Relocating

Posted in General on 10/15/2009 by saltlakeactingcompany

Hello to all our blog readers!

We are moving our blog to the main Salt Lake Acting Company site. Please re-bookmark us so you don’t miss a thing from behind the scenes.

Tell us what you think of the new look. See you there!

Master Class by Terrence McNally- two weeks into rehearsal by director David Mong

Posted in General, Master Class on 10/05/2009 by saltlakeactingcompany

I think this is a great time to do MASTER CLASS, an opportune time. At it’s heart, MASTER CLASS is a play about the value of art. As the economy struggles and everybody tightens up and battens down, once again, and as always, art is the ‘poor cousin’ to utility bills, groceries, mortgages and insurance premiums (ahem). This is always the case, but it’s important to remind ourselves of the honest value of Art to the human animal. To those that make it and those that experience it. It sustains us, elevates us, offers context and solace, and an altar to Praise and Lament, as the poet Rilke called the divine polarity of human expression. We need it. We don’t often even sense that, but, as Maria Callas states in the play: “The sun will not fall down from the sky if there are no more Traviatas. The world can and will go on without us but I have to think that we have made this world a better place. That we have left it richer, wiser than had we not chosen the way of art.”

Yep, I’ve been asked to”blog”. I’ll say from the outset, I don’t quite get what this is all about, but, being an absolute sport…. I’ll play.

I’m going to rat myself out. In the spring of 1994, I was part of The Gathering in Big Fork, Montana. It was a new play workshop and reading series produced by a couple of friends of mine. I was still living in Seattle and it was a quick gig that paid, and on beautiful Flat Head Lake besides. I was there as an actor. One of the plays that was being read was a thing called MASTER CLASS. Terrence McNally was there, and Zoe Cauldwell was reading Maria Callas. It was one of the first public readings of the play. There were a couple of people I knew from Seattle in it, including Karen Kay Cody who ended up performing in the New York production, as Sophie. I saw the reading, walked outside and ran into the other friend, who shall remain nameless, but had played Manny the accompanist in the reading. I had to confess to him I didn’t get, wasn’t at all sure it worked, and really, did anyone care about an opera diva that much? He also was not sure he was sold on the play. Several years later we met up at a new play festival in California and did the usual “what’s up” queries. Turns out we were both about to direct the play we had damned with faint praise in Big Fork, he at the Denver Theatre Center and me at Salt Lake Acting Company. We congratulated each other on our unerring instincts and both had a slice of humble pie, shared an ironic chuckle. And now, I’m directing it for the second time.

I still know almost nothing about opera. I have to admit I’ve never completely shed the notion that it’s a little silly, which is ridiculous to say as I’ve still never seen an opera. I blame it on the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Elmer Fudd is dressed in drag as Brunhilde singing “K-will dah rabbit, K-will dah rabbit” to Wagner. Popular culture has not been kind to the art form, and I’m shotglass deep and given to baser instincts. But I will say this, Maria Callas has become a very compelling character for me. She did not completely disagree with my kneejerk assessment of opera, either. Her career was a corrective on the merely decorous tendencies in the form. She rejected pretty costumes, pretty music, preening peacocks bathing in light and self-congratulation. She was a revolution. And it cost her dearly. Cost. That column is tallied up with great impact in this play. I have an image of Callas near the end of her life, donated to my conciousness through my readings. She is hold up in her Paris apartment, having become a fragile recluse, and bathed in the light of a television set that was ALWAYS on. Her favorite programs were westerns and detective stories. Even her infrequent guests had to talk over the din of the omnipresent set. Lonely. Lonely. Lonely. The woman that virtually invented the expression “jet set”, who yachted with Churchill, the Rainers, movie stars and glittering heads of state…. the mistress of one of the richest men in the world, the prima-diva…. Cost. I think I understand so much more clearly this time how high the stakes were for her when these master classes occurred. Her career was essentially over, her voice shredded, the love of her life married to Jackie Kennedy but still perversely pursuing her and her confidence at its lowest ebb. She was a woman looking back, attempting to teach students only looking forward. Young, hopeful animals with no knowledge of the costs that may lay ahead. No wonder McNally grabbed the moment! Could it be any more loaded? Any more heartbreaking and funny in turn? Talk about your intrinsic dramatic conflict. So, although I am still a philistine when it comes to opera, and still a stranger in a strange land, I have come to hold Ms.Callas in deep regard. Had I known her I would have undoubtedly wanted to save her from the dark tide, as so many people who knew and loved her tried to do. At least through this play we raise a glass to her now.

We’re about to enter our tech week, as I write this. I’m not going to talk about the workings of our rehearsals, because that’s still very much family business, but I will say I have, once again, thoroughly enjoyed working with Anne Cullimore Decker as the Lady. I could probably write reems about that, but I won’t. Master Paul Dorgan, you have quite simply saved our bacon and poured grace through our days. And our “students”. Bless them all. They have worked their butts off with intelligence and complete devotion. And, truly, Arika Schockmel, our stage manager… you are the hub, you are the light. Josh Martin, we will make you a star, dude. And the designers, Keven, Jim, Brenda and Dave…. all you do is make concrete the world. Nothing much, eh? And SLAC, the Mother Ship, nice to be back. Allora!

The Caretaker by Harold Pinter- the work of a lighting designer by Jim Craig

Posted in General on 09/27/2009 by saltlakeactingcompany

How do you describe light? It’s a very difficult thing. Often directors and designers communicate about light in emotional terms, broken sentences, and even bizarre hand gestures. “The light in this moment should be mysterious and bordering on scary” he says as his hands are swirling above his head, or “The light in this scene should be welcoming and provoke a sense of happiness?” as shoulders are shrugged looking for acceptance. These are hypothetical statements not actual comments from the production process, mostly it’s fragmented sentences accompanied by darting eye movements and ending in a “You know what I mean…Right?” My son often describes sun light to me as “The happiness” “Dad, I want to go to the happiness, I’m cold.” he will say if he’s standing in the shade of a tree after playing in a pool (he’s 2 ½).
So my job on a production is to take all of the descriptions of light from the text, stage directions, directors’ concepts, my concepts, and mush it all together to create a lighting plan that will be our visual language for a play, or at least the building blocks of the language which won’t be realized until half way through the technical rehearsals of the show. This plan also needs to facilitate the practical needs of the play by allowing me to shift focus around the stage, acting as a guide to show the audience where to look (provided they want to look where I put the light, some times the more interesting place to look is into the shadows, we all love a good mystery). This lighting plan should also help explain and support the information not in the text, like time of day, weather, motivating light sources in a room, closure, openness and that kind of thing. However the power of light often comes from what can’t be easily described in words. Most people don’t think about the functions of the light they see by breaking it down into its individual qualities (color, intensity, form, direction, and movement), they have a reaction on a more primal level. Often you have a reaction that invokes an emotional response of safety, fear, happiness, sadness, etc you get the picture. So the power of light is best used trying to invoke those emotional responses in a way that supports the direction of the play. As an audience member you can listen to a scene, think of its meaning, and then make an intellectual judgment about it and decide if you believe it or not. Light is much sneaker than that, because it triggers these very basic emotions. Your higher-level brain doesn’t have time to make a judgment on what it just saw, so you just believe it its right, what ever you felt is correct and your brain doesn’t try to dispute it. If I can sneak those moments into the play over and over it will support the work both intellectually and emotionally and help you disregard the other 150 people around you so you can focus on the story at hand, and maybe feel something unexpected.

Reflecting on the last day of rehearsal by assistant director Valerie Kittel

Posted in The Caretaker on 09/20/2009 by saltlakeactingcompany

Monday September 14

Today was the last rehearsal before this play we have taken apart thread by thread is put back together again and the images and ideas become the experience that enlarges us and all the silent conversations, pairing off of shared truths and personalities, balancing of uninterrupted clear thinking, right action, and creative guesswork- becomes a story others listen to, believing every word, watching every way we have sought to capture the essence of something outside ourselves and play it back for them again and again.

True magic.

The Caretaker by Harold Pinter- four weeks into rehearsal by dialect coach Adrianne Moore

Posted in General on 09/14/2009 by saltlakeactingcompany

 I made a point of telling Kevin Myhre (The Producing Director at SLAC) when I saw him soon after the season was announced that, yes, I would be available for THE CARETAKER – just in case he was wondering.  How great would that be to work on this lovely play which I had studied in school but never encountered in production!

As a dialect coach I usually spend a fair bit of time hanging out in rehearsals. Even apart from the exciting challenges associated with the dialect work there is a tremendous amount of pleasure and stimulation to be had from simply watching how the work unfolds with a great text interpreted by a skillful, creative team in the rehearsal room.

The world of the play is so specific here and it seemed pretty inevitable that the director John Vreeke would choose to keep it in its original setting. Certainly Pinter’s rhythms seem to insist on the patter of London speech. I lived in London for about 5 years so I fancy it’s a dialect that sits easily on my tongue and in my ear. I love to use it and hear it, in part because of its associations for me. Of course whenever I recommend myself as a dialect coach skilled at or familiar with, a specific dialect, I run the same risk as the actor who says Shakespeare is her forte – does this mean Neil LaBute isn’t? Goodness no I can act (or dialect coach) anything! 

Sometimes actors start with the dialect on the first day of rehearsal and sometimes they want to start well in advance. I met with Mick and Aston in the summer and it was clear they had already been putting in some hours. Davies, played by Joe Cronin is actually English by birth so much as I’d like lots of credit for his dialect I can’t really take it.

Dialect and theatre is a curious thing. It’s never just about researching a dialect and then guiding the actors towards reproducing these sounds and rhythms onstage. Sometimes you want to give a flavor of the place and period; sometimes the location is so specific and so central to the play that the actors have to be incredibly specific. The need to keep it intelligible to an audience means that I have made choices to include some sounds and exclude others. In this production the common London pattern of the substitution of an “f” for a soft “th” and a “v” for a hard “th” wherein the word three becomes free and brother becomes bruhver is not included. It’s one of those sounds that is frequent but not inevitable. What about the dropped “h”? Well in this production you will hear it sometimes and not other times. Again the issue is about clarity and intelligibility. Fortunately there is an incredible range of speech sounds within London. Walk around and you will hear all of the rules that American actors associate with this dialect broken all the time. Another issue is the period. Dialect like language evolves and thus the sounds of Pinter’s 1960’s London differ in some ways from the working class London speech of today. So you should watch Alfie for background but not East Enders.

Despite the fact that dialect is my passion I certainly don’t want the dialect to dominate. If you (the audience) are so focused on the dialect that the language is lost, the character submerged beneath it, I will have failed utterly. Hopefully the use of the dialect will just help to contextualize the play and realize the speech patterns already written into the play. Let me know.

The Caretaker by Harold Pinter- three weeks into rehearsal by actor Daniel Beecher

Posted in General, The Caretaker on 09/08/2009 by saltlakeactingcompany

joe,dan,matt

THE CARETAKER cast:

L-R Daniel Beecher,

Joe Cronin,

Matthew Ivan Bennett

Photo: Thom Gourley

 

It is a testament, I think, to the complexity and depth of THE CARETAKER that I am having so much trouble with this blog post.  I honestly don’t know where to start.  I’m baffled.

 I spent the better part of this last Spring and Summer doing research in preparation for this play.  I spent hours at the library, pouring over books about Pinter, his writings, his life.  I read Freudian psychoanalyses of his plays, I read interviews with him and essays by people who worked with him.  Anything I could find that could possibly be of use in the creation of this production (and, more specifically, my character Aston). 

 And of course, I read the play itself. Over and over and over.

 The truth is, I was terrified.  The chance to do a Harold Pinter play does not come up often for an actor (especially one in a small theatrical market like Salt Lake), and I really didn’t want to blow it.  In my research, Pinter was frequently referred to as “an actor’s playwright.” His characters are so rich and layered, and yet often so raw and basic.  If actors are addicts, Pinter’s words are “the pure stuff”… the unadulterated, unfiltered hit we spend our lives jonzing for.

 The funny thing is that, as an actor, I feel like I almost have to work backwards with Pinter.  Normally with a play, I start out with a solid but basic foundational understanding of what my character is about, and I build on that throughout the rehearsal process.  I gain more and more understanding, and with each new insight, I’m able to present a more fleshed-out, thinking, feeling person. So often, the image of a “great actor” is one of a man in the violent throes of tearful passion.  You know the scene: everything he loves has been destroyed and he’s consumed with grief and hatred.  He’s kneeling over the bodies of his loved ones and screaming vengeful epithets to the heavens.  Yeah… working on Pinter is the opposite of that.

 With this play, I spent the first week of rehearsal finding a thinking, feeling, person, and have spent every day since trying to dismantle that work.  Starting with a machete, hacking away at the dense jungle of passions and emotions, I’ve been clearing away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary.  With each pass over each scene, we make finer and finer adjustments, cutting back more and more.  “Nope- too mental!” comes the call from John, our director.  “Make it simpler!”  The machete becomes a bowie knife, which gives way to a utility blade, until finally I’m paring back my work with a surgeon’s scalpel- so close to the bare heart, that the slightest slip one way or the other could mean disaster.

 Ok, I’m getting dramatic.  Sorry.  But that’s what it feels like (and that’s what you get from someone who majored in “drama”).   I’m SOOO excited to see how all this translates to an audience.  Will any of this work come through and be as powerful for you as it has been for me? Who knows.  Having watched the excellent work of my fellow actors, I suspect we have a powerful piece of theatre on our hands.  Whether you like it or not, though, I guarantee you’ll have a lot to talk about after the show!

 

The Caretaker by Harold Pinter- two weeks into rehearsal by actor Matthew Ivan Bennett

Posted in General on 09/01/2009 by saltlakeactingcompany

matthewivanbennett200

“I’ve been working on the script since I first read it two weeks before the auditions. I was instantly sure I wanted to play Mick and knew that even if I wasn’t cast, that I’d probably audition with one of his monologues in the future. I found the staccato, cheeky language to be right up my alley. I mean, it isn’t me at all really, but perhaps a bit like I’d like to be.

I’m a naturally introverted person and acting has always been an opportunity for me to be my alter ego in some way. It’s like wearing Red Kryptonite. Mick is a loud-mouthed, pushy, verbally-fencing bully. He’s also very loyal to and protective of his disadvantaged brother. He isn’t a villain by any means; he has negative attributes and he has positive ones — but he is unquestionably antagonistic in the script as a whole.

The process of creating Mick has been largely technical so far. The South London dialect is tricky. For an American it requires a lot of lip and tongue movement that isn’t natural. And Mick is a fast-talker. I’ve been doing a lot of tongue twisters in the dialect, listening to dialect samples, and I even went to see a speech pathologist for pointers. She gave me techniques for relaxing the tongue and throat and exercises aiding dexerity.

I also have been returning to acting basics in order to cut through the (seemingly) thick undergrowth of Pinter. By ‘basics’ I mean discovering what the character most wants in each scene or section of a scene. John, our director, has been an enormous asset to me in helping me make each line specific in terms of tactics.

So the project has been stretching me in two different directions: on the one hand I’m working very hard in an exterior way, and on the other I’m striving to ‘undress’ my performance by being as intellectually unaffected as I can.

I work a full-time job and am tinkering with a children’s book and have two other playwriting projects in the early stages still I’m rehearsing for THE CARETAKER. The play has definitely taken the lion’s share of my energy, but I’m not resentful about it in the least. Acting always helps me write better because it revivifies the way I think about character. I’m reminded that it isn’t an abstract, that what I put on the page will be interpreted (hopefully) by many different people with different life experience and approaches to acting. It reminds me that broad strokes are usually more important than details — or that the details are meaningless if there aren’t bold strokes.

The only real fear I have around playing Mick is connected to figuring out when he’s putting people on and when he’s dead serious and unaffected. As an actor it’s very tempting to be theatrical, but Mick can’t be 100% theatrical, even being a vivacious, manipulative, ‘actorly’ character. The director is steering me a lot in this and I’m very grateful for it. And, of course, my fellow actors are so earnest that they serve as constant benchmarks for me. Whenever I’m too outlandish, I only have to take them in and listen to them and I certainly see how theatrical I’ve gotten.”

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