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Welcome to the Arden Theatre Company blog, where we share behind-the-scenes stories and current happenings with you. You will hear from the Arden staff as well as actors and other visiting artists, and we hope to hear from you, too. If you have an idea for a topic, please post a comment about it. We can't wait to hear what you think!

opening apasGreetings from Arden Professional Apprentice (APA) Laurel Hostak! Last September, I took my first tour of the Arden buildings, tried out my new set of keys, and—most importantly—met six people who would become my best friends and support system as we embarked on this adventure. Today, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say we own the place. All seven apprentices work in every department, from fund development to production. On any given day we may be selling you a ticket, pouring you a glass of wine, or fixing a faulty snowblower. We know all the nooks and crannies of the building, where to hide your snacks from hungry actors, and, of course, the best places for a quick nap!

One of the most rewarding aspects of the apprentice program is the opportunity to serve as assistant stage manager for one of the Arden’s productions. I’ve been lucky to snag the coveted last-show-of-the-season slot with Michael Hollinger’s Incorruptible, finishing off a whirlwind 10 months in the company of brilliant actors, directors, designers, and technicians. I watched my fellow APA’s go through the rehearsal and performance process, anxiously awaiting my own assignment, and I can’t imagine a more fun show to go out on than Incorruptible. This medieval farce about the mystery of faith has proven itself deeply thought-provoking and uplifting in the final weeks of my season here.

opening incorrStage management is a strange and fluid world. We hover between the artistic and production sides, often serving as liaisons between the show and the rest of the company, caring for the actors, props, and costumes, and facilitating all kinds of unexpected situations. During a recent performance, an actor—Michael Doherty in the role of Jack—cut himself onstage. It was a minor injury, but the actors’ safety is my first priority. Knowing he wouldn’t be offstage until the end of the act, the stage manager, Alec, and I began a madcap scramble to help Mike without stopping the show. We managed to send Josh Carpenter (in the role of Brother Felix) into the fray with a scarf—which he cleverly used as a sweat rag for himself before slyly slipping into the hands of the injured party, who was able to wrap up his cut hand. Meanwhile, I prepared a first aid cocktail just backstage, with Band-Aids, gauze, alcohol swabs, and more, ready to shower Mike with healing gifts upon his exit. The audience was none the wiser. Most days run smoother, without blood or backstage panic, but when crisis strikes, the best person to have on hand is an APA—a trained problem-solver.

As an aspiring playwright, director, and sound designer (you know, the classic triple threat), this experience has been invaluable. Incorruptible not only brought in local playwright Michael Hollinger—who compares playwriting to archaeology (“I know it’s down there somewhere… I just have to dig to find it”)—but gave me the chance to watch master sound designer Jorge Cousineau—who can pull together scraps of wood and wire to create the live sound effect of a guitar breaking—in action, and fostered friendships with Philadelphia actors I’ve been watching onstage for years (I’m still a little starstruck). Such generous artists, under the thoughtful direction of Matt Decker, energized the rehearsal process and the long hours of tech. But the beautiful thing is the realization that I am essential to this process. I have been entrusted with this essential role, and I feel capable.

If you’d like to know more about what we do as Arden apprentices (through a funny, theatrical, sometimes musical lens), join us for the 21st Annual Arden Apprentice Showcase, Fix Your Face, on Sunday, June 22nd at 8pm and Monday, June 23 at 7pm on the Arcadia Stage at the Arden!

- Laurel Hostak, 2013/2014 Arden Apprentice

majeste-sainte-foy

A reliquary of St. Foy

Though the black market in relics depicted in Incorruptible was perhaps exaggerated in scale to serve the storyplaywright Michael Hollinger drew upon inspiration from historical record. Relics, the physical remains of a holy person, were prized in the Middle Ages for their ability to grant miracles. Some relics were passed down through generations, while others changed hands many times. With the demand for relics came opportunists, capable of supplying a relic even when none were to be had.

In an age characterized by war, disease, and draught, one of the few certainties of the Middle Ages was the power relics had to ward off destruction. Caught a mystery illness? Pray to the relic for relief. Late frost endangering the crops? Pray to the relic for a better harvest. A relic was defined by the miracles it created. In fact, even a fake relic could become a real one if it achieved a miracle.

The need for relics was not solely spiritual. Pilgrims would travel great distances to visit a holy relic. A type of tourism, with the influx of pilgrims into a community would come an influx of money. The presence of a miracle-granting relic could prop up the economy of an abbey or a village.

Rarely was a relic sold or given away. So if one was in need of a relic there were two options—buy or steal. Given the finite number of saints and body parts, and the large population in need of miracles, medieval opportunists were quick to see profit potential. In fact, so high was the demand for relics and so rampant were counterfeits in the Middle Ages, that the leadership of the Catholic Church started to issue authentication tags for saints, although the tags were, as it turned out, very easy to forge. A church in Geneva proudly displayed the brain of St. Peter, until one day the brain was moved and was discovered to be a pumice stone. Since forensic science was somewhat lacking in the Middle Ages, if the relic was a real bone, authentication became trickier. The only real way to identify a fake was if someone else claimed to have the same relic, which happened fairly often. The question over which of St. Foy’s remains are the real ones in Incorruptible would not have been unusual. In his classic treatise on the dangers of revering relics, John Calvin, the Protestant reformer, claimed that if all the relics spread out over Europe and beyond were brought together “it would be made manifest that every Apostle has more than four bodies, and every Saint two or three.” The only way to know a “real” relic was by determining whether it had performed any miracles.

Stealing relics was a frequent recourse for those wary of buying fakes. While Hollinger’s rendering of the theft is fictionalized, St. Foy, the saint in question in Incorruptible, was part of a high-profile Dark Ages crime. St. Foy was housed at the monastery of Agen. Lacking any relics of their own, the Abbey of Conques sent one of their monks to infiltrate Agen. According to one legend, the monk ingratiated himself at Agen for over ten years before finally making his move and absconding with the saint back to Conques. Conques quickly began to prosper, attracting enough pilgrims that they soon required a larger church. The monks were quick to point to this sudden windfall as a miracle, proving that St. Foy was happy in her new home.

hollinger pictureIn 1996, the Arden premiered Michael Hollinger play, Incorruptible, directed by Terry Nolen. Next season, the Arden will premiere Under the Skin, its eighth Hollinger play—and the seventh directed by Terry. An excerpt of an interview of Michael by Terry is below

TERRY NOLEN: Incorruptible is the first full-length play I’m aware of that you wrote.

MICHAEL HOLLINGER: I wrote a play that preceded it that I buried after about two or three drafts.It had many interesting things but it did not begin with a healthy embryo.  By contrast, Incorruptible began with a very healthy embryo; the basic idea was sound.  Therefore, the challenge became how to not mess it up, how to realize the basic idea.  This required many drafts, many readings, and two major workshops of the play in order to find its final form.  And so I think of Incorruptible as my apprenticeship as a playwright.  It began as a play where there were no miracles, only shams, and I gradually realized that the play wouldn’t have integrity unless it could comprise the paradox of sham and miracle; only then did it start to fulfill its potential. Because, are there shams in the world? Yes! Are there miracles? Yes! How do we know the difference? When miracles occur, is there causality? What do these inexplicable events mean? I was more interested in the questions than being able to simply write off all miracles as shams.

TERRY: It’s amazing listening to it now how confident your use of language is: your language, your rhythms, how funny it is to hear this play out loud. As you were writing it, stylistically what were you thinking about? What were you trying to grapple with?

MICHAEL: The play began at a time when there were a lot of televangelist scandals going on, and so religion—popular Christian religion—was at a pretty low ebb in America. “All religious leaders are in it for the money” was a kind of public consciousness.  So that’s the kind of world I started writing the play in.

Early on in the writing process, however, I felt that the church figures had become too easy of a target for me, and I felt outside the play, like I was simply judging the characters: “Oh look at these crooks.” And it wasn’t until I started thinking about the integrity of their vision and their mission — really, their high ideals — that the play became interesting to me. And that became a much more intriguing knot to try to untie, and allowed me to identify with the characters and the dilemma that they’re in, rather than judge them.

TERRY: Jumping to Under the Skin. What was the impulse for that? When did you start writing Under the Skin?

MICHAEL: The notion of “when does it start?” is tricky to pinpoint.  For me, a play basically starts when I open a manila folder. Under the Skin began as a folder called “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” and it had nothing in it but the title. I had been putting my daughter to bed one night and the title ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors,’ came to me, and I thought: “I have no idea what this play is, but I like the title, and I’m gonna start a file.” And sometime after that, I encountered an Ethicist essay [Randy Cohen’s New York Times Magazine column] about a father who needed a kidney, and his two children—a son and a daughter—both wanted to be the one to donate a kidney to him, and they were writing to Randy Cohen to figure out how this should be ethically solved. And Cohen suggested maybe a game of “rock, paper, scissors.” And it instantly occurred to me that maybe this unwritten play had to do with organ donation.  I particularly liked the fact that the phrase had three words in it, that there were three personages involved in this conundrum, and that rock, paper, scissors  is a game of dominance where each player has something over the others, and I thought, that’s a really cool dynamic for a play. I gradually came upon more information over time about kidney transplantation and the way it gets incredibly complex within families. And so, I started to begin to understand the play as a family issues play—or, if you will, a family tissues play….

I’m not usually a fan of conventional family plays – too much whining about the past! – but as I started thinking  of this one as a family play, I realized that there was a present-tense problem that needed to be solved and the clock was ticking — if it’s not solved, a guy dies. And so I found it a really high stakes, very tangible way of looking at family issues.

TERRY: Our audience will have just seen Incorruptible when they read this. How do you think the themes of the plays are connected? Or are they?

MICHAEL: They’re both about body parts. [laughter.]

TERRY: Exactly! Correct.

MICHAEL: I am always interested in the baser matter, and the way that high spiritual ideals — love, creativity, faith — are always brought down to Earth, and how human beings muck about with very tangible things in their quest for these higher values. So, in Incorruptible, there’s that tension between the loftiest spiritual ideals and the fact that we need to make money in order to stay afloat and do the good deeds. In Under the Skin this notion of filial love and parental love gets messed up, complicated by “I need an organ!” So I do think there is a link that way.

TERRY: How about—I’ve never asked you this—what’s your relationship with faith?

MICHAEL: It has, as for many people, evolved over the course of my life. I was raised in a family where both my parents were refugees from Protestant upbringings, and therefore we didn’t attend church.  But Bible salesmen or Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the front door, we were instructed to say that we were “Protestant” and that “we don’t go to church but we believe in God.” That was the party line.  By the time I was a teenager, I was a pretty devout atheist, as many teens are. I wasn’t rebelling against my family background; I was pretty much consistent with my family background. But my mom got involved with AA when I was 15 and it shook our entire house, not just because she was achieving sobriety, but because she was finding a very clear spiritual source there that made everybody in the family wake up to the notion that there might actually be something more, that a spiritual realm was available to us. My dad then went and did the est training, and so did I, and my sister and mom And this began for me a kind of intellectual quest to sample a lot of religious stuff: I read the Baghavad Gita and I visited churches, I meditated—just kind of a general seeking, which lasted for years until I became acquainted with the Society of Friends through my wife Megan who was teaching at Abington Friends School, where my children attend, and began attending Quaker meeting and eventually joined Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting. Now I’m a very light Quaker — I attend meetings rarely — but I do have a very strong affinity for Quakerism because it is non-authoritarian, because it is non-dogmatic, because the congregation is asked to bear the responsibility of the religious experience. I think one of the reasons I have always felt cranky about most religion is that it involves a group of people facing in one direction while one person is saying “here’s what the nature of reality and faith is,” and I always felt too uppity about that. So that’s where I currently am at. I consider myself a kind of perpetual seeker, and I guess more Quaker than anything.

A great irony in my life is that I wrote this play [Incorruptible] about an irreverent minstrel who winds up being taken in by the Church, and this sort of mirrors my relationship to Villanova University, where I teach. Here I am, this irreverent theatre guy, who’s been brought into the fold of a Catholic institution, and whose function may well be to poke it in the side every now and then and generate laughter. It’s very funny to think of.

OlgaPhoto 11
Responsible.
Assured.
Nurturing.
Tired.

Olga Prozorov is the oldest sister at 28 when the play starts; she is the matriarchal figure. She starts the play as a schoolteacher, a job she doesn’t love. By the end, she has reluctantly taken a job as headmistress of the girl’s school. Olga is a spinster and often bemoans the fact that she never married, which is one reason she encourages Irina to take Tuzenbach’s offer of marriage.

Will Olga eventually find happiness in her work?

Three Sisters Photo

James Ijames (Tuzenbach) and Mary Tuomanen (Irina). Photo by Mark Garvin.

Dear Audience-

At intermission of our Thursday night preview, I overheard a young man say “Chekhov is like an old time reality show.” I couldn’t agree more.

When I was a student, I had a professor who insisted to the point of zealotry that teaching plays as text destroyed the ability of students to appreciate them. While I’m not a complete convert—some plays read very well on the page—I do agree that often teaching dramatic literature with the text alone is a little bit like teaching architecture using only blueprints.

Reading Chekhov can be particularly challenging. Aside from the clear barriers of time, place, and language, Chekhov’s fascination with human behavior requires readers to constantly keep a running list of idiosyncrasies in their head. His famed use of subtext requires readers to pick up clues in dialogue about what’s going on inside character’s minds without the luxury of descriptive paragraphs and point-of-view narration that novels possess. Even the well-informed catch themselves saying “Now who is that? And they are secretly in love with whom? That guy? But they’ve never even had a scene together!” Boasting large ensembles, the plays can be tricky to navigate, especially for readers in search of a clear plot and story arc. The result? Chekhov has been written off by generations of high school students as ‘boring.’

This is where performance becomes necessary. It can be hard to find an emotional connection to the textual version of ‘Baron Tuzenbach,’ but it’s easy to feel for actor James Ijames as Tuzenbach when he covers his embarrassment over a friend’s bad behavior. On the page, Irina’s desire to work feels pseudo-Soviet (though Chekhov was writing before the Revolution). When playing Irina, however, Mary Tuomanen speaks with the naïveté of a recent college grad who thinks there’s an easy answer to her dissatisfaction with her life. There might be hints of the coming Revolution in her words, but when her speech is given an actor’s voice, Chekhov’s deep ambivalence about Irina’s solution emerges. On the page she seems certain, on the stage, it’s more complex.

It’s been a pleasure taking you inside the rehearsal room, and whether you are reading these before or after seeing the production, I hope you feel you’ve gotten a glimpse behind the curtain. Happy Opening Night!

Sincerely,
Sally Ollove

Photo 4Irina
Bright.
Idealistic.
Determined.
Naïve.

Irina Prozorov is the youngest sister at 20 years old at the beginning of the play. Irina’s only desire is to go back to Moscow, which her family left when Irina was very young. When it is uncertain if they will ever return to Moscow, she reluctantly marries the Baron Tuzenbach. Irina idealizes the idea of work and dedicates herself to work and service.

Will Irina make it back to Moscow? What will happen to her marriage with Tuzenbach?

MashaPhoto 6
Smart.
Witty.
Seductive.
Dangerous.

Masha Prozorov is the middle sister, about 21 years old at the beginning of the play. When she was 18, she married her teacher with whom she was madly infatuated. She thought her teacher, called Kulygin, was the most intelligent man in the village; however, her love and passion for Kuygin has since faded and she is now extremely unhappy in her marriage. During the play, she falls in love with Vershinin, a Lieutenant-Colonel who commands the local artillery battery.

Will the seductive Masha stay in her marriage or run off with Vershinin?

 

 

rehearsal by candlelightDear Audience-

I am writing to you from deep within tech—the period in which we add the technical and design elements in one marathon week. Actors work 12 hour days (including some breaks) and designers and crew work even longer. Most of that time is spent in a dark theatre, waiting, broken up by moments of feverish activity. If you’ve ever seen behind-the-scenes footage of a film or TV shoot, when the cameras stop rolling and the crew descends on the performers and set, then you’ve had a window into tech.

Even in the middle of the day tech has the feel of a late night. It’s painstaking and grueling, which makes it even more rewarding when something works. It feels earned. You start to see the performance take its final shape. And there is a massive group effort to keep spirits high. Actors, unsurprisingly, are great at this.

Here are some snapshots I observed from our tech week:

-Becky Gibel, waiting to enter at the top of act 2 with a candle dancing backstage.

-Jake Blouch (Fedotik) got a haircut that was the talk of the green room. Everyone who came in commented on it. Becky was so eager to compliment him that despite having a mouth of food, she attempted to mime her approval.

-Scott Greer (Chebutikin) kept designers and his castmates entertained with a complicated ukulele dance while the crew worked out the best way to move furniture between acts.

-Scott Greer, Mary Tuomanen (Irina), Katharine Powell (Masha), Dan Ison, Abby Perelman (resident green room teenager and daughter of TD Glenn Perelman), and Becky Gibel sitting around the green room table having a lively and wide-ranging conversation about: evolution, obscure South American tribes, matrilineal mammalian societies (whales, elephants, etc), whether dolphins have possessions, a strange trip to a Southern zoo, and whether babies should unionize.

-Scott Greer and Jake Blouch sizing up each other’s fantasy baseball teams. They had their league draft the night before. Both are optimistic.

-Four month old Henry Riggar, Production Manager Courtney Riggar’s son, propped up on the green room couch, looking thoughtful. Just one of the guys!

-Alison Roberts (Wardrobe Supervisor) holding the ‘opposed’ side in a debate about the merits of Billy Joel.

During a run of the show, I was once again reminded of the relevance of Chekhov when we got to this line of Masha’s: “I’m sick of winter. I’ve forgotten what summer feels like.” Hopefully we’ll be closer to Spring next time I write. I hear we’re getting a wintry mix on Monday, though. In the meantime, first performance for audiences tonight!

Sincerely,

Sally Ollove
Three Sisters Dramaturg

Dear Audience-

_2014-02-04 16.13.57Yesterday, we said goodbye to the rehearsal room in the Hamilton Family Arts Center and moved to the Haas stage. On our final night in the rehearsal room, we put all four acts together for the first time in what is called a “designer run,” in which the play is performed for the costume, set, light, and sound, and video designers so they can start to figure out how they can best serve the production created. As the sun set and the sky outside the windows darkened, the characters exposed their raw emotions and rough edges to heartbreaking—and sometimes guffaw-inducing—effect.

2014-02-07 12.09.44One of the most exciting revelations from the designer run was the effect of the music the cast has been working on almost since day one. Under the guidance of composer James Sugg, they learned Russian folk songs, accompanying themselves on an orchestra’s worth of instruments. Among our actors we have a cellist, two guitarists, a bassist, an auto-harpist, a ukulelist, a flautist, and no less than three accordion players.

The music does more than just provide an excuse to work some Russian language into the performance. It provides a necessary release from the tension bubbling inside the characters, each a sleeping volcano, capable of eruption at any moment. The music also reminds the audience that Chekhov’s writing is itself a kind of symphony. Each character has their theme or motif—“I want to work,” “I love my wife,” “The future will be happy”—that floats in and out of the larger symphonic tapestry of the Prozorov home. There are crescendos and diminuendos, scherzos and solos. Some of them resolve, and some of them don’t, but like a great symphony, Three Sisters gives you a microcosm of the human experience so eloquently and beautifully that if you sit back and really listen, it will take your breath away.

Sincerely,_2014-02-07 12.11.13
Sally Ollove
Dramaturg
Three Sisters

 

 

A Few Inspirations from Three Sisters Costume Designer Olivera Gajic

A Few Inspirations from Three Sisters Costume Designer Olivera Gajic

Dear Audience—

Designs for the physical life of the production are moving ahead. We’ve begun “loading in” (building the set, adjusting the light grid, etc). Costumes are also underway. Much like the way having a character stand instead of sitting can say a lot about a person, costuming also impacts character, so small choices at this stage in the rehearsal process can really make a difference in how a character is perceived.

As a case study, I sat in on Becky Gibel’s costume fitting for Natasha with Olivera Gajic, the costume designer, and Alison Roberts, the Arden’s costume supervisor. The first act of our production starts in a contemporary rehearsal room before shifting to more traditional looks. For this act, Olivera brought some shiny maroon pants and killer suede boots for Becky. Pulling on the boots, Becky commented “I love that she [Natasha] is a little more contemporary because she’s the one moving forward.” From what I saw, even when in more nineteenth century inspired looks, Natasha’s costumes are all bold, inspired in part, I’ve been told, by a Serbian pop star.

Then Olivera pulled out a couple of robes options for Natasha. The question comes up: does Natasha put on the robe for the first time in Act II or III? In Act II, Natasha wants to cancel a party due to start soon. Is she the kind of person who is in a robe when she raises the possibility of canceling the party or is she already all dolled up in party-wear? A small difference, but an important one as it indicates the amount of control Natasha perceives herself to have. Ultimately, Terry will make this decision with the collaboration of Becky and Olivera, but these are the kinds of questions the costume designer grapples with while designing. Chekhov himself understood the power of costuming to tell a story, writing extensively detailed letters about costuming to members of the Moscow Art: “You wear the tailcoat only in Act I; as to the bandolier, you are quite right. At least until Act IV you should wear the uniform such as it was before 1900” (Chekhov to Aleksandr Vishnevsky who originated the role of Tuzenbach). Olivera carefully takes pictures of each costume piece, encouraging Becky to strike a “Natasha pose.”

GRACE GONGLEWSKI in 'A Little Night Music' in a robe designed by ROSEMARIE E. MCKELVEY

GRACE GONGLEWSKI in ‘A Little Night Music’ in a robe designed by ROSEMARIE E. MCKELVEY

One of the robes Olivera is considering as an option for Natasha was the vintage silk flowered robe that Grace Gonglewski wore as Desiree in the dressing room scene in A Little Night Music. Olivera pinned and played with tightening the sleeves and maybe adding detail for Natasha. Meanwhile, an Act IV look for Natasha might incorporate Desiree’s red dress, with a different shape to the sleeves. Along with props, we often repurpose costume pieces from one show to another—what works in one grand late 19th century house might work in another, as long as it suits the characters.

As Becky finished her costume fitting, Scott Greer arrived for his. He explained that in a community like Philadelphia, in which theatres often rent costumes to one another, he sometimes wear the same pair of pants at two different theatres—the pants travelling with him from the Arden to the Walnut Street Theatre, for example. It’s not even unusual in the film industry—check out www.recycledmoviecostumes.tumblr.com to see how Hollywood shares costumes from one film to another.

Are there costume pieces you remember from previous Arden productions you would like to see return? Or a way you would costume one of the characters from Three Sisters? Share in the comments!

Sincerely,
Sally Ollove
Dramaturg for Three Sisters

Read Part Two
Read Part One

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