practical Magic (1998)—but also moments of unforgettable drama. Think of the suspense as James Bond prepare…

Upcoming M.F.A. Season: A Breadth of Genres, Styles, and Cultures

By Annie Sears

Our M.F.A. students joined us at 30 Grant three weeks ago, and they've already hit the ground running on their upcoming season. From tragedies to comedies, from classics to new works, from Russia to the woods outside ancient Athens, students will explore a wide variety of genres, styles, and cultures.

“It is a panoply of theater that will challenge and grow the students in each year of the program,” says Conservatory Director Melissa Smith. “We are especially pleased to have a lineup of five accomplished and innovative directors—all of whom identify as women, artists of color, or both—working with our students.”

M.F.A. students are equally thrilled by the season’s leadership. “It’s always great to collaborate with new artists who bring freshness to your work,” says third-year M.F.A. student William Hoeschler. “That’s why Lavina Jadhwani, Mina Morita, and Susan Soon He Stanton are amazing additions to this year.”

Jadhwani will kick off the season later this month …

Behind the Scenes at A.C.T.: An Interview with Usher Joe Mac

By Annie Sears
Joe Mac came to the Bay Area on a spur-of-the-moment road trip. It was 1978, and Joe had just completed undergrad in his home state of Pennsylvania when a friend called and said, “Pull $200 together. We’re going to Santa Cruz.” So Joe, who had never been west of the Mississippi River, spent two weeks sleeping in the back of a Volkswagen with his friend and a husky. When he first glimpsed the Pacific, Joe said, “I’m not going back. I’m starting my life here.” And he did.

For 40 years, Joe has been active in the Bay Area theater community. A member of the Actors’ Equity Association, Joe’s performed on several regional stages. He’s also house-managed at Beach Blanket Babylon and 42nd Street Moon. Most notably, he was the managing director and producing associate at Marines’ Memorial Theatre for 18 years. Now—in addition to decorating local bars and manning the Coca-Cola Fan Lot at AT&T Park—he’s an usher at the Curran, the Palace of Fine Arts, and here at A.C.T.


Insight into Sweat: Camaraderie in a Company Town

By Elspeth Sweatman
Lynn Nottage’s Sweat is set in the nonfictional town of Reading, Pennsylvania, a town built around a single steel company. These tight-knit communities have a distinct rhythm. Dominated by one industry, their days are punctuated by shift bells and post-work drinks, and their years by the economic wheel of fortune: prosperity followed by layoffs, strikes by compromises. From this rhythm comes a unique psychology that pervades the community, impacting the lives of mill workers and non-mill workers alike. Every business and every resident has some connection to the industry. Everyone is part of the cycle of boom, bust, and boom again. It is this aspect that has made the mill closures in America’s Rust Belt over the past three decades so devastating.

Riveting, jacking, stoking, drilling: these are dangerous, labor-intensive jobs. At every plant, there are the folkloric (and true) stories of someone on the job who got seriously injured—like Stan was before he began mana…