A Recap of the 2018 New Strands Festival

Thursday, May 24, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

Last weekend's third-annual New Strands Festival was four full days of exciting new works read aloud for the first time, festivalgoers mingling and moving to the sounds of female DJs, and audiences rising to their feet. The Strand Theater was packed with San Franciscans and theater-lovers ready to be wowed, and the artists behind the new plays rose to the challenge. From emotional coming-out stories such as Thao Nguyen's Bend with Me and Dipika Guha and Jeremy Cohen's Malicious Animal Magnetism to larger-than-life epics such as Ngozi Anyanwu's Nike, Or We Don't Need Another Hero, this year's festival was one to remember. Here are some of the highlights:

Justin Genna and Clinton Roane in rehearsal for Dipika Guha and Jeremy Cohen's Malicious Animal Magnetism.
 Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.

Festivalgoer @xle responds on Instagram. Photo courtesy @xle on Instagram.

Ngozi Anyanwu (Nike, Or We Don't Need Another Hero playwright), Kate Sullivan (Untitled Tegan and Sara Musical director), Emily Simoness (Executive Director of SPACE on Ryder Farm), and Emily Kaczmarek (Untitled Tegan and Sara Musical book writer). Photo courtesy @spaceonryderfarm on Instagram.
Festivalgoer @bunjeeventure responds on Instagram. Photo courtesy @bunjeeventure on Instagram.
The cast of Untitled Tegan and Sara Muscial take in their standing ovation.
Photo courtesy @spaceonryderfarm on Instagram.

Festivalgoer Kristy Lin Billuni. Photo courtesy @SexyGrammar on Twitter.
Festivalgoer Olivia Chavez-French with Untitled Tegan and Sara Musical actor Solea Pfeiffer.
Photo courtesy @livinaday on Instagram.

Festivalgoer Olivia Chavez-French responds on Instagram. Photo courtesy @livinaday on Instagram.
The cast and creative team behind Nike, Or We Don't Need Another Hero.
Photo courtesy of Tiffany Tenille on Facebook.
Festivalgoer Krystyna Finlayson responds on Facebook. Photo courtesy Krystyna Finlayson on Facebook.
See you next year! To learn more about the New Strands Festival, click here.

A Walk on the Moon Lands at A.C.T.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

For the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s world-premiere musical A Walk on the Moon, 30 Grant studios took a trip back in time to the summer of 1969. “This was a time when the world was moving,” said director Sheryl Kaller, addressing the room of Moon creatives and A.C.T. staff members. The musical tells the story of Jewish housewife Pearl Kantrowitz, who undergoes a personal transformation after meeting a free-spirited traveling salesman. With her newfound liberation, Pearl learns how to love freely, dance like no one’s watching, and defy society’s rigid gender roles. “Pearl was my mother. She has the look my mother had in her eyes,” said Kaller.

Vocal arranger AnnMarie Milazzo and director Sheryl Kaller at the first rehearsal
of A.C.T.'s 2018 production of A Walk on the Moon. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
Fueling the revolutionary spirit of the era, music director Greg Kenna and Tony Award–nominated vocal arranger AnnMarie Milazzo immediately got the cast on its feet to record the musical’s big Woodstock number. The aim was to record a huge soundscape for The Geary to create the illusion of 400,000 Woodstock attendees rocking out. Kenna instructed some of the actors to sing like fired-up activists and others to belt out lyrics as if they were inebriated festivalgoers. Book writer Pamela Gray—whose childhood experiences in the Catskills inspired the script—shared a scan of a Woodstock newspaper advertisement. Powerful lyrics such as “we call for love, we pray for peace” and “we’re the chosen generation” filled the air.

Book writer Pamela Gray looking at an advertisement for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair
at the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s 2018 production of A Walk on the Moon. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
One of the younger members of the Moon cast was particularly eager to be in the room. “It’s special to originate a role in a new musical,” said current twelfth-grader Nina Kissinger, who plays Myra in the show. “To know that a whole team of brilliant artists have faith in you to bring a character to life feels great. It starts feeling more real with each day.”

The cast of A.C.T.'s 2018 production of A Walk on the Moon. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
Though Moon is a big Broadway-style musical set in the ’60s, Kaller hopes that its political resonance will shine through for a 2018 San Franciscan audience. “This musical is so important today,” Kaller said, “in light of what’s happening in our country and the world.”

A Walk on the Moon begins at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater June 9. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about A.C.T.’s production of Moon? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Getting to the Deep Stuff: The Music of Father Comes Home

Friday, May 18, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

For playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, music isn’t just a medium she embraces in her art—it informs the very framework of her life. Growing up in a musical home, she and her siblings jitterbugged to their mother’s favorite jazz standards and belted out Puccini alongside their opera-loving father. These musical forms—along with the blues and show tunes, among others—have stayed with Parks and have influenced how she writes her plays. Embodying the playwright’s lyrical writing style, Father Comes Home from the Wars has a musicality that recalls the past while retaining emotional immediacy, making it intricately layered and deeply personal.

The Musician (Martin Luther McCoy) plays a song in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Photo by Joan Marcus.
A blues musician herself, Parks composed the music and wrote the lyrics for the songs in Father Comes Home. Music is a part of Parks’s makeup as an artist; whether it lives in the rhythm of the dialogue or the construction of the narrative, it seeps into most of her work. “All my writing is more like songs,” said Parks in an interview with theater scholar Shawn-Mari Garrett. “I try to sing to people.”

A key element of Parks’s aesthetic is a technique she calls Rep & Rev. According to Parks in her essay The Elements of Style, repetition and revision is a “concept integral to the Jazz esthetic in which the composer or performer will write or play a musical phrase once and again and again; etc.—with each revisit the phrase is slightly revised.” Parks lifts this concept out of music and applies it to her plays. In her works, characters repeat certain phrases and words that take on new meanings in different contexts as the narrative progresses—she does this to show that characters are “experiencing their situations anew” and by extension, the audience experiences them in a new way too.


Repetition and revision isn’t just an attribute of jazz, but, according to Parks, it’s also “an integral part of the African and African-American literary and oral traditions.” Rep & Rev’s reincorporation of what has been said gives it a call and response-like quality. Call and response is a performance technique that has a long history in churches, work songs, and African American music. “In its most elemental form, it consists of a musical statement given by a song leader that is immediately followed by a response from a chorus,” says UC Santa Barbara Black Studies professor Dr. Earl L. Stewart.” In Father Comes Home, the Chorus of Runaway Slaves performs call and response as they contemplate when they should make their getaway.

SECOND: Dark enough to jet.

FIRST, SECOND AND THIRD: Not yet

Not yet

Not yet

Not yet.

By using call and response, Parks aligns herself with African American storytellers and musicians of the past, while building her own distinctly African American narrative. Just as jazz weaves several musical genres such as the blues, spirituals, and West African musical customs into a single composition, the music of Father Comes Home draws inspiration from a variety of sources, from the bluesy beats of singer-songwriter Robert Johnson to the Broadway sounds of musical theater writers Rodgers and Hammerstein. Parks excavates both her own personal history and the history of her ancestors to experience a musical catharsis. “My plays beg for feeling. They beg for the gut response,” says Parks. “Let the stomach-brain, let the heart-brain, inform your head-brain, and not always the other way around. Because then we’re getting to some deep stuff. And it’s frightening. But it’s also healing.”

Don't miss this Saturday's InterACT event, Playtime! Before this matinee performance, get hands-on with the theater artists who make it happen at this interactive workshop. In this special pre-show workshop, you will gain firsthand insight from the principal and understudy musicians who create the spirit of Suzan-Lori Parks’s mythic drama—don’t miss this opportunity to hear from beloved Bay Area musician/performers Martin Luther McCoy and David James—and their guitars! Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) ends this Sunday, May 20, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the music in the play? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Making Myths: An Interview with Father Comes Home Director Liz Diamond

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

By Simon Hodgson

When the first time director Liz Diamond picked up a script by Suzan-Lori Parks, she was smitten. “I fell in love with her work,” says Diamond, “with the stories she was telling, with her voice as a writer, and with Suzan-Lori herself—this blazingly smart, fierce, funny, vibrant, young artist.” In 1989, Diamond directed Parks’s Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom at Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association (BACA) Downtown, launching a partnership that has lasted 30 years. As she prepared to direct Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) at A.C.T., the chair of directing at Yale School of Drama spoke to us about the images that have inspired her design, her collaboration with the playwright, and why Parks’s play matters now.

Director Liz Diamond. Photo by Joan Marcus.
What was your initial reaction to Parks’s work?

The playwright Mac Wellman sent me her play Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. As I began to read, my understanding of dramatic structure was blown away. Here was a work by an American writer playing with what it means to be a play! Suzan-Lori was using popular and poetic forms of speech—rhythmic wordplay, jokes within jokes, puns—to such a radical degree. She was messing with theatrical time: telling a story across great swaths of history, and through characters who morphed into others from one part of the play to the next. I had never read a play by a writer that so gleefully deconstructed and reconstructed time, space, and character.

What impact does the Odyssey have on Father Comes Home?

I think that Suzan-Lori would like us to understand that she’s not just drawing on epics from across the world, but creating a new one, hers and ours. “When you think about this play,” she said to me, “you want to say to yourself: ‘As the Agamemnon [the classic Greek play by Aeschylus] was to the Trojan War, so Father Comes Home is to the Civil War.’” It’s a kind of mythmaking. The Odyssey is telling the story of the return of a hero, and this play is too. Suzan-Lori riffs—on the Homeric epic, the Bhagavad Gita, and the American tall tale—and ingeniously mixes lyric poetry with 21st-century vernacular, weaving it together with song to construct a deeply moving and subversively funny story about the struggle of an enslaved African American man to recognize, to understand, and ultimately to practice freedom.

Director Liz Diamond in rehearsal for the 2018 production of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
at Yale Repertory Theatre. Photo by Kat Yen.
Is it that focus on freedom that gives this play its haunting resonance today?

The question is alive in all of us, and achingly so: what does it cost to be free? That paradox—why should freedom cost anything?—is at the heart of the play. With our country so divided by racism, xenophobia, and grotesque economic and social inequality, it feels more important than ever to stage Parks’s great play. We need her unflinchingly honest and humane plays on our stages, to show us, with all her warm humor and fierce compassion, what it costs in America to “own your own self.” Throughout her artistic life, Suzan-Lori has tried to practice freedom, and that commitment is alive in this play, and in all her work.

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
runs through May 20 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the history behind the play? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Bigger and Bolder: The 2018 New Strands Festival

Friday, May 11, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

The Strand Theater is ready to rock. Next week brings the third annual New Strands Festival and with it comes pop music, Afrofuturist titans, and staged readings of fierce new plays. “The 2018 artists are new American voices with global visions and global appetites,” says A.C.T. Associate Artistic Director Andy Donald. “The festival is still going to be about San Francisco, but this year, it’ll be about bringing the world to our city.”

Tegan and Sara playing at the 2008 Treasure Island Music Festival.
Photo by Tyler Love. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
This year, A.C.T. is partnering with SPACE on Ryder Farm to develop presentations of two new works for the 2018 New Strands Residency. Located on a working farm in Brewster, New York, SPACE is a nonprofit artist residency program that has become “one of the leading curators of the next generation of new work,” says Donald. Representing SPACE is book writer Emily Kaczmarek, who will be bringing the Untitled Tegan & Sara Musical to The Rembe, and playwright Ngozi Anyanwu with her epic play Nike, or We Don’t Need Another Hero. Kaczmarek’s musical is a girl-meets-girl love story set to the pop-rock soundtrack of the Grammy Award–nominated duo Tegan and Sara. Nike fuses Greek drama with contemporary dialogue to create a bold new myth starring an all-Black cast.

Look out too for other exciting projects from the festival's line-up: Both Your Houses, a new play by Susan Soon He Stanton, follows a romance that blooms backstage during a production of Romeo and Juliet; a new translation of Friedrich Schiller’s passionate drama Don Carlos; the third workshop of Jeremy Cohen and Dipika Guha’s emotional LGBTQ+ tearjerker, Malicious Animal Magnetism; an autobiographical play with music from Thao Nguyen; and SeaChange, a social justice play written by Marisela TreviƱo Orta exploring the changing face of San Francisco.

Artwork for A.C.T.'s 2018 New Strands Festival.
Along with welcoming the Bay Area community to The Strand Theater for a third year, the 2018 New Strands Festival will feature master classes led by Stanton and Kaczmarek, stand-up comedy from Bay Area–based Irene Tu, and happy hours for theater lovers. The festival, sponsored by nonprofit tech company Mozilla, will run an extra day compared to past years, with each presentation receiving two readings instead of one, enabling theatergoers to provide more of their valuable input. “We don’t just want our audience to witness an artistic process, but to actually be a collaborator,” says Donald. “Wherever the works may go after the festival, San Francisco audiences can feel an attachment to these works, because they had a part in their creation.”

The 2018 New Strands Festival is free and open to the public and runs May 17 to 20. To reserve tickets and learn more, click here.

The History Behind Father Comes Home: Black Americans in the Civil War

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman and Simon Hodgson

As soon as the first shots rang out on April 12, 1861, the American Civil War was classified, glorified, and romanticized as a white man’s war. The voices of the nearly four million Black Americans, more than 90 percent of whom were enslaved, were erased. It is their voices that playwright Suzan-Lori Parks re-earths in Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), bringing us face to face with a painful, complicated, and shameful aspect of America’s history, one with which we are still coming to terms.

Hero (James Udom) keeps watch on Smith (Tom Pecinka), the captured Union soldier, as ordered by the Colonel (Dan Hiatt) in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Photo by Joan Marcus.
Like Parks’s protagonist, Hero, many enslaved Black men were forced to accompany their owners from the cotton field to the battlefield. Up before dawn, body servants had to polish boots, mend uniforms, clean weapons, forage for food, and cook meals. Throughout all of this, these enslaved men had no agency. Even in uniform, their lives were a never-ending ordeal of surviving the cruelty, humiliation, and brutality of white men.

While it was the battlefields that captured public attention, in a war where railroads, large-scale manufacturing, and logistical campaigns were as vital as soldiers, no Black American survived untouched. Toiling away as laborers, miners, hospital porters, and factory workers were 3.5 million free and enslaved Black people. Some free men volunteered for this dangerous war work, wishing to defend their city or state. But they frequently worked side by side with enslaved men who were impressed, conscripted, or simply offered up by their owners.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln relented to pressure from abolitionists and Black civic leaders and allowed Black Americans to enlist in the Union Army. Over the next two years, 180,000 would serve in the army and see action on more than 50 occasions. Despite proving themselves on the battlefield, Black Union soldiers faced inequality in the provisions and medical care that they received, the promotion opportunities that they were offered, and the punishments that they received. If captured by Confederate soldiers, they faced execution or the terror of being sold into slavery.

Regiment Sergeant A. M. Chandler and his enslaved body servant, Silas Chandler.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
Although slavery was technically abolished in the United States in December 1865, Black Americans have continued to face systemic discrimination, racism, and prejudice. The threat of violence, torture, and lynching, as well as the Jim Crow laws—dehumanizing legislation passed in many Southern states that systematically kept Black Americans in de facto slavery—were daily reminders of the limitations of their “freedom.” Even now, 50 years after the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, millions of Black Americans struggle to gain equal access to housing, healthcare, education, social services, fair treatment within the judicial system, and the opportunity to participate in America’s political system. For millions of Black Americans, the question of what it means to be free in America is yet unanswered.

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) runs through May 20 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the history behind the play? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

A.C.T.'s M.F.A. Program Performs Two Powerful Plays in Repertory

Friday, May 4, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

Next week, A.C.T.'s first- and second-year M.F.A. Program actors take to the stage to perform two larger-than-life plays about resistance and vengeance: Fuente Ovejuna by Lope de Vega and The Bacchae of Euripides by Wole Soyinka. Directed by Domenique Lozano and Stephen Buescher, respectively, these complex works were chosen to challenge the program's emerging actors. We spoke to some of the actors to find out how this experience has stretched their skills as performers and pushed them out of their comfort zones.

Show artwork for the M.F.A. Program's 2018 production of Fuente Ovejuna.
Avanthika Srinivasan (Laurencia in Fuente Ovejuna): This play is emotionally and physically challenging, but Domenique is great about making sure that everyone is safe in our conversations about rape and trauma. She makes sure that everything stays in the rehearsal room. If we’ve had an emotionally heavy day, she makes sure that we take collective breaths and check in, so that this story isn't weighing on anyone outside of the room. Initially, it was an intimidating role to take on, but I've learned so much from Laurencia. It's been great getting to put the tools I've gained over these two years of schooling into practice.

Charlie O’Rourke (1st Flogger/Officer #2 in The Bacchae of Euripides): This is an epic play with a lot of dense language, but many of the themes are incredibly relevant to today's socio-political world. It is easy to get carried away because the events are so epic and there is a lot of heightened emotion in the storytelling, but my M.F.A. training has helped me to pick apart the text and find the important words, thoughts, and images, which has kept my performance grounded throughout this process.

Show artwork for the M.F.A. Program's 2018 production of The Bacchae of Euripides.
Caleb Lewis (Barrildo in Fuente Ovejuna): What makes this play special is how timely it is right now. In the wake of the #MeToo Movement, art where women are standing up and men are being held accountable for their actions can help to make a cultural shift. Stories provide examples to base our actions on, and this play provides us both with what we should do and shouldn't do in situations such as this, when a man in power uses that power to exploit the women under his control.

Summer Brown (Tiresias in The Bacchae of Euripides): There are some shows that are very text-driven. Others are more movement-focused, or musical. This show uses all of these conventions to the nth degree. The worlds of Greek tragedy and Soyinka are so emotionally full. Whether, speaking, singing, or dancing, every moment of this show must be very charged—there’s nothing casual about it. The rehearsal process has demanded an incredible amount of physical, vocal, emotional energy. It’s been so exciting to watch this show grow and I think the audience will be really captivated by it.

Fuente Ovejuna runs May 9–12 at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. The Bacchae of Euripides runs May 9–12 at A.C.T.’s Costume Shop Theater, 1117 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets.

The Life and Work of Father Comes Home Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is a force that refuses to be contained. She is a lover of jazz and opera, William Faulkner and William Shakespeare, Roots and Downton Abbey. Her beaming smile, booming laugh, and rhythmic voice draw you in. She is fiercely intelligent, puckish, meticulous.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Photo by Tammy Shell.
Parks was born on May 10, 1963, in Fort Knox, Kentucky. From an early age, Parks was an energetic storyteller, but it wasn’t until she was in a college writing class taught by novelist James Baldwin that the idea of being a playwright crossed her mind. Baldwin saw how animated Parks was when she was reading her work for the class, and suggested she try writing plays. “And I was like, ‘What the fuck? Plays?’ I hated theater,” said Parks. “Just fake people doing bullshit. But James Baldwin said try it, so there I was.”

In 1986, Parks moved to New York City, where she temped as a paralegal and searched for a home for her work. On a subway ride home, Parks approached Village Voice theater critic Alisa Solomon and asked her where she could send her plays. “They’re kind of unconventional,” Parks told her. Solomon passed her manuscripts on to Mac Wellman, the literary advisor at Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association (BACA). “He sort of flipped, and sent it to me,” says director Liz Diamond, “and I sort of flipped.”

Diamond directed Parks’s Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom at BACA Downtown in 1989. It was an immediate success, winning the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 1990. Her next four plays found a home at The Public Theater: The America Play (1994), Venus (1996), In the Blood (1999), and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Topdog/Underdog (2003).

The cast of Yale Repertory Theatre and A.C.T.'s 2018 production
of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Photo by Joan Marcus.
Parks’s latest challenge is Father Comes Home from the Wars, a nine-part play cycle. Parts 1, 2, and 3 feature all of the elements that make Parks’s work so unique: her muscular language; her jazz-inspired rhythms, repetitions, and revisions; and her impeccable timing and sense of humor. In this story of Hero and Homer, Parks fuses her love of the plays and poetry of ancient Greece with her exploration of history—both her own memories of waiting for her father to return from a tour in Vietnam, and unearthed areas of American history—to tackle the big concepts of identity and freedom.

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) runs through May 20 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about playwright Suzan-Lori Parks? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
 
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