Theater Conservatory Confidential: Practical Aesthetics

NYU freshman Elijah Diamond continues to chronicle his first year away from the Bay Area, learning the tricks of the industry actor trade.

To put it bluntly, studio has ruined my social life. With nonstop classes from 8:30 to 6:30 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, I have literally no time to do anything except wake up, eat, and sleep. The rest of my day, as you may expect, is devoted to the Studio. Most of “my friends”, the people I met during the first week, have all but dropped off the face of the earth save for two notable exceptions. They’ve been replaced, slowly but surely, by people from my studio, a ragtag group of people, most notable of which being my scene partner, Reina.

That’s right, I said “Scene partner”. Not even four weeks in and already I’m supposed to be performing two scenes. I hoped to have some interesting details on what it was like working on this scene in class, but unfortunately, our scenes been postponed til next Thursday. So if you want to hear interesting details on how Atlantic runs scene-work, or my scene, from Oleanna, you’re out of luck. For now however, I think it’s time for me to describe Practical Aesthetics, the technique Mamet runs.

Practical Aesthetics runs off of one key principle “Think before you act, so you can act before you think”. There are other anecdotes that influence the technique, such as “You are what you are, and that’s all you need to be”. Most of the technique revolves around you being the most “you” that you can be. The technique does not want you to give anything more than yourself; no faked emotions here. In order to fulfill both of these statements, the technique has four major steps.

Literal: What is the character literally doing in the scene? Figure out what he’s doing without any form of interpretation whatsoever. An example: in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, there’s a conversation about selling the flat which really represents the relationship. You would not talk about the relationship, just that they were talking about selling the flat.

Want: What does the the character want? What does the character desire? And what is his goal? This delves more into the subtext of the scene, and less on the literal.

Action: What is the essential nature of the scene to you? Note that we’ are not talking about the character anymore. The focus of the scene instead has turned to you as a person. Actions include “To put someone in their place”, “to wake someone up to reality”, etc. The only rules for the action is that it has to be something you want the other person to do, it has to be specific, and it has to have a “cap”, an endpoint.

As-if: Here’s where Practical Aesthetics really shines for me. You apply the action to your own life, find something that you want/need to do in your regular life, and use it to stir up your viscera to reach the emotional level you need to be at for the scene. The as-if helps make the scene spontaneous, helping to fight off any possible tedium that may eventually occur in the scene.

So yeah, that’s Practical Aesthetics, a technique created by David Mamet and William H. Macy. Hopefully next time, I’ll be able to tell you what it’s like to work on a scene in this environment.

Check back in two weeks for the latest on Elijah Diamond’s navigation of the Atlantic. Get it? 

Falling With Style: Bit By Bit, Putting It Together

Bay Area actor Helen Laroche talks about her struggle with multiple part-time jobs and the concept of the ‘survival gig.’

I have been unemployed or under-employed since December 2011, when I willfully left my job.

At the time, there was some question whether my little family of two would be moving out of the country. That didn’t come to pass, so once I left the corporate fold, I was without a game plan.

For a while, I did nothing. I was lucky enough to have enough savings to take a short sabbatical, so that’s what I did. Some part of me had hoped this short stint of unemployment would force me to think about the things I truly loved to do, and perhaps I’d gravitate to them during this period of ‘mental fingerpainting.’ I’d learn what I want to do, I’d do it, and that would be that.

But — and I recognize that this is probably the most selfish, lazy, directionless thing I’ve had the courage to write and attach my name to — all I really learned was that I loved doing nothing. Probably not deep-down-to-the-very-depths-of-my-soul love, but boy did I enjoy it.

Meanwhile, my husband was (understandably) getting a little annoyed with my ‘fingerpainting,’ and I was starting to feel pretty disconnected from the world of the 9-to-5ers. But I had promised myself, if I ever had a chance to enroll in the ACT Summer Training Congress (7-week, full-time summer program that’s impossible to complete with a full-time job) I’d do it. But in the meantime, I needed to find a job — one that I’d be able to leave in just a few months to do the ACT program.

I turned to Elance with the hope that I’d be able to parlay my copyediting and writing interests into some quick cash. I found that few people (on Elance, anyway) are interested in well-written articles. Most people there are looking for content for their Made For AdSense sites. Therefore, facility with English is not a strict requirement, and people who are willing to work for cheap are preferred. I did once write a 20-page report on the benefits of using a Starwood Preferred Guest credit card for a sum that was almost reasonable. But the work wasn’t exactly fulfilling.

Soon enough, it was time for my ACT program, which put any money-making at a standstill for the better part of the summer. In the latter part of the summer, I picked up a camp gig with Mad Science, a group that teaches/entertains kids through science demonstrations and interactive experiments. That turned into an ongoing gig in the fall, though even now in its full swing I’m working 7 guaranteed hours a week. It’s not enough.

So I decided to look for work as a Barista at Starbucks. The one walking distance from my house is willing to hire me for part-time or full-time work — my choice — and if I sign up for their opening shift at 4:15, I can work weekdays full time and make about $400/week there. Still not enough.

I’ve just been hired as a music director for a small, up-and-coming children’s group (a little more money there) and I’m starting to get considered for theatre work that has a larger-than-just-gas-money stipend (little more), but I’m having a hell of a time getting all my survival gigs to add up to the number in my head that I’ve landed on as a minimum successful salary.

Helen Laroche is a Bay Area musician, actor and voice teacher. You can find her online at www.helenlaroche.com.

Somethin’ Like a Bearnomenon

Allison Page shares her thoughts on the phenomenon (or bearnomenon) of performing in “BEEEEEAAR!” by Megan Cohen and Directed by Meg O’Connor at this year’s Pint Sized Play Festival.

Allison will reprise her role one last time at the San Francisco Theater Festival this Sunday, September 30, at 1 PM, at Faithful Fools, 234 Hyde Street in San Francisco.

Check here to view the full schedule at: http://sftheaterfestival.org/.

She’s never gonna stop dancing!

I walk up to the bar at Cafe Royale to get a delicious glass of beer at the end of a long day, and some guy sitting at the bar turns to speak to me.

“I know who you are, you’re a f*cking legend.”

“Excuse me?”

“I didn’t even see that show, and I know who you are…you’re the Bear…the Beer Bear.”

This scenario repeats several times in several places; sidewalks, Walgreens, other bars. And I cannot deny it, they’re right, I am the Beer Bear. Hear me roar.

growl.

I had never been a part of the Pint Sized Play festival or actually, anything Theater Pub has done, but last year I saw Pint Sized II because I had some friends performing in it. I thought “Ohhh, this will be…whatever.” (Yes, my thoughts are always genius and well-articulated.) But I had SO. MUCH. FUN. It was great. The Theater Pub atmosphere, and especially the Pint Sized atmosphere, has a fantastically different feel than any other theatrical event I’ve been a part of. So, when Meg O’Connor wanted to plop me into a piece she was directing for Pint Sized III this year, I said…”Yeah, sure, okay.” (I know, I’m brilliant.) I hadn’t even read the script for what was oddly titled “BEEEEEEEEAAAR”, but I trusted the title, the fact that it was written by Megan Cohen (And if Megan Cohen ever writes something and you can be in it, you should DO IT IMMEDIATELY. I always will.) the fact that it was about a bear, and the fact that I met Meg O’Connor once and thought she was nice. (She’s still really nice, and really awesome and funny and cool and easygoing.) It could have been a complete disaster. Instead, it was like lightning struck a cookie factory and the cookies went flying everywhere and everyone got to eat them for free and then get drunk.

I don’t know what it is about Megan Cohen’s monologue of a world-weary, alcohol-abusing, depressed, lovelorn, lonely, deep, dark, hilarious, suicidal dancer-by-day, tutu-wearing, beer-swilling Bear that struck such a chord with people, but that’s what happened. Actually, now that I read that sentence, it sounds super kickass. We should have known. I don’t think Meg O’Connor will mind me saying that she had some reservations about directing “BEEEEEEEAAAR”, and I guess I can see why. It seems like kind of a tough cookie (Yay, more cookies!), and it was sort of a shock the first time I read it, because, uh…WHAT IS THIS?!…but it was so well-written it just couldn’t go wrong. I dove right in and totally fell in love with it, and I’m not the only one.

When I say I don’t know what it is that struck such a chord, I guess that’s not really true. I think I know what it is. It’s truth packaged in a digestible way (LIKE MAYBE IN A COOKIE?). Life is a dark, confusing beast. Bad things happen all the time, whether you deserve them or not, here they are, and they’re not stopping anytime soon. “BEEEEEEEAAR” is hilarious. Like, really, really amazingly funny. But in that humor lies something bigger. One of the best moments for me as the bear, hell, one of the best performance moments I’ve ever had, was getting into some deep dark moment of the Bear’s past and of the fragility of human mortality and how “…the hands of time and death must reach down and SCOOP UP THE ONES WE LOVE!”  and a man in the balcony area let out a reflective “…Jesus.”  Yeah. That’s right. Everyone you love and care about WILL DIE AND SO WILL YOU…now time for more jokes. It’s just the perfect combination of sense and nonsense, puns and truth, beer and poison, that give “BEEEEEEEEAAR” the strange cult appeal that it has. It’s been 2 months since I last donned that tutu and those fuzzy ears, but it seems like only yesterday that I was getting black-out drunk from all the free drinks bestowed upon me from excited audience members, who would sometimes be shy about it and not even admit to buying the beers I would find waiting for me after my intermission hibernation. I still get stopped on the sidewalk and occasionally roared at. And I always roar back.

This is technically another play, called “Llama” but whatever… that guy never returns my calls.

Allison Page is an SF comedian/actor/writer/chick with good hair from rural northern Minnesota. Not necessarily in that order. Follow her on Twitter or something @allisonlynnpage

Playwright Kirk Shimano Talks About Love In The Time Of Zombies

We took a moment to chat up Kirk Shimano, the mastermind behind our October rom-zom-com, Love In The Time Of Zombies. This show is actually a first for Theater Pub: a fully produced full length play that isn’t based on prior material (like Boar’s Head and Measure For Measure were), and it turns out it’s not just a first for us…

Kirk Shimano looks nice enough… but his mind is a twisted play-pen of the Devil.

This your first full length to get produced?

Yes it is!

How does that feel?

It’s hard to know where to start! It’s exciting, for sure, but also intimidating. Watching the cast assembling the story in rehearsal has been a little surreal – watching these scenes that have only existed inside of my head being played out by real people. So in a word, it’s exciturrealidating.

Tell us about this play. Like… what is it about?

It starts with four survivors of a zombie apocalypse piling into an abandoned cabin in the woods. But while they’re prepared for the standard finding-love-while-running-from-zombies scenario, they’re not prepared for a mysterious woman who challenges their whole concept of what it means to be human. Lives are changed and people get eaten, but ultimately it’s about how our strongest emotions can either hold us back or propel us forwards.

How did it end up on the Theater Pub stage?

The first incarnation of this story was a one act that was presented by the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco back in the spring of 2009. I was encouraged by the connection the audience made with the characters, so I decided to expand the story, shifting the focus and adding two more characters to the mix. Two years later, the full length version of this play was presented as a staged reading by Wily West Productions. It was paired with Juno En Victoria, written by Theater Pub artistic director Stuart Bousel. Originally that led to this play being added to the No Nude Men season, but when that fell through the zombies found a new home at Theater Pub.

What’s the process been like so far?

It’s been amazing collaborating with Claire Rice, the director of the piece, and watching her work with the actors. I always find myself surprised by how much there is to fill in – even though all of the dialogue is already on the page, the actors have to construct a convincing reality from moment to moment. I’m fortunate to be working with a director and a cast who see the story in the same way that I do.

Originally, this play isn’t set in a bar, so what have you had to do to make this play doable at Theater Pub?

The biggest change has been to make the audience an active part in the play. The bar environment makes everyone more aware of the other audience members around them and we wanted to use this to help build the atmosphere. We’re having the audience play the part of the zombies surrounding the cabin. It fits right into the story, and hopefully the audience will enjoy the play even more when they get to make zombie noises throughout it!

What is it about zombies that we’re so interested in?

Zombies are the monsters that are closest to humanity. You can tell your friends, “Man, I was a total zombie at work today” and they’ll know exactly what you mean. Try inserting “swamp monster” into that sentence and it just doesn’t work the same. Zombies are people who are just a little more brain-hungry.

I think the closeness is also what makes them terrifying. The person who you trust most in the world could go zombie and turn on you in a second, and you’d understand why they were eating you while being entirely powerless to do anything about it

Can you think of any other zombie plays or movies that might have influenced you?

There wasn’t anything that was a direct influence, but I’ve definitely enjoyed a bunch of zombie things which I’m sure have affected me in one way or another. I like 28 Days Later for proving that there were plenty of new ways to approach zombies and Shaun of the Dead for injecting fun without losing any of the crucial elements of the genre. I really enjoyed The Walking Dead (the comic more than the TV show) for asking the question: “You’ve survived the initial outbreak. So now what?” Also Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive / Braindead for going way over the top and making it work.

What’s your favorite zombie related thing of all time?

I’m going to go with something a little more recent and say the trailer for the video game Dead Island. I never actually played the game it was advertising, but the trailer is really a masterful three minutes of storytelling that provides an emotional wallop. If you haven’t seen it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZqrG1bdGtg

Runner up: the dinner scene from Dead Alive.

Who wins in the undead show down- zombies, mummies, vampires or ghosts?

Ghosts are too insubstantial and mummies just don’t want it bad enough. I think a vampire could take down a zombie in a one-on-one cage match, but not being able to go out in the sun is a HUGE handicap. The vampires could pull it off if they have the right leadership, but if even one of the Twilight crew is involved then zombies all the way.

In the event of a zombie outbreak, what is your plan?

Costco.

Don’t miss Kirk Shimano’s Love In The Time Of Zombies, directed by Claire Rice, playing October 15, 16, 22, 29, 30, only at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco.

Made In China: A Chronicle Of An Original Musical As It Moves Towards Its World Premiere

Nicholas Weinbach, an up and coming Bay Area composer and performer, writes about what it’s like to bring an original musical to the stage.

For those of you who don’t already know me, my name is Nicholas Weinbach, and I’m an actor, musician, and composer currently based in San Francisco. For the next few months, I will be contributing a guest blog every two weeks detailing the process of putting up the full production of an original musical I wrote called Made in China. Here’s a press release I wrote for the staged readings of the play back in April earlier this year which should also serve as a brief synopsis:

“From San Francisco writer/composer Nicholas Weinbach comes an original musical about a child-like up-and-coming postman, Max, who must deliver a mysterious music box to an address that doesn’t exist. In a moment of curiosity, Max shakes the box, and a house magically appears along with the girl of his dreams. Backed by a live 6-piece chamber orchestra, Made in China‘s melody-driven songs and quirky humor will take you on an exciting adventure of what it’s like to think and act like a kid, again.”

I suppose I’ll start from the beginning. A couple of years ago, my twin brother, Max, wrote, directed, produced, and starred in his own original one-act musical called A Match Made in Hell in which the devil plays matchmaker. Max put on this production for his college honors project, and it turned out to be a success. I was so impressed that I had an epiphany: “This is what I should be doing, too. I should be writing musicals. This is a way I can combine both my passions of theater and music.”

That summer I began work on what would come to be known as Made in China. Actually, the title was one of the first things I had down. I began to work ardently on the book and music concurrently. Some of the songs I had already written over the previous four years, but I wasn’t sure when I would use them. The time had come. There was one song in particular called “A Letter Written on the Back of Yesterday”, which I had written during my year studying abroad in France, and I knew I’d use this song for a musical one day, but I didn’t know what that musical was. Now, “A Letter Written…” is one of the most important songs in Made in China, and its melody is a motif that appears throughout the play.

A year after beginning this project, I had the first draft of the book and most of my songs complete with lyrics. Soon, I moved on to orchestrating the music. This was a challenging and tedious experience, but I learned a lot doing it and, ultimately, had a lot of fun creating parts for different instruments. At one point, I had written the score with a harp in mind, but, when it came time to find musicians for the staged readings, I found it too difficult to find a harpist who would play for free, which brings me to the next part of the process: finding musicians.

When you’re initially starting out, it’s hard to get anyone to do anything for you, so you take what you can get. That’s how it happened with my musicians. I posted ads everywhere for musicians from Craigslist to sending mass e-mails to music majors at U.C. Berkeley and S.F State. I finally got some musicians together, and we soon began rehearsing. Right away, there were noticeable mistakes in the musical score. When you actually have real musicians play your music, you can hear where you messed up as a composer. And, so began the first of many revisions of the score. Every time I met with the musicians, which soon became every Saturday, I had revised versions of the music ready for them to play. I’m sure they got a little annoyed at my constant changing of the score, but it was a learning process for all of us.

Meanwhile, I had some actor friends on board to act and sing for the staged readings. They thankfully put up with my many revisions of the script and my many demands to practice even though there wasn’t really anything in it for them. I guess it helps to be connected and have friends who share similar interests. We had a few informal readings before the actual staged readings. As far as practicing the music with the actors goes, a couple of them would come to my house each week, and we’d rehearse on the keyboard in my tiny room. A lot of the time, I would meet up with them in the practice rooms in the music building at U.C. Berkeley. Somehow, my student ID still worked to get me into the practice rooms (they didn’t notice that I had already graduated).

Finally, in April 2012, I put on the staged readings of Made in China. Though the attendance was fairly poor for both matinee performances, I think I impressed the right people, and it was great to hear everything all at once. Most importantly, the orchestra, conducted by my brother, Max, sounded great. The house manager and technical director for the two shows, DL Soares and Clint Winder, respectively, were among those who were very enthusiastic about the show, so much that they offered to co-produce the full production of the musical.

Cut to a few months later: I had held a couple more informal readings and revised the book and music a lot more, and, now, we’re preparing for the upcoming auditions for Made in China, which will be taking place on Monday and Tuesday, October 1st and 2nd from 6-10 PM both nights. We now have another set of eyes on the project with our director Ashley Cowan, and we officially booked the venue back in mid-August. The show will go up in February 2013 at Bindlestiff Studio in SF and play every Friday and Saturday night of the month.

Some of you may ask, “How are you funding this production?” Well, aside from launching a Kickstarter campaign in a couple of months, I’m personally putting aside descent chunks of money each month out of my own pocket for this thing. That’s paycheck money and tip money (I’m a cocktail server at two popular comedy clubs in SF). I’ve been doing this for a year, now. I think that’s what it takes if you really want to produce something and you haven’t, yet, achieved the kind of success where people are throwing money at you to put on a show.

Well, I think that about covers it so far. If you are an actor and singer, I’d love for you to audition for Made in China. You can e-mail me at madeinchinamusical@gmail.com to set up an appointment. I’ll leave you with a musical highlight from the show called “A Song that They Call Love”: http://made-in-china-musical.bandcamp.com/. Hope you enjoy, and I’ll be posting again in two weeks!

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: We & Orson Welles

Marissa Skudlarek ponders a quarter life crisis in prestigious company.

The fact that Orson Welles was 25 years old when he wrote, directed, and starred in the most acclaimed movie of all time is enough to give anyone a quarter-life crisis. I turned 25 this year, and am curious to know how Welles achieved so much at such a young age (while keeping in mind that the remainder of his life is a cautionary tale about early success). Plus, I have a major weakness for ‘30s theater and ‘40s cinema. So I’m currently in the midst of reading Simon Callow’s biography of the young Welles, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu.

Though people are inclined to consider Welles a filmmaker foremost, he achieved his earliest successes and learned most of what he knew from working in the theater. (Citizen Kane was his first movie, the bastard.) Reading this biography, I can’t help comparing the theater of Welles’ time to that of our own, wondering if such a meteoric rise to fame could happen nowadays, and seeing if his story has any lessons for young theater-makers of the 21st century.

Well, in terms of Welles’ rise, it certainly helped that he was a tall, striking, charismatic young man with a beautiful speaking voice. At the age of 17, he traveled to Ireland, finagled his way into an audition at the Gate Theatre, and won the second-biggest role in their current production, portraying a character over twice his age. While it’s hard to imagine any theater today hiring a teenager to play a dissipated 40-year-old Grand Duke, I can easily picture a contemporary theater having trouble filling that role. In 2012, we’re always complaining that the pool of “leading man”-type actors is too small, and it seems that in the 1930s, the same problem existed. If the teenage Orson Welles showed up on the scene today and auditioned for one of our shows, we’d probably still go crazy for him.

In the ‘30s, people really did go crazy for Welles – such a talented actor and director, so hugely ambitious, so skilled at self-promotion and creating a stir. (His penchant for rehearsing at odd hours and the tough demands he placed on his design team, meanwhile, drove people crazy in a different way.) Again, it’s hard to imagine anyone following Welles’ trajectory today: directing large-cast plays in New York at 20, starting a repertory-theater company on Broadway at 22, making a Hollywood movie at 24. Things take longer these days; the theater places more of an emphasis on professional credentials and is wary of entrusting a big job to a newcomer. Our attitude toward the theater has subtly shifted – while it has gained some dignity and respectability as a profession, it’s lost the sense of being a playground for eccentrics and visionaries.

Yet even in the ‘30s, it wasn’t like just anyone could have achieved what Orson Welles did. Most obviously, Welles was a white male in an era far more racist and sexist than our own. In 1941, the 26-year-old Orson Welles got four Oscar nominations for writing, directing, starring in, and producing Citizen Kane; in 2012, the 26-year-old Lena Dunham has four Emmy nominations for writing, directing, starring in, and producing Girls. I’m not claiming that the playing field is completely level these days, but I am saying that blanket statements like “The barriers to entry in the arts were much lower in the ’30s” ignore the reality that, for the majority of the population, the barriers to entry are lower now.

Welles also had many other advantages in his youth: he came from an upper-middle-class, arts-loving Chicago family; he traveled extensively before he was out of his teens; he went to a liberal private school whose headmaster basically let him take over the school theater and do whatever he wanted. It’s a good reminder that a lot of success is due to one’s external circumstances, or to being in the right place at the right time. (Similar points can, and have, been made about Dunham’s privileged background.)

Even so, the crucial reasons for Welles’ success came from within: his chutzpah, his energy, his ruthless drive. Simon Callow’s biography of Welles makes some guesses as to the psychological factors behind Welles’ enormous ambition, but in truth we will never really know what lit the fire in his belly. This book is never going to teach me how to replicate Welles’ success and become a 25-year-old world-famous genius; if a book could teach that, we’d all be famous already. Instead, this detailed exploration of Welles’ high-flying early career is actually a cautionary tale for any theater artist. I’d heard of Welles’ groundbreaking work at the helm of the Mercury Theatre — a classical-repertory company that enjoyed astounding critical and popular success from the get-go — but what I hadn’t realized is that the Mercury nearly fell apart within 12 months of its founding, due to Welles’ egotism, disorganization, and lack of consideration for his fellow artists. Welles’ motivations for becoming a quadruple-threat writer-actor-director-producer may still be mysterious; the reasons for his quick flameout, though, are depressingly obvious. And while the American theater could use a jolt of Wellesian ambition and energy, I’m not sure that we need all of the other, less positive qualities that often accompany those virtues.

Marissa Skudlarek is a journeyman playwright toiling in obscurity at the age of 25.

The Zombies Are Coming!

What’s up next for Theater Pub?

Love in the Time of Zombies is a new rom-zom-com about four friends trapped in a zombie-surrounded cabin where a mysterious woman who manipulates them to her own nefarious ends. It’s a journey to the edge of undeath that challenges the core of what makes us human- and what makes us a zombie.

Join the cast of A THOUSAND* zombie audience members in the kick-ass confines of the Cafe Royal for a night of romance, comedy and rotting flesh.

Written by Kirk Shimano, directed by Claire Rice, staring Alisha Ehrlich, Neil Higgins, Dave Levine, Tonya Narvaez, Vince Rodriguez and Maggie Ziomek.

The show plays five frightful nights: October 15, 16, 22, 29, 30, all at the Cafe Royale, always at 8 PM, always FREE!

*Number of zombie audience members rounded up to the nearest thousand