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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!
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Jessica M. Johnson in the First Rehearsal for THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE.

by Jessica M. Johnson

November 2, 2016

So… Let’s begin.

I love rehearsal. More specifically, I love Day One.  “Day One” of rehearsal is more than just putting emails, and names to faces, it is about beginning a journey; it is an opportunity for a room full of designers, and directors, and actors, and every creative entity you can imagine, coming together and coming to agreement.  And what do we agree on?…

The job: We agree to work diligently, problem solve, celebrate, and keep moving forward.   Ultimately, We agree to create and to create with people we may have never met, using a text dreamed up by a person we may never meet.

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[L-R] Jessica M. Johnson, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Matteo Scammell, and Damien Wallace in the first rehearsal for THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE.

I find that magical.

Sitting down to hear a play, with all its players present and on the edge of their seats, listening and learning new things that anyone can miss while reading the play alone is like starting to paint. Reading the text together is just like sitting palette prepped, brushes set, clean water poured, and easel unpacked. No one knows exactly what is be painted, how a line will be delivered, or where a laugh may land, but we are present and ready to discover, we are ready to put brush to canvas and work.

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Read Jessica’s previous post, Watercolor: An Actor’s Journey.

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Jessica M. Johnson as Jo and Matteo Scammell as Casey in Arden Theatre Company’s production of The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo by Mark Garvin.

by Jessica M. Johnson

October 17, 2016

The Legend of Georgia McBride actress Jessica M. Johnson muses on the transformative process of storytelling.

What makes a show a show? Is it the text, the people, the props, the concept, the space, the light, the execution? I think on any given day what makes a play a vibrant, interesting story requires a lot of elements, but the magic of the theatre: why we still return to this ancient form of expression constitutes further personal exploration.

Ok, this will seem strange, but it is true. I see and read shows in colors. And, yes, perhaps it is all the costumes and shades of eye shadow, the shine of thousands of sequins that has heighten synesthesia. Regardless of the impetus of these sensations, please take this journey with me.

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Jessica M. Johnson as Jo and Matteo Scammell as Casey in Arden Theatre Company’s production of The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Theatre, however you choose to define it, is like watercolor.  Each color, its level of saturation, the brushstrokes, colors running together to create something new and unexpected – that process is what I believe makes a production.

When we finish and take a step back to observe the work, when we rinse away the mess we’ve made, when the paint finally dries on the canvas, what we’ve created is one (hopefully) cohesive, honest, expressive work.  But I don’t think that’s the best part. My favorite part of all this, what we can easily miss in the midst of the “finishing the work”, is the journey of the canvas itself.

The canvas: a blank slate, a tabula rasa of sorts is what makes it all worthwhile: meeting your cast mates, being introduced to new ideas, learning the space, or simply addressing the stranger before a show begins. We not only witness, but experience the physical metamorphosis of a plain, flat, unassuming space.

Jessica M. Johnson as Jo in Arden Theatre Company’s production of The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Jessica M. Johnson as Jo in Arden Theatre Company’s production of The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Transformation.

The Legend of Georgia McBride, for me, is a journey of transformation.  We laugh, we cry, we move to the beat, we dip our brush into the work, and dab a bit of love, a broad stroke of laughter, and we begin to paint our story.  I hope in the weeks to follow you will join us.

Grab a palette, whatever color suits your temperament, bring your brush, you open your heart and join us.

Lets paint together.

 

Read Jessica’s next installment, Blank Canvas: Rehearsal.

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Dito van Reigersberg as Miss Tracy Mills in Arden Theatre Company’s production of The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez and directed by Emmanuelle Delpech runs now thru Nov. 27 at The Arden Theatre Company on the Arcadia Stage. Tickets: Call the Box Office at 215.922.1122, visit www.ardentheatre.org.

 

by Domenick Scudera, M.F.A.

Professor of Theater, Ursinus College

10.9.2016

One of the perks of being an Arden Professional Apprentice (APA) was taking acting classes with one of the Arden’s founders, Aaron Posner.  Aaron’s class was lively and eye-opening.  If you struck a false note in a scene, he would call you on it.  For instance, if your character was trying to get out of the room, he would ask, “Are you actually actually trying to get out?” The lesson: acting is doing, not pretending.

Today, over twenty years later, I am a theater professor at Ursinus College and I find myself challenging my acting students with this same “actually actually” phrase.

I joined the Arden team after receiving my MFA in theater.  I was a part of the first class of APAs back in the 1993-94 season.  Although not a formal part of my education, my year at the Arden felt like an extension of graduate school.  It was here that I learned the most about the craft and the business of making theater.  I was surrounded by top-notch administrators, designers, technicians, and performers.  Expert actors like Greg Wood and Grace Gonglewski were employing the tools I was learning in Aaron’s class night after night in Aaron’s production of Man and Superman.  Through their performances, these actors were teaching master classes in acting – actually actually bringing the characters to life.

23 years after Man and Superman was produced, I brought my Ursinus theater students to see the Arden’s most recent production, Stupid F**king Bird.  I am teaching a course in Ursinus’ new Philadelphia Experience program. Students are living in the city for the semester and Philadelphia is their classroom.  Each week, we see a different show at a different theater, allowing the vibrant theater scene in Philadelphia to offer its lessons to us.

Returning to the Arden was a full-circle moment.  Stupid F**king Bird is written and directed by Aaron Posner and stars Greg Wood and Grace Gonglewski.  All these years later, my students were learning from the same master teachers who had taught me.

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Ursinus students attend “Stupid F**king Bird” at the Arden.

It was no surprise to hear the characters in Aaron’s play asking each other if they “actually actually” were feeling their feelings.  This phrase, used once as a teaching technique, is now a life lesson: are we living in the present moment?  Are we “aware of the now” (to borrow a phrase from theater giant Robert Edmond Jones) or are we just pretending?

Stupid F**king Bird is a mature work created by mature artists.  It is thrilling to see Aaron, Grace, and Greg, some twenty years later, still at the top of their form, still making art that is both engaging and challenging.  We have all aged a bit since we first worked together in 1993 (well, except for Grace, who is still impossibly beautiful and must have an aging portrait in her attic somewhere) – and the years have produced profound and thought-provoking work.

In the play, some of the characters bemoan the fact that the world has gotten meaner, that we lack connection and shared humanity.  But you have to look no further than the Arden itself to find examples of kindness.  After the performance, Greg and Grace met with my students and shared their experiences of being Philadelphia actors and dedicated artists. They were as warm and gracious as ever.

The Arden has been supportive of my career since I first walked through its doors. It is because of the Arden that I have my job at Ursinus.  Someone on the Board of Directors at the Arden knew someone on the Board of Trustees at the college – and recommended me for a position back in 1997.  I have been at Ursinus ever since.

The characters in the play repeat the phrase, “We are here,” reminding each other (and us) to be present, to feel our feelings.  As I watched, I thought, yes, we are here: me, my students, these artists, this audience.  I am actually actually here. And I have the Arden to thank for my past and for this present moment.

 

 

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Aaron Posner talks Chekhov, truth, and his role as playwright and director of his (sort of) adaptation of Stupid F**king Bird.

  1. What prompted you to adapt Chekhov’s The Seagull?

I love Chekhov and The Seagull. But the truth is… it is old and no longer speaks directly to our lives as I am sure it did a hundred and ten years ago. That does not make the play invalid—but it does make me eager to see the brilliant array of issues and complexities and relationships he crafted dealt with in a more immediate, more present manner. Look, there is no doubt: Chekhov was a great, great genius. And he has been copied, emulated and imitated by every playwright and screenwriter since he wrote. But his work—which once was radical—is now the ultimate in old fashioned and traditional.

With STUPID F**KING BIRD I was interested in seeing how I could make his stories of heartbreaking humanity a little radical again. I wanted to share my personal, current response to his masterpiece and see what would happen if I played in his playground… but on my own terms. That exploration turned into STUPID F**KING BIRD.

  1. What is it about Chekhov’s stories that are universally relevant?

They tell big stories about the small movements of our hearts and lives. His territory is territory we all recognize. It is full of everyday dilemmas and crises. What if we don’t get the person we love to love us the way we need them to? What if our family is driving us insane? What if our work fails to express our inmost souls? What if we can’t get what we truly feel we need to make us happy? These are the questions he is asking. And I think nearly everyone can relate to these kinds of questions in one way or another.

  1. When you began adapting STUPID F**KING BIRD, how do you know what to keep? What to change? What to cut?

I didn’t “keep” anything, per se. While my play is built on the bones of Chekhov’s play, there are no words from his play in my play. The characters and situations are certainly recognizable, but the characters are more like cousins, maybe, of the original characters in The Seagull. It is Chekhov’s playground, but it is my play. I use his amazing play as a jumping off place, but I wrote the scenes I wanted to see and explored the characters I was most interested in. The characters and moments that I did not find compelling I let slip away. I let go of all the things that felt of another time and place. I wrote only about those things where I had a strong personal connection and something to really say.

  1. What are you listening for when you hear a draft of your script read aloud for the first time? The second time? The third time?

The same things I am listening for whenever I hear a script, whether it is a new play by someone else or a classic like Shakespeare or Chekhov or Shaw: It is true? Is it clear? Will it take us on an engaging journey? Is the story being told worthwhile? And is the stage the right place to tell this story in this particular way? Those kinds of thing…

 

Photo: Aaron Posner (center) listens to the first read through of "Stupid F**king Bird," with actor Dan Hodge (left) and Assistant Director Jesse Bernstein (right).

Photo: Aaron Posner (center) listens to the first read through of “Stupid F**king Bird,” with actor Dan Hodge (left) and Assistant Director Jesse Bernstein (right). Credit: Rebecca Cureton.

  1. This is the first time you’re directing STUPID FUCKING BIRD. What are the challenges to directing your own play? 

It feels more like opportunities and pleasures than challenges. When I started to write this play I was determined to write a play that I would want to see. So while I have now seen this play maybe a dozen times at different theatres and with different casts and creative teams, I am still interested in it. Which is a very good thing… But mostly, I am loving what this exceptional group of actors and designers are bringing into it. They are sharing their own minds and hearts and spirits… and that is making the play utterly fresh again for me. When a play is trying to tell the truth about real things—and the artists approach it with real courage and generosity of spirit—then you have the possibility of something special happening on stage. This great group of artists is doing exactly that in a most wonderful way and I think we’re going to have a great production.

  1. People either love or hate the title of this play. The Arden audiences overwhelmingly love it (and so do we!), especially those who are familiar with Chekhov and The Seagull.  How do you address those who are offended by it?

For better or for worse, I have not met many of the people who don’t like it. Maybe they just don’t want to talk to me! I am very sorry if I am offending people with language, but at least I have not hidden it anywhere. One thing I like about the title is it lets people know in no uncertain terms what kind of play they are going to see. If you don’t want to hear colorful language or are not comfortable with passion and nudity and adult complexities of life… than this is, perhaps, not the play for you.

  1. Chekhov reveals his insightful observations of humanity in his characters with the hopes that his audiences would reach self-awareness and recognize their own folly and foibles. In your adaptation it is the characters who grapple with self-awareness. Did you approach this script with the goal to use this meta-theatrical convention and directly connect the actor to the audience? Or was that a happy unintentional coincidence of the process?

I am acutely interested in the actor/audience relationship, and this play seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore the boundaries of this key theatrical relationship. Because both The Seagull and SFB [Stupid F**king Bird] are partially about theatre (and new forms of theater specifically), I chose to explore things that might make this play a new form of theatre in and of itself. To be clear: I make no claim that SFB is entirely new or radical… but it is pushing on some theatrical boundaries in new and hopefully effective ways. It is exploring the actor/audience relationship in ways I have not seen done before, and it is bringing a playful, game-playing sensibility to the stage.

And yes, the journey of self-discovery and self-expression is more immediate and on the surface in my play than in Chekhov’s. He is WAY subtler than I am. But then again, subtle is hard and he is a far better writer than I will ever hope to be.

Some have said I have my characters speak all the subtext or inner thoughts of his characters, and there is some truth to that. But the fascinating truth is… no matter how much subtext you speak—no matter how much you try to say everything you are thinking or feeling, no matter how transparent you think you are being—there is always more underneath. We are all onions… layers and layers and layers.

Photo: (L-R) Cindy De La Cruz as "Nina" and Aubie Merrylees as "Con" in "Stupid F**king Bird." Credit: Rebecca Cureton

Photo: (L-R) Cindy De La Cruz as “Nina” and Aubie Merrylees as “Con” in “Stupid F**king Bird.” Credit: Rebecca Cureton

  1. What advice would you give to a young playwright interested in adapting classics for a contemporary audience?

Tell the truth. Be courageous and generous. Be smart and get good people on your team to help you. Figure out what you love about the work you are adapting, what you have to say to it, and what it has to say to you. Then give it your best shot!

  1. What insights have you learned from working on this play as a playwright? As a director?

Writing this play has changed my life and career in a number of wonderful ways. I wrote it in the full expectation that no one—or nearly no one—would ever produce it. I knew the kind of play I wanted to write, but I didn’t know if anyone would want to do it or see it. But it turns out– they do! I wrote it impulsively and without compromising, so I guess one big lesson would be that that can be a good thing. I wrote it without worrying about who would produce it—or even if anyone would produce it and that gave me a kind of freedom. And I wrote it to be the kind of play I wanted to see, and finding out that others want to see the same kinds of things I do has been very empowering.

 

"Stupid F**king Bird" runs September 15- October 16. For more information or tickets, visit www.ardentheatre.org or call the Box Office at 215.922.1122.

“Stupid F**king Bird” runs September 15- October 16. For more information and  tickets, visit www.ardentheatre.org or call the Box Office at 215.922.1122.

By Najyha and Isabella

The Arden gives away books every year to students who participate in our Arden For All elementary arts education program. At the end of the year, we have extra books left over that we need to give away to make room for the next season’s new books.

For the past two weeks, WorkReady Summer interns, Najyha and Isabella have been searching for a new home for extra Arden For All books. We wanted our books to go to a place where children who need a great story can read them. We discovered the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s (CHOP) has a book program called Reach Out and Read. After speaking with Kiersten Rogers we decided that CHOP was the perfect new home for our books.

We packed up all our books and prepared them for transport. On Wednesday, August 3rd, Kirsten came to the Arden in her Reach Out and Read van and picked up our books. Kiersten explained how difficult it is for CHOP to get donations during the summer and how grateful she was for our contribution. This project was a highlight of our summer because the gift of a story will touch the life of every child who receives a book.

For more information on CHOP’s Reach Out and Read program, to help, donate, or volunteer your time HERE, or call 215-590-5989.

Isabella & Nakyha drop off books at CHOP!

Isabella & Nakyha drop off books at CHOP!

“Serving the Score” by Ryan Touhy, Music Director for The Secret Garden

 “Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see”

– Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George

Ryan Touhy, Credit: Niki Cousineau. Passion, 2015

Ryan Touhy, Credit: Niki Cousineau. Passion, 2015

The Secret Garden marks my 6th musical at the Arden. I’ve had the great fortune during my time to work on a world premiere (Tulipomania); two Sondheim’s (A Little Night Music, Passion); a Pulitzer Prize winner (Next to Normal); and a musical with a Tony Award winning Best Original Score (Parade).

What keeps me interested in returning each season is 1) the material chosen is always first rate – The Secret Garden is no exception, with a Tony Award winning Book and a much loved, iconic score – and 2) the Arden’s dedication to making each musical they tackle a “new” production. “New” meaning that the production is conceived and crafted specifically for the Arden’s audience and artists to experience and tell the story in a completely unique way. As part of the creative team that works on bringing these musicals from the page to the stage, my goal as the music director is to serve the score through the new lens from which we are viewing our production.

Ryan Touhy at the first rehearsal for The Secret Garden.

Ryan Touhy at the first rehearsal for The Secret Garden.

Let me break it down by the numbers for some context:

In 1991, The Secret Garden opened on Broadway with a cast of 23 actors and a 24-piece orchestra. At first glance, what makes the Arden’s production “new” from a musical perspective is that we’ve reconfigured the show for a cast of 15 actors and had new orchestrations rendered for a 9 piece orchestra, with two additional orchestra members added at specific points in the score by 2 members of our cast. This is commonly viewed as a reduction of the original production. For me, when you reduce the size of a cast and orchestra, you are increasing the importance of the players you have to tell the story – each person is that much more crucial to the successful execution of the material. It also calls for some creative problem solving.

We started making decisions musically for the production over a year ago, when we began casting the show in February of 2015 (we finished casting in March of this year). The selection of each actor, for a musical that has large ensemble sequences, dramatically impacts where I utilize their voices in any given moment based on their skill set. For instance, in the opening sequence of the show, which includes large ensemble numbers such as “There’s A Girl Whom No One Sees”, “The House Upon the Hill” and “I Heard Someone Crying”, the score clearly specifies which character sang each harmony part in the original Broadway production. With the new given circumstance that I only have 15 actors available to me (less than all the characters delineated in the score) I began solving a puzzle – how could I reconfigure each section in the score with multi-voice harmonies to suit the strengths of our cast without sacrificing the musical integrity of the score?

I spent 3 months prior to our first rehearsal considering where each actor would fit to make the music have the same visceral effect as it would if 23 actors were singing. These decisions are made alone. Usually in my bedroom. Usually late at night. These early decisions are initial hunches I have about which actor would serve the score best on any given line of music. Many times those hunches prove to be true once you are in the room with the real people but there are plenty of times where they don’t work out as you may have heard them in your head. Time is then spent in the rehearsal process tweaking and refining those decisions to better serve our actors and the production (we made musical adjustments all the way up to the final afternoon rehearsal the day of our opening performance).

This timeline­­ for how much musical consideration is given in advance of being in the room with actors and musicians may come as a surprise but I would venture to say that for every minute spent in a rehearsal room with actors or musicians making music, there’s probably 4 times as much preparation we do alone as music directors giving careful consideration to how we can best serve the score. Making music feel expressive and effortless takes a lot of time.

Ryan Touhy’s work desk for The Secret Garden

Ryan Touhy’s work desk for The Secret Garden.

The amount of consideration I gave to what makes the most musical sense for this production was coupled with giving equal consideration to what makes the most dramatic sense as well. Terry, our director, was very much interested in viewing the production through the lens of Mary Lennox. Terry, Niki (our choreographer), Amanda (our conductor) and I sat down prior to rehearsals and mapped out how our decisions musically could have resonance dramatically – what would happen if we had a character or a certain combination of characters connected to Mary’s past sing a line of text in this given moment, how could that resonate with her or with us or how could that strengthen the relationships in the story. Sometimes these choices matched what was already specified in the score, many times it was a new way into the material.

Much of my time in rehearsals, beyond the initial teaching of the score’s skeletal structure (the notes and rhythms of everything the actors sing), was dedicated to bringing clarity to the communication of the musical text (the lyric). I’m obsessive about words. Every sound counts as it can have emotional resonance for both the character and the audience. Every consonant gives us the action of the word; every vowel gives us the emotion. I started a self-funded campaign in rehearsals called “No Sound Left Behind”. I wanted every word to be heard – no exceptions.

A score for a musical is meticulously crafted and honoring what is on the page is always a high priority but there are times where you will encounter decisions that were made musically for an original production that don’t necessarily serve your group or production. An example of this is tempo (the rate of speed a piece of music is played). In a dramatic sense – tempo is the rate of speed at which a thought is voiced. We took a great deal of time discovering what was the most effective rate to voice a thought in every moment of each song. Tempo is delicate because it affects breath, both of the actor singing but also of the musician playing. The rate of speed can be good for the actor but can sabotage the orchestration in any given moment so finding the balance of both worlds is an exciting creative challenge.

We brought together a remarkable group of actors and musicians for this production. Their appetite for precision, openness to try every possible musical configuration to find the most effective choice and the joy they bring to singing and playing this music brings a fresh perspective to the score. You are hearing the score for The Secret Garden in a completely new way that won’t be heard again.

Ryan Touhy conducts a music rehearsal for The Secret Garden.

Ryan Touhy conducts a music rehearsal for The Secret Garden.

 

by Patrick Ressler, Videographer

 

Every night, I have the privilege of watching The Secret Garden up close. Very close. With a video camera, I capture the world beneath the stage—a 360 degree turntable filled with miniature sets made of paper and other finely crafted materials. Throughout the show, we see Mary’s imagination flourish in a world of paper dolls and pop-up books. This conceit led co-conceivers Jorge Cousineau and Terry Nolen to the idea of filming miniature sets live and projecting the images onto a large screen onstage. As the turntable spins, the audience travels with Mary on her journey from India to England and, finally, the Secret Garden.

In "The Secret Garden", a large screen projects live video from the camera filming a turntable below the stage. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

In “The Secret Garden”, a large screen projects live video from the camera filming a turntable below the stage. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

From behind the camera, I think of myself as a storyteller filming the world as Mary remembers it. The world of miniature sets is childlike and playful. At times, the audience can see someone’s fingers in the shot, opening a gate or closing windows. Like a doll’s house, each detail has been carefully crafted to look realistic—down to miniature sconces that light the hallway. A large team of people worked to build the tiny sets, including Scenic & Video Designer Jorge Cousineau, Model Assistant Alicia Crosby, Props Master Chris Haig, and Props Intern Scott McMaster. Every second of video represents the hard work of the set, props and lighting departments.

The camera captures a shot of India.

The camera captures a shot of India, one of many miniature sets on the turntable below the stage.

My favorite moment of video storytelling is our first arrival in Colin’s room. During a storm, the camera travels down a sconce-lit hallway to a foreboding door. As the chorus swells, we see a hand open the door to reveal a bedroom with lightning flashing in the window. Onstage, Mary sees Colin for the first time. In these moments the video becomes a dramatic presence, adding suspense to the onstage action.

Live video is filmed beneath the stage. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

On the right, live video of miniature sets is captured beneath the stage. Pictured: Elisa Matthews as Lily Craven and Bailey Ryon as Mary Lennox. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

A lot of thought and energy goes into every moment of live video. For each movement of the camera, I’ve memorized specifics of how I’m moving the camera unit, panning the camera, zooming, focusing and the speed/duration of all these functions. I’m also thinking about specific moments in the music where my movement will begin and where it will end. With more and more performances under my belt, the specifics of this choreographed “dance” have become fun and familiar.

I’m grateful to be a part of the large team of people who put hard work into each moment of The Secret Garden. When it was time for our first preview performances, I was struck with just how personal and intimate it felt to invite an audience to this show. It felt like we were inviting people to come into our home and explore every room. The orchestra, crew, cast and creative team poured their energy and passion into this project—and for me, it has made The Secret Garden a much more relatable human story. From my seat, I watch Mary find belonging and empowerment every night and lend a hand to create her world. In The Secret Garden, magic is close enough to touch.

By Brian Bembridge

In 2003 I was introduced to Arden Theatre Company, because we were bringing a show called Hard Times from Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago to the Arden. Lookingglass is a company that Terry Nolen admired and supported while he attended Northwestern University with several members of the Lookingglass company back in the day.

I was still new to Lookingglass and Hard Times was my second design with the company in their regular season. I had designed two other productions outside of their standard season, which was how I met Doug Hara, a now consistent collaborator of mine who recently directed Metamorphoses and is now appearing in Stinky Cheese Man as Jack.

Hard Times, Lookingglass Theatre Company, 2001

Hard Times, Lookingglass Theatre Company, 2001

I was mostly working in Chicago, so it’s funny to look back at heading to an unknown theater. I remember missing a flight to Philadelphia for tech, so I was a hysterical disaster, worried I would get fired. Flying is just a commute today; sometimes I fly in and out of Philly, Louisville, or Atlanta in one day just for a meeting.

Hard Times, Arden Theatre Company, 2004

Hard Times, Arden Theatre Company, 2004

The staff back then is a little different from the staff today, but it is family here Arden. And yes sometimes we disagree and argue over silly things, but in the end it’s FAMILY.

I was designing lights for Hard Times, directed by good friend and Lookingglass Artistic Director Heidi Stillman. We were excited but nervous as we were out of our element in this new city, this new theater. I was fortunate enough to meet Glenn Perlman, the amazing Technical Director here at the Arden. We hit it off immediately, and today he is a good friend. He and his wife Alison Roberts, the Costume Supervisor, and Courtney Riggar, the Production Manager, are family among many others here. Arden Founders Terry Nolen, Amy Murphy, and Aaron Posner (emeritus) were and continue to be thoughtful at cultivating this family at the Arden.

I kept in touch with Terry after I left Philadelphia when email was still young, and he always took the time to respond. Five years later I got a call from Matt Pfeiffer (who recently directed Funnyman), someone who is now family, asking if I would design Go Dog Go; of course I would! Matt and I didn’t know each other but we knew of each other; it’s a great thing about theater. The people you meet and the friends you make are better than your best design. They ground you.

Go, Dog, Go, Arden Theatre Company, 2008

Go, Dog, Go, Arden Theatre Company, 2008

I was picked up at the airport by an apprentice named Scott, his name will come up later, and was dropped off into a theater full of love and laughter and excitement, and this was a show for younger kids. I learned some, I taught some. It was a beautiful experience.

I came back to design Romeo and Juliet with Matt, with whom I would design a fabulous production at Theater Exile the following year. Next came sets and lights for Cat and the Hat, Beauty and the Beast, Macbeth, Funnyman, and one of my most proud theatrical experiences in 20 years, Metamorphoses. This was the first show I experienced at Lookingglass when they premiered it in 1999: a show that said theater is not just a stage, a show that had the same designers as those on Hard Times. Designers that elevated me, that taught me the ropes, that shared their truths in theater. It was a show that brought me full circle with Doug Hara directing, whom I met designing sets, lights, and costumes for our four person Hamlet at Lookingglass.

Romeo and Juliet, Arden Theatre Company, 2010

Romeo and Juliet, Arden Theatre Company, 2010

Our team of artists, designers, craftsmen, technicians, and actors blew the walls and ceiling off the Arden. What everyone gave every night was above and beyond any other show I have worked on. The care and trust and love was felt when one entered into the theater. It will never be forgotten.

Metamorphoses, Arden Theatre Company, 2015

Metamorphoses, Arden Theatre Company, 2015

All of this history brings me to show TEN. Ten shows is a lot for a punk artist who doesn’t live in the city in which the theater inhabits (although I want you to know I feel part of this community, whether they want me or not). I have a mass of thoughtful friends, family, and artists. I even told this to the Mayor one night as I was having dinner in Northern Liberties. I was having a beautiful dinner with the chef at Fernando’s when he walked by us to use the restroom. I had to stop him on his way back to his table with his wife to say thank you. I put out my hand and grabbed his shoulder and thanked him him for supporting the arts in Philadelphia. I reminded him we had met in Chicago at Chicago Ideas Week a few years before where I had thanked him previously. He had no idea who I was, but his eyes perked up when I said “Arden”. We talked for a minute, and I said I’m sorry and didn’t want to keep him. He thanked me and finished his dinner. They waved on their way out. (A side note: the other Mayors walked out the side doors with security, but this Mayor walked out through the lobby, on his own, without any security, and that spoke to me as to who he is as a human.)

 

Show number ten: Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. So fitting and an honor to revisit the show that honestly shifted family theater at the Arden in 2006, originally designed by my friend Matt York, a brilliant designer.

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2006

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2006

So remember Scott, the apprentice who picked me up at the airport on my first trip back to Philadelphia, in this long telling of my life here? Well this actor, friend, and artist, is THE Stinky Cheese Man among many roles in this incarnation. What I love about theater, about the Arden, about Philadelphia is that it all comes full circle more than you think.

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2016

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2016

I am now on a plane commuting once again. A place where I get to collect my thoughts. A place where I look at theories of life and love and art. I left Philly only two weeks ago and I have already opened a show and I’m in tech for another. This is the life designers lead. Seven day weeks are so very common.

This show has been a gift of laughter and absurdity for the director Matt Decker and myself. Theater is a gift and a giving art that all ages should see and share. Thank you Arden Theater Company. Thank you Terry and Amy. Thank you Glenn and Alison and Matt and Chris and Courtney.

Here’s to ten more!!!

Xoxo Brian B.

By Bryant Edwards

Sometimes sets can be simple, other times we have to create an imaginative fairytale landscape out of recycled materials. But where do these ideas come from? Here’s what the Arden’s Production Manager, Courtney Riggar, has to say about the concept behind the set:

“We wanted to create a show where this rag tag group of people came together to tell a bunch of stories, and we were immediately inspired by First Friday in Old City.  Artists from all over just basically squat somewhere and make art.  So we thought, what if this particular group squatted on our Arcadia Stage on top of the set that was already there from our last show?  How would they make a show?  Would they just use the stuff that they found lying around?  Would they raid the Arden’s recycle bins, props storage, etc?  Then our Set Designer, Brian Bembridge found a picture of a bunch of green bottles grouped together that almost looked like grass (below), and we were off!  We began raiding our recycle bins for plastic bottles, and drinking lots and lots of ginger ale and sprite….and thus begins the journey of the plastic bottles.”

The inspiration for Set Designer, Brian Sidney Bembride.

The inspiration for Set Designer, Brian Sidney Bembridge.

But we weren’t done!  Let’s find out exactly how we turned these recycled bottles into the standout set piece of our production of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales

First, we collected as many green soda bottles as we could over the course of a few months.

the bottom of a collection bin of soda bottles

The bottom of a collection bin of soda bottles.

Once we had a stockpile, we carefully peeled all the labels off and used a band saw to cut the bottles to size. Some we cut in half vertically, while other we just trimmed off the top.

Props Intern, Scott McMaster, trims the bottles.

Props Intern, Scott McMaster, trims the bottles.

After all the bottles were cleaned and trimmed, we painted most of them various shades of green, the remaining bottles we left unpainted.

The painted bottles, drying on the paint deck.

The painted bottles, drying on the paint deck.

The next step required a piece of plexiglass that was cut to size by the Arden’s Technical Director, Glenn Perlman. We carefully laid out all the bottles (as well as some egg cartons and paper towel rolls) on the plexiglass to determine what pattern looked best.

Props Intern Scott McMaster organizes the bottles.

Props Intern Scott McMaster organizes the bottles.

After we figured out the best pattern, we hot glued the bottles in place.

Arden Professional Apprentice, Kevin White, hot glues everything down.

Arden Professional Apprentice, Kevin White, hot glues everything down.

Finally, we put the finished piece up on the set and…VOILA! We have a fairytale landscape ready to go.

The final product! Set Design by Brian Sidney Bembridge.

The final product!

 

By: Jacqueline Matusow, Teacher-Librarian, Media Elementary School

I have lots in common with Jon Scieszka (rhymes with Fresca), author of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.  He loves NY pizza and pasta of every shape.  So do I.  He was born in early September.  So was I.  He loves to write funny books.  I love to read funny books.  Also, I love Fresca soda.  But mostly, as a children’s librarian, I love to make my students laugh.  The Stinky Cheese Man always does the trick!

Scott Sheppard as Actor 5 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Scott Sheppard as Actor 5 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ok.  This is the perfect place to insert a Giant Thumbs-Up to the illustrator, Lane Smith.    I once shared the Caldecott Honor-winner without reading the text- just the whimsically nefarious illustrations.  I didn’t actually measure the level of student engagement- nothing scientific like that.  But I can report that the laughs came just as often- and just as loudly.  As I recall, the principal poked her head in.  I blamed the kiddos.  They blamed the book.

If you asked me, “Why do you love this collection of goofy, sarcastic parodies of classic stories, I would have to say, it’s the whacky characters and their stories, such as “Cinderumplestiltskin; Or the Girl Who Really Blew it.”  (Yep.  No fancy ball for her.)  Maybe, “The Princess and the Bowling Ball.”  (I like a prince who knows what he wants.) OR, maybe it is that bacon and olive cheese man (AKA, The Stinky Cheese Man- who isn’t nearly as cute or tasty as The Gingerbread Man.)   Actually, I think it’s that pesky Little Red Hen.  (You never know when she’s going to jump in and kvetch.)

Since I couldn’t decide, I surveyed students, Kindergarten-Grade 5, to tell me why they love The Stinky Cheese Man.  Here’s a sampling:

Kindergarten:  “They weren’t the real stories, but they were funny!”

Leah Walton as Actor 4, Scott Sheppard as Actor 5, Doug Hara as Jack, Ashton Carter as Actor 3, Rachel Camp as Actor 2 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Leah Walton as Actor 4, Scott Sheppard as Actor 5, Doug Hara as Jack, Ashton Carter as Actor 3, Rachel Camp as Actor 2 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Grade 1:  “They were all funny.  I think it was because some of the characters were dumb.  Like the Cinderella who wouldn’t talk to the stranger who just wanted to help her.”

Grade 2:  “The Giant was funny.  He wasn’t mean.”

Grade 3:  “Those stories have the funnest names.  I got that joke about The Tortoise and the Hair!”

Grade 4:  “No one lives Happily-Ever-After!  Or if they do, they cheated to get there.  Now THAT was funny.”

Grade 5:  “The end papers!  The title page!  The dedication!  They’re hilarious!”

I still think it’s the hen.

©2009 Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. For tickets, call 215.922.1122.
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