Thursday, July 31, 2008


(Finally! A blog by Associate Artist James Carpenter!)

So here I am, ostensibly blogging for Cal Shakes, I'm 3 weeks into the rehearsal process of Uncle Vanya, and have not blogged one single letter of the process................

Why is that? Well, hard to explain.

Excuse # 1. I fear Chekhov. Yes, I've a bad case of Chekhovphobia; I can't always sense on reading his plays just how they function--it's only in rehearsal, that I begin to see the dynamics of what the author may have intended. So, happily here is a cure for my phobia--I just have to do it. It does, however, lead to some hesitancy on my part on blogging the process. Apologies. And many thanks to Timothy Near, our director, who has helped immensely with my therapy.

Excuse # 2. The role of Professor Serebryakov is a great role, a pivotal one, but he's got one line in act 1, a big scene in act 2 with his wife (others come in later at which point he leaves), a big scene in act 3, and a small scene in 4. As a consequence I've been called in to rehearse for a few hours here, a few there and have only a faint overview of the show as a whole and little interaction with the other actors on stage.

It's odd when this happens--you're cast in a role in which you have little to do, or one in which you interact only with a few people in the production and as a result feel almost that you're in another play. Which is arguably as it should be with this character--he does feel apart, out of his element and alienated.

Excuse # 3. I hate my character. Not the role mind you, but the the man that Chekhov has limned so acutely. He's spoiled, arrogant, selfish, and conceited; he looks down on all the others and has no tolerance or understanding of their lives and the challenges they face. I've known real people like this and I didn't like them either.

Thankfully though, I once played a character which I found to be thoroughly disagreeable and on expressing my feelings to another actor was told "Well then, you'll probably never be any good at it, will you?", so I have a prior lesson to go by on that excuse, and while I'll probably never ever love this man, I will find a way to tolerate him, at the least.

Excuse # 4. This is a rough one--Many times actors are required to perform in roles that are out of their experiential realm. We have to find ways of accessing those same feelings, perhaps finding experiences in our own lives which engender parallel emotions. I'm playing an older man than myself, one who has health problems and who fears death and stultification. This has caused me to explore some of my own fears so I can perform the role and it's put me in a bit of a dark spot. Apologies again. I'm better now.

Doing Chekhov seems to have affected my dream life as well; one of my more notable dream sequences had me afflicted with a bout of uncontrollable flatulence--and not just occasional mind you, but a muted continuous "Bbbbrrrrrpppppppttt" which varied in pitch up and down the musical scale and which followed me wherever I went, sometimes stressed in tempo with my footsteps.

It would occasionally cease when I came to rest to pour myself a cup of coffee, say, and would be accompanied by a long Chekhovian pause by cast and crew who breathlessly awaited to see if Jim's farting spell had finally abated. I knew they were waiting. They knew I knew, but were feigning nonchalance. The air would still and silence reign as I slowly stirred in my sugar and half half, silently, fervently praying for no resumption of intestinal volcanism. And breaths would expel in unison, life unpause and begin anew--albeit with some grumbling on the part of the others ("When is he going to stop?")--as I strolled away pooting helplessly, apologetically.

I don't think I want to know what that one means.

Coming up: Hysterical Chekhov stories!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Shots from the UNCLE VANYA set build

Tech starts tomorrow for Uncle Vanya--yep, that's how quickly things go. It seems like just yesterday I was posting images and descriptions of Erik Flatmo's set, and now it's becoming a reality.

Photos by Jay Yamada.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How Ideal was it?

Our recent production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, directed by Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, proved to be the biggest grossing box office in our 35-year history, breaking the previous record held by Moscone’s production of Shaw’s Man and Superman last season. Wilde’s play broke previous revenue records held for gross sales, single tickets, and group sales, and performed to an average 93% capacity during its 24 performance run (July 2-27) at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda.

Directed by Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, An Ideal Husband was widely hailed by the critics as an “ideal” production. Pat Craig in the Contra Costa Times wrote, “Moscone, who continues to prove himself one of the finest comedy directors going, has polished this jewel of a political and romantic comedy to a high gloss.” Charles Brousse in the Marin Independent Journal commented that, “the production reinforces a growing realization that, in a few short years, this East Bay company has become one of the most exciting, talented and entertaining groups around.” Robert Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle described the production as “crisp, handsome and very funny.” And Chad Jones wrote on, “The combination of Wilde and director Jonathan Moscone … is a potent one, and the marriage makes for an ideal Husband."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Everyone's a Critic," by Laura Hope

Everyone's a critic:
Wilde, Chekhov and their detractors, otherwise known as "mildew."

Ah, my dear, gentle reader! I must say, I have been trying to balance a relationship with two very demanding men this summer, and I am exhausted: Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov.

How can they be so demanding when they are both dead? It doesn't matter, gentle reader, men are men. Dead, alive, or somewhere in between, they are time consuming. Men in the theater are even worse. I dramaturged Oscar's An Ideal Husband, and now I am dramturging Anton's Uncle Vanya. Let me assure you, gentle reader, these men were--and are--a handful. They have relentlessly kept me up for many a sleepless night this summer. My grandmother Leadlay (God rest her) used to always say, "Just remember, dear, men get older, but they never grow up. Never." She usually whispered this to me while my grandfather was in the process of doing something extremely silly, or, more usually, something to attract attention to himself. My grandfather was a natural born actor and the world was his stage. He never met a stranger, and was always "acting out" in ways that won him many fans, and completely wore out my grandmother, who often found his antics a little embarrassing.

Grandma's wisdom is doubly true of men in the theatrical profession: Many never grow up. Both Oscar and Anton were quite a handful in their day, and working on their plays still keeps you on your toes. I mean, really, just try to imagine the lives of Constance Wilde (Oscar's wife) or Olga Knipper (Anton's). Oscar led a double life that eventually ruined not just his own, but also Constance's. On the other hand, poor, handsome Anton, ever the somewhat emotionally unavailable, constant bachelor, played the field for years leaving many a broken heart. When he finally settled down (predictably with a younger woman), he promptly died four years later from TB after a long, sad goodbye.

Oscar and Anton were contemporaries. Oscar was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854. Anton was born in Taganrog, Russia in 1860. Oscar died penniless from cerebral meningitis in 1900, in exile in France, living under the name Sebastian Melmoth. Anton died in 1904 in his wife's arms after downing a glass of champagne and announcing in German to his wife (of German descent) and his doctor (also German), "Ich sterbe" (I am dying). He was at a spa in Badenweiler, Germany at the time, trying to recover from the tuberculosis that killed him. Both men, so close in age, and such colossal geniuses, were like meteors: They flamed brightly and far too briefly across our horizon, but oh, how they shined!

Oscar and Anton never met, which is just as well. I have the sneaking suspicion Chekhov would not have liked Wilde. Chekhov believed in gentlemanly manners and did not approve of acting out in public, and Wilde was always and forever acting out. Wilde was the kind of guy you could party with till the wee hours of the morning, and have a great time. The next day, however, you might be a bit mortified with yourself, and vow not return anymore of his calls--or call him--ever again. He was like the Pied Piper of bad behavior in that way, I think. Chekhov, on the other hand, was the kind of guy you'd fall hopelessly in love with and quietly pine over for years. You'd never dare tell him because even if you did, you'd get no discernible or satisfactory reaction from him. He'd cough (you know, because of the TB), smile sadly, and apologize for your misplaced affection without actually naming what he was apologizing for. Anton could have been a character in Jane Austen's Persuasion--there's a lot of pining in that novel. Better still, he could have been one of the tall, handsome, unknowable bachelors in a Gothic novel by a Brontë sister. More than one lady worked herself into an unrequited love melancholia over the tall, beautiful, distant Chekhov. (Personally, I think pining is underrated in our instant-gratification-based society. I like to pine. Anticipation is so much better than reality, anyway. Pining is possibility. Reality is disappointing.)

Sooo, Oscar and Anton were very different men. Yet working on plays by these two all in the same summer has raised some interesting parallels in my mind: about the difficult life of a writer, about the nature of fame and genius, about humor (as both were known for their humorous tales), about dying young, and about the relationship between the artist and the critics.

Unfortunately, not everyone valued Wilde and Chekhov as playwrights in their lifetimes, although we speak of them today in reverent tones. There were no such phrases like "Chekhovian" or "Wildean" in the critical pantheon of pat comparisons with which to skewer younger, less established writers. At the time, they were the less established writers, and they were the ones receiving the skewering. Chekhov would probably be astonished at how he is revered today. He was a humble man, and always the first to point out what he perceived as the failings of his own work. Oscar would not be surprised at his current status at all. Oscar would wonder what the hell took us all so long to recognize his genius.

It is a wonder either man continued writing plays at all when one considers the public beating they took in the press. Let us, gentle reader, peruse a few examples. I will give the names of the odious critics, when available, as they deserve to be derided, albeit posthumously. They should not have been so rude to my Oscar and my Anton. Dramaturgs love their writers, quite passionately. We'll go to the mat for them. Dramaturgs do not like their writers to take a beating. We take it personally. We hold grudges. We use our pens to get even. Put on your flak jacket, gentle reader, it's about to get ugly!

When An Ideal Husband opened in 1895, certain English critics lined up to say mean things about Oscar the Irishman and his play. H.G. Wells (yes, the guy who wrote The Time Machine) wrote a review for the Pall Mall Gazette in which he opined,

So much for the play. It is not excellent, indeed, after Lady Windermere's Fan and The Woman of No Importance, it is decidedly disappointing. But worse have succeeded, and it was at least excellently received. It may be this melodramatic touch, this attempt at commonplace emotions and the falling off in epigram, may be merely a cynical or satirical concession to the public taste…But taking it seriously…the play is unquestionably very poor.

Notice that not only does Wells slam the play, he slams the audience for liking it. Interestingly, he did not sign his review. It was published anonymously, which shows he didn't have the "oysters" to own his opinions. Too bad his time machine wasn't real; he needed to be beamed away.

A.B. Walkey also had nasty things to say in Speaker: "Mr. Wilde's play will not help the drama forward a single inch, nor--though that is a comparatively unimportant matter--will it, in the long run, add to Mr. Wilde's reputation…the fact remains that Mr. Wilde's work is not only poor and sterile, but essentially vulgar." Walkey also didn't use his full name, publishing as A.B.W. I think we can all get a giggle now over Walkey's entirely anal, uptight prognostications. Nowadays, we all know the name Oscar Wilde, but who gives a cat poo about A.B. Walkey? "Who," you ask? Exactly, gentle reader. "Who" indeed!

Even William Archer, one of the premier English critics of the day, was a real jerk about Oscar and An Ideal Husband. He wrote that the play, "…does not positively lack good things, but simply suffers from a disproportionate profusion of inferior chatter." He may have been the premier critic of his day, but only theater historians remember the name William Archer, and we don't remember it without ambivalence. As a critic, Archer did not positively lack good insights, but his work suffered from a disproportionate profusion of inferior blah-blah-blah. (Yes, I did wear an evil grin as I wrote that last sentence.)

Chekhov also took a beating when he first introduced his plays to the stage. Tales of the disaster that was the opening night of The Seagull in St. Petersburg are the stuff of theatrical legend. Unfortunately, they are true. Audiences and critics alike lined up to hate the play and heap abuse on the author. Chekhov ran home in the middle of opening night. A friend later found him curled in a fetal position in bed where he cried out, "I implore you, no lights! I don't want to see anybody. I only want to tell you this: let them call me a-------- if I ever write for the theater again." Thankfully, he did.

Poor Chekhov even had to endure negative criticism from his good friend and idol, Tolstoy (yes, the author of War and Peace). Tolstoy read The Seagull and wrote to Chekhov, "It is absolutely worthless: It is written like Ibsen's drama…You know that I don't like Shakespeare, but your drama, dear Anton Pavlovich, is even worse than his." Tolstoy may have been a great novelist, but he was a nut job. Keep in mind that this is the man who also thought that the only way to improve the human soul was to give up carnal desire and quit having sex. He wins a Darwin award for that one. (And he didn't like Shakespeare? See what I mean? Total wingnut!)

The point is, gentle reader, Oscar and Anton succeeded despite the drama critics. I wonder how many other Chekhovs or Wildes we have lost, who never wrote again due to the snarky opinions of some small-minded cretin with a poison pen and a printing press? As a dramaturg, I've seen first-hand the crater left in the soul of more than one extremely talented, emerging playwright after they were napalmed in the press by a critic who thinks every new play should be judged against the masterpieces of a golden oldie like Wilde or Chekhov. They don't seem to realize that a writer is not born to this stature: One becomes a Wilde or a Chekhov, usually after one is dead, and in spite of what the papers wrote of your plays when they first premiered. Thank heaven Oscar and Anton had enough inner fortitude to keep at it. Imagine all we would have lost if they had taken the criticisms to heart and quit writing. I think I'll give my beloved Anton the last word here. He once wrote of the critics who initially ranted and raged against The Seagull, "They are not men, but a kind of mildew."

Till later, gentle reader,

I am ever your,

Dr. Laura, Resident Dramaturg and Shoe Aficionado

P.S. I bought 2 new pairs of shoes at the Macy's 4th of July sale. They are fabulous.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Would ya check out that suit?!

Raquel Barreto's costumes for our August production of Uncle Vanya will be "not stiff or dull," said the costume designer during her Meet & Greet presentation last week. They'll be a mix of 21st-century modern and turn-of-the-21st century Eastern Europe, with period fabrics and color combinations reworked to make the characters approachable--"so we're interested in whatever they're going through." There will be some Russian folk costume influence, but we'll definitely be seeing a bit more skin than would be period-appropriate.

To the far left is the eponymous Uncle Vanya (played by Dan Hiatt), in his Act 1 corduroy and vest.

And here's Vanya again, in his Act 2 outfit.

Here we have Vanya's niece, Sonya (Annie Purcell), who owns and operates the farm. She works the land but is not a peasant; she's educated but isolated.

These are two of her three outfits, and all of them include the same utilitarian denim skirt.

Here's the brooding country doctor Astrov (Andy Murray), who wears the same suit every day (including a summer weight jacket) but somehow manages to be totally, well, crushworthy--most likely due to his job as the ecologically aware Chekhov's stand-in.

Contrast Astrov with the dashing retired Professor Serebryakov (James Carpenter), whose visit (with new wife Yelena) turns the country life of all of the above on its ear, therefore setting in motion the play. he arrives in Act 1 wearing a long, white coat, not really prepared for farm work, per se, but certainly protected from harm, dirt, and the sun by his cane, boots, and hat.

In his Act 2 lounging gear, the professor certainly stands in sharp contrast to the plain white pyjamas of his former brother-in-law, Vanya.

And here is Yelena (Sarah Grace Wilson), the professor's beautiful young wife, also not exactly dressed for the country (so different from her grown stepdaughter, Sonya). She enters the play in an almost ethereal way, done up in soft lace.

Her later outfits are in deeper shades, but no less feminine. Raquel and director Timothy Near did some research on how lace was used in the upper class women's fashion of Chekhov's time, and this will certainly come into play with Yelena.

And finally, here's my favorite--Marya, widow of a Senator and mother of the professor's first wife (and therefore Sonya's grandmother). She's being played by Joan Mankin. I think I missed the part of the Meet & Greet where they talked about Marya's costuming. But would ya check out that suit??!!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"Tipped in like a valley, to hold you all in."

This is the model for Erik Flatmo's Uncle Vanya set. It will be "tipped in like a valley," says director Timothy Near, "to hold you all in." There will be a multitude of doors and stairways, to evoke the maze that Professor Serebryakov evokes when he says, in Act III, "I hate this house. It is a regular labyrinth. Every one is always scattered through the 26 enormous rooms; one never can find a soul." There will also be three moving windows (which you see in their lying-flat position on the miniature stage set above), an grass will come up through cracks in the stage.

Coming soon ... costume sketches by Raquel M. Barreto. (Sorry for the posting in stages; we're having server trouble.)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Scenes from a Country Life

We had our Meet & Greet for Uncle Vanya last Tuesday*, and it was positively edifying. I'm not going to lie--I was originally a bit skeptical about this gloomy-sounding Chekhov play. But in putting together the Vanya program (which is about 2/3 done as I type this) I've learned that the woman responsible for the adaptation we're using--award-winning director, playwright, and McCarter Theatre Artistic Director Emily Mann--loves Chekhov for his wit, the way he could look at life and find humor in them, even as his characters (and himself) suffer the various indignities of the human condition.

Last week's Meet & Greet--a first-day-of-rehearsals event wherein the Cal Shakes staff, the play's cast and creative team, and various and sundry other folks all get to meet one another before hearing the director's presentation on the show--convinced me even further that we are in very capable hands, indeed. Director Timothy "Timi" Near (the Artistic Director of San Jose Rep, making her debut at our Theater) began her presentation by telling us how much she enjoyed An Ideal Husband, even despite her bias**. So we were all, of course, fast friends after that. Then she proceeded to tell us all the ways she is capable of breathing life into Chekhov.

For one thing, Ms. Near acted for many years with the National Theatre of the Deaf, wherein she was one of three hearing actors in a 15-actor ensemble. She told us about how, when doing Chekhov (as she did many times with the NTD), the silences were a challenge. Silence is important in the work of Anton Chekhov--in Uncle Vanya, everyone is making plans, working on ways to improve their sorry lots in life. So in American Sign Language, Vanya was a very busy-looking play. "But," said Ms. Near, "When the problem becomes overwhelming, and you're not going to find a solution in this lifetime, it's then that you have stillness."

Another major theme of Ms. Near's presentation was the play's subtitle, "Scenes from a Country life in Four Acts." "I've never seen a show that expresses the subtitle," she said. The productions she's seen of Vanya have all either been austerely gray or painstakingly elegant. Having spent the first 18 years of her life on a remote Northern California farm "with no electricity or urban distraction," the director is intimately aware of the colorful existence of country life--the richness of experience that being surrounded by birth, death, and sex (mostly courtesy of the farm animals), and the sharp points of realization that exist in this kind of landscape. The daughter of a New York socialite and a North Dakota cowboy, Near explains that "You become confronted by who you are, and who you've been imprisoned with."

We also got to look at costume sketches by Raquel M. Barreto, and the set model by Erik Flatmo. Stay tuned to this space for a look at those.


* I know, I know--An Ideal Husband's just halfway through its run! But that's what it's like here during the season, a constant looking ahead, balancing one show at the Bruns with one in the rehearsal hall. It's positively dizzying.
** Robert Chiltern is played, in our current production, by Ms. Near's real-life husband, Michael Butler.

Friday, July 11, 2008

High School Drama, by Derek Smith

When I was in high school, we had these daily announcements every morning and it was one of those things that you were sort of forced to listen to. All the teachers made you be quiet during them because heaven forbid you don’t hear that the intramural lacrosse team’s game was cancelled due to lack of participation, or that the M.E.A.T. club (Men Eating Animals Together*) would be barbecuing outside of the commons during lunch. Anyways, as , I was an officer in the drama club (President my senior year, to be exact) so I would always put in announcements for drama club meetings and such. One of the things I will never forget about these daily announcements are two things:

1. They would end EVERY daily announcement with “Have a GRRRRRIZLY DAY!” (We were the Grizzlies.)

2. Every time there was a drama club announcement to be made (like show dates, meetings, movie nights, and national mime day), they would always say “Drama, Drama, Drama…” before following through with the actual announcement. And it wasn’t like “DRAMA! DRAMA! DRAMA!” it was more like “drama, drama dramablahblahblah” type of thing. As if to say “you can stop listening to this if you’re normal.”

Anyways, just a little memory.

On to things of the Shakesing nature…

The two-week camps that I’m heading start on Monday which is really exciting. Like the first day of school! …that you’re in charge of.

I had the parent/student orientation which was really fun, but I never thought that I’d get nervous in front of the parents. I’m usually really comfortable in front of crowds (unless they barricade you in the artistic learning office singing with birthday cake ... THANKS GUYS!), but for some reason I got really nervous, fumbled words and rushed through. Thankfully, Emily Morrison, Artistic Learning Programs and Outreach Manager (who I so lovingly call “Mama Bird") came up and helped me out.

This week of prep work has been really long but the work is definitely going to pay off, and Playbill Radio helps immensely.

See you at camp!!!

Peace and Love,

*Yes, that was a real club. Of which I was not a member. I preferred mime day.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ron Campbell Roams the World

Not even a week after departing the multiplicitous shores of Pericles, Cal Shakes Associate Artist Ron Campbell (left, as Antiochus and below as Cleon) embarked upon the globe-trotting travels afforded him by his Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship recognizing Distinguished Achievement--first to study Mask in Greece and Italy, then to learn physical techniques in Japan, and finally to study Voice in Sweden.

And, being Ron Campbell, he's blogging about it with tremendous aplomb.

Below is just a sample of what you can expect to find on Ron's blog:

"There is something about going on a journey with intent. This is to be a quixotic journey.

Quixotic; fittingly coming from Don Quixote, who inspired me so many years ago when manifested by Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. But the intent, the impossible dream in this case involves the human face. The universal mask. And as I walked the history drenched cobblestones of Dublin and now the whitewashed alleyways and bustling waterfronts of the Greek islands of Poros and Aegina prior to my arrival on Hydra where I will be training, I have begun to see every face, from the grizzled ferryboat worker I befriended to the harried waitress at the Electra Taverna as a mask.

There are two distinct looks I've begun to notice in the people of Greece. Just like the comic and tragic masks that were born here, the men and women seem to me to (through the forces of gravity or hardship or just the salt tinged air) settle into distinct categories. For the men there are two avenues: either they follow the Appian way into what can only be described as a kind of Zero Mostelish jowleyness, thick lipped and liquid eyed, perfect for arguing and debating, or they fold in on themselves in a Spencer Tracy-like gern, a perpetual squint and squeeze around glinty eyes that sparkle with mischief."

We'll continue excerpting Ron's blog in this space from time to time, but we strongly recommend you bookmark (or subscribe to) it to get the whole story.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Elijah Alexander Spills All About Brangelina, Jon Moscone, and the Tawdry World of Working Actors!!

Gotcha. The first preview for An Ideal Husband is tonight, and opening weekend is just a few lovely stumbling steps away.

So our own Lord Goring, Elijah Alexander, sat down for a great interview with Chad Jones. Read the article on Chad's Theater Dogs blog (where, yes, there is a bit of chatter about Angelina Jolie) and get a bit more quotage for your cyber buck in his SF Examiner piece.

Stay tuned for more pictures from last night's dress rehearsal, like the one at right, by Jay Yamada.