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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!

Matt Pfeiffer in rehearsal.

Philadelphia director Matt Pfeiffer brings the Bard to the Arden Theatre this spring. Not only is Pfeiffer directing a unique and vibrant production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but he is also teaching a masterclass in Shakespearean acting.

His master class for Arden Drama School will be held on Feb. 18 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The class is offered for students in grades 9-12. Each student enrolled will get an opportunity to work on their own portion of Shakespeare’s text. This series is a great opportunity for young artists to gain insight into the exciting process of creating work at a regional theatre.  Students will examine how Shakespeare’s text works and Shakespeare’s cannon in order to discuss themes and ideas and examine why they still matter.

For students considering attending the master class, Pfeiffer said that having a general familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays would be most helpful. If there is a particular scene that you are interested in, please bring it with you.

If you think Shakespeare is daunting, Pfeiffer has this tip: “Because it is poetic language Shakespeare’s text often feels like it’s beyond our grasp. We tend to deify Shakespeare as a playwright and treat his text as something other than human speech. When in fact, getting to the truth of the character’s intent, like all basic acting, is still what matters most. Hamlet instructs the players; ‘Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.’ So when you think of Shakespeare, think about the action. What does the character want? Why do they have to do it now? These are actually the same root questions we ask in all of acting, but with Shakespeare, because the language is daunting, we tend to skip over these core questions.”

Matt Pfeiffer enjoys the costume presentation.

On directing Shakespeare, Pfeiffer says, “My main interests lie in getting these plays back in the hands and spirits of actors. I’m more deeply interested in being in conversation with the history of these plays and how Shakespeare’s company would’ve worked on them. No designers, no director, no rehearsal really. This is the environment Shakespeare wrote for. So while we’re not repeating it, I remain committed to working in spiritual conversation with that craft. That’s a long way of saying, I try to strip these plays down to something essential. To show the audience our company and our process.”

Alex Bechtel in rehearsal.

Thus, his production of Midsummer will feature exposed costume racks, prop tables, dressing space, furniture, and musical instruments and original compositions by Alex Bechtel. Utilizing other Shakespeare texts, he and the actors will collaborate to create the soundscape of this magical world.  Pfeiffer says, “I’d like to try it with ingenuity and openness. There’s no flying by Foy or magic by Teller. But there is us. And the text. The hope is to find the magic in that text and in our souls.”

About Pfeiffer

Pfieffer, who directed Bruce Graham’s Funnyman with us last season, has also directed for Theatre Exile, The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Brat Productions, Walnut Street Theatre, Delaware Theatre Company, Bristol Riverside, The Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Lantern Theatre, and 1812 Productions. He has been nominated for 11 Barrymore Awards, of which he won 2.  He attended DeSales University, the home of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. He has worked there for 18 seasons and has professionally directed and acted in over 20 productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Dates:

Director Master Class Series – Matt Pfeiffer: Acting Shakespeare

Saturday, February 18, 2017

10:00 AM- 1:00 PM

Enroll: http://tinyurl.com/j2mc8z6

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

March 2- April 9

Tickets: http://tinyurl.com/hy8tlfg

Photo of the “Midsummer” cast by Ashley LaBonde.

Nancy Bolkin as Mertis, Jing Xu as Jenny, and Meehan as Elias

Annie Baker’s John explores the lives of three colorful women and the men that have impacted them. Much like the ghosts of Gettysburg, men haunt Jenny, Genevieve, and Mertis in unique ways. Though only one of these men is onstage, they have a weighted, constant presence.

Elias Schreiber-Hoffman, played by Kevin Meehan, is the only man present. Meehan says, “I’m proud to be a part of a story where I’m the odd man out. Personally, it’s something I’d like to see more of in the theatre.”

Meehan as Elias and Xu as Jenny

Jenny Chung, played by Jing Xu, and Elias come to Gettysburg for a weekend of tourism, but it is quickly revealed that their relationship is in as much danger as the once war-torn battlefields were over 150 years ago. As Elias leaves to go to the sites alone, Jenny remains at their bed and breakfast, nursing menstrual cramps and adding to their tension.

During the play, Elias is experiencing withdrawal symptoms from coming off of Cymbalta. Specifically, he is experiencing “brain zaps,” a sudden feeling of electricity to the brain and disorientation. While researching other symptoms, Meehan said that Cymbalta withdrawal also has effects such as headaches, mood swings, and insomnia. He says, “All of that definitely plays into the behavior of Elias. Ultimately, it clouds his thinking and increases his paranoia.”

Meehan as Elias

Elias has many anxieties throughout the play. His most unique is a fear of birds. He says, “If a pigeon get too close to me I get very weird. A rat is somehow considered dirty. But a bird…people romanticize birds.” However, most of his paranoia lies in Jenny. As given circumstances reveal, Jenny had an affair, ended it, and they are now trying to mend their relationship. Elias questions her acceptance of his Jewish culture, fidelity, and if she has a subconscious hatred for him. He says, “At times like this the fact that you tell me that you don’t have very very deep wells of rage towards me is so obviously um laid bare as a huge whopping lie.” It is, however, her cell phone that causes the most paranoia. Jenny says that she is talking to her sister, but Elias is never able to fully trust her. The possibility of another man remaining in her life hovers over bed and breakfast.

Meehan says that his experience with Philadelphia stars Nancy Boykin and Carla Belver has been fantastic. “I’m inspired by them every day. I don’t remember being intimidated to work with them; mainly curious to see how we all fit together in this story and how our working dynamic would shake down. So far I’m really enjoying the ride and look forward to see everyone’s lovely faces when I come to work everyday,” he said.

Carla Belver as Genevieve, Meehan as Elias, and Boykin as Mertis

Like Jenny and Elias, Genevieve and Mertis have their own hovering ghosts. For Genevieve, she has felt this experience literally. She says, “I was convinced that my ex-husband had taken possession of my soul and that his spirit was trying to destroy me.” For a while, she was in an institution trying to remove him, his judgments, and thoughts, from her body.

Belver as Genevieve and Boykin as Mertis

Mertis’s experience involves her husband lingering offstage. George, her husband of 13 years, is sick with an undetectable illness. Though he never comes onstage, Mertis busies herself with distracts to keep from the thought of his death. She is also haunted by the memory of her first husband. She says, “I should have gone. But I stayed. And then he died.” His death set her free from her unhappiness, but now she faces the fear of repetition with a man she loves.

John portrays the intimacies of romantic relationships and friendships, challenging the characters and audience at their core. It questions how we connect to each other, our spirituality, and what exists in the air around us.

 

Buy tickets to John by Annie Baker, playing now through February 26.  For the Box Office, call 215.922.1122.

Boykin as Meris Katherine Graven in John

Meet Nancy Boykin, an actress who has stolen stages across the country for more than 30 years. Boykin has made a career in Philadelphia performing at the Wilma Theatre, Theater Horizon, Flashpoint, and at the Arden Theatre Company. She has taught theatre at Villanova University, Cal State Fullerton, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and Temple University. She is also a supporter of PlayPenn, a conference devoted to the development of new plays. Keep scrolling to learn about her career and roll in Annie Baker’s newest play John! 

Tell us a story about the beginning of your career. Your first audition, your first show, etc.

I entered undergraduate school at the University of Richmond, in Virginia, I intended to major in Mathematics and Piano. That plan lasted about one semester. I dropped the Math major when I bumped up against Physics, I couldn’t make AC/DC currents make sense and got my first ‘C’ ever. I’d always loved music and was a decent pianist, but sitting in a practice room for hours turned out to be much too solitary. I turned to English Literature and had the privilege of taking a Dramatic Literature course. The professor excited us by linking our reading to live performances, and I was hooked. Shortly thereafter I auditioned for a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author – I only had a few lines, but I was so enthralled with the play and the process that I came to every rehearsal, whether I was needed or not, just to watch.

Boykin and Kevin Meehan as Elias Schreiber-Hoffman in John

I had the good fortune of being cast in a production of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window in my final year at Richmond and a director from the Arena Stage in DC came down to guest direct for a few days. My character, Iris, needed to lash out in the play, using a few ‘choice’ words to do so. Being a ‘good’ Southern girl, I apparently was not making those words very believable. So, he asked me to stand on the edge of the stage and ‘let him have it’ over and over until I was so frustrated and angry with him that the words finally became truthful. Ironically, my first professional job was at the Arena Stage in an ensemble role in Once In a Lifetime and my first professional touring job came from that same director who had tortured me in college.

Certainly, one of my more memorable audition stories came shortly after I received my MFA in Acting at the University of North Carolina and had just arrived in New York City. I was doing all kinds of jobs to pay the rent – temp work at Newsweek and in law offices, working on audition material in my spare time. I got called in by the Public Theater for a production of Henry V in Central Park – presumably because I had sent them a card from graduate school the year before. I came into the audition prepared with a piece from The Winter’s Tale and expected to be seen by some casting assistant. I was ushered into the very large stage space at the NY Shakespeare Festival and sitting two rows from the back was Joseph Papp –an icon at that time. He was directing. My piece went well and he asked me to sing – not expecting this, I sang ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ – an old spiritual.

Meryl Streep and Paul Ryan Rudd in Henry V

I returned to my ‘temp’ office and late in the day checked my answering service – please call the Shakespeare Festival. The casting director said “We would like to offer you an ensemble role in Henry V and to be the cover for Meryl Streep in the role of Katharine. I had just seen this Meryl Streep in Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton and thought she was excellent. I excitedly said “Thank you so much” and was about to hang up when the casting director said, “Don’t you want to know how much you are getting paid?” I walked home from the law office job to my studio on 76th Street, New York suddenly looked like Oz and the sidewalks no longer felt like hot concrete on my feet. I was floating.

Was there a point in your career that you considered changing paths?

Oh yes!!! Many times. Probably the major impetus for thinking about a change was the exhaustion of trying to maintain an acting career while working at ‘job jobs” to pay the rent and raise a son. I think, too, that there are times when we, as artists, begin to believe that our work is getting tired and mediocre, that it isn’t growing, or we see a performance that is so humbling that we want to throw in the towel. I did find that teaching became a great supplement to my acting work and made it easier to say ‘no’ to certain theater opportunities. What else would have interested me? Well, art and music, had I had the talent for it, but I have learned that I should probably stick to looking at paintings and listening to music rather than trying to do it myself.

What was the high point of your career?

Boykin and her husband, Dan Kern

I would probably have to say working on Sean O’Casey’s beautiful anti-war play Juno and the Paycock, directed by my husband, Dan Kern. It was an inspired production, done is a small space at the Interact Theater in Los Angeles. The wooden floor of the set, the well-worn costumes and the sausages cooking on the open fireplace created a very real world for the audiences and the beautiful language of the play was very accessible in the small theater. The production received critical notice and both Dan and I were nominated for the LA Drama Critics Circle Award. We dressed up for that evening and were thrilled to both receive the awards together that night.

How have you seen roles for women change since you began acting?

Probably the biggest change in ‘roles’ for women has come from the fact that there are more female playwrights now than there had been when I started out. And these writers are creating roles for women who are stronger, more diverse and sometimes more controversial – all good things. Certainly we are seeing more individual and complex female characters and moving away from the ‘girl next door’ and ‘the ditzy blond’. Writers such as Annie Baker, Gina Gionfriddo and Sarah Ruhl are working to find a voice for complicated and fully realized female characters.

Why Philadelphia? Why have you stayed here for so long?

Actually, unlike many of the actors I know in Philadelphia, I haven’t been here that long – since 2000. My early career took me to Washington, DC, then New York (and many regional theater jobs elsewhere), Los Angeles and finally, Philadelphia. We have stayed here because the city has such a wonderful theater community, so many and varied professional theaters, has a thriving inner city life and is just a very ‘real’ place – it is certainly not LaLa Land. Dan and I appreciate the diversity of the city, we enjoyed our years of teaching at Temple University where the students and faculty were exceptional and were happy to find a place where our son could go through the public school system.

Boykin and Kern in Endgame at the Arden Theatre Company in 2013

In John, there is a strong presence of female identity and struggle. What have you latched on to? What part of this story do you think is most important for representing women onstage?

John is a remarkable play in so many ways – one being that there are women from three generations sitting on the stage together sharing their truths and bouncing off of each other. Probably the section I most appreciate is Genevieve’s wonderful monologue to the audience. It is clear that this is a woman who struggled through a terrible marriage and who was repressed by a domineering husband. She is now beyond that and has found a way to ‘stand in the center of her own universe’. What a victory that is – not just for women, but for everyone. And Mertis, too, has moved beyond the ‘bad dream’ of her first marriage. She is now able to live her own life, to reach outward to be a ‘giver’ and take ownership of her own eccentricities. These two women are happy sitting in the universe.

How do you connect to Mertis? What about her is similar to you?

Having been raised in the South, in a rather conservative environment, there are a lot of things I feel belong to me that also belong to Mertis. I grew up around many women who were ‘givers’ and who knew how to be a good hostesses. They were also positive spirits – trying to keep conversations and interactions positive, rather than negative. I feel my mother’s presence in the role. Every time I come down the stairs at the beginning of the play I feel my mother’s rushed step to open the door to visitors. I’m not sure that I as eccentric as Mertis, but my husband says I am.

Mertis and Genevieve have a deep, trusting relationship. Has it been easy to recreate that with Carla Belver?

Boykin and Carla Belver as Genevieve Marduk in John

What a joy it has been to be able to work with Carla. I have admired her work for years, but this has been
our first time doing a play together. For me, there was an instant connection. Carla is so open and truthful about herself and so honest in creating Genevieve that this has been one of the easiest connections to access in the play. And I feel certain that as a result of our work together and sharing the dressing room, we will be friends for life.

What does it mean to you to have a show with two older women being represented on stage?

Carla and I have both commented on what a joy it is to be working on a play with two older women –because it happens so seldom. I mean, how many times can you do Arsenic and Old Lace or Mornings at 7? So, playing our longtime friendship, our shared secrets, the mysteries that we understand as older (possibly wiser) characters is refreshing. I think I’ve been close to death about 6 times in plays in Philadelphia – it is wonderful to working on a hopeful, spiritual character who is positive and, yes, very much alive!

Mertis asks “Do you ever feel watched, Jenny?” Have you ever felt watched?

This is a tough question to answer simply. I wouldn’t be able to say that I feel ‘watched’ in the traditional sense and I surely wasn’t watched by objects or dolls. But I have felt the presence of those who have gone, encouraging and maybe comforting me. I’ve felt a mystical presence standing in a stone circle in Ireland and while walking on the stones near the ancient Anasazi dwelling in Bandelier, New Mexico. Fortunately, I don’t feel watched by any negative, controlling forces – and if I ever did, they no exist for me. Aren’t I lucky – standing in the center of my own universe?

Boykin in John

The award-winning Arden Drama School program includes some of Philadelphia’s finest theatre professionals. Learn more about our Teaching Artists for 2017’s Winter Session. 

Madison Auch graduated from The University of the Arts in 2014 with a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre, and has since been working in Philadelphia as an actor, musician, and teaching artist. Madison worked as the Assistant Director for the Arden’s production of A Year With Frog And Toad, and recent acting credits include Martha understudy in The Secret Garden (Arden), Alcyone understudy in Metamorphoses (Arden), Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights, and Ilse in Spring Awakening. She is also a co-founder of In Cahoots Theatre Company, and is currently in the process of creating a new musical adaptation of a classic children’s story. In the past few years, Madison has taught students ranging in age from preschool through late high school, and enjoys being able to teach skill development and encourage creativity in acting, music, and movement. Having grown up as a military kid, Madison was exposed to many different theatre organizations and companies across the country, and believes that the arts were essential in the development of her creativity, social skills, and imagination. She is thrilled to be able to introduce and develop these skills through games, activities, and performances in the next generation of artists. Madison believes strongly in the transformative power of theatre, and aims to cultivate an enthusiasm for art and storytelling throughout all of her classes. (Classes: Musical Theatre K-2 (Lead teacher), Musical Theatre Jam: Frog and Toad K-2)

Terry Brennan is the artistic director of Tribe of Fools theatre company. He has directed the critically acclaimed Antihero, Two Street, and Armageddon at the Mushroom Village as well as appearing in Zombies… with Guns. In 2015 Terry led Tribe of Fools to the finals on TruTV’s hit show Fake Off season 2. He has been on 5 national tours with Enchantment Theatre Company and served as company road manager for 3 years. He has also worked with The Arden Theatre Company, BRAT Productions, Simpatico Theatre Project, The Berserker Residents, EgoPo Productions, and Curio Theatre Company.  He is an acrobat and parkour athlete and a certified parkour instructor through PPK Academy. Terry currently teaches parkour and children’s circus classes at the Philadelphia School for Circus Arts. (Classes: Acting 9-12: Process and Performance)

Tara Demmy is a Philadelphia-based comedian, theatre artist, arts administrator, and teacher. She has trained in comedic improvisation at Second City Chicago, the Upright Citizens Brigade NYC, and Philly Improv Theater where she performs regularly. Tara graduated from Helikos: International School of Theater Creation in Florence, Italy where she trained in Lecoq movement-based theatre under the direction of Giovanni Fusetti. She teaches at Arden Theatre Company, Wolf Performing Arts Center, St. Peter’s School, and Philly Improv Theater – as well as working as an improv director and teaching workshops in clowning. She is a company member with Tribe of Fools, a Philadelphia-based physical theatre company. She is a writer and performer with Philly sketch group Mani Pedi. www.tarademmy.com. (Classes: Improv 101)

Jordan Dobson is a junior at Temple University where he studies Musical Theatre and Acting.  Aside from his academics, Jordan assists in teaching the dance audition for Temple’s Musical Theatre auditions.  He also served as the dance captain for The Merry Widow at the Boyer College of Music and Dance.  He has performed with the Arden Theatre Company, Act II Playhouse, Mauckingbird Theatre Company, and other Philadelphia companies.  Favorite roles include: “Paul” in Kiss Me Kate, “Melchior” in Spring Awakening, and “Charlie” in Brigadoon. Jordan’s strong dance background has allowed him to teach and choreograph for many students in the Philadelphia area.  Jordan is very excited to be back teaching at the Arden this season! (Musical Theatre K-2, Musical Theatre Dance K-2 and 3-5)

Emily Fernandez is so excited to be teaching at Arden Drama School for the Winter Session! After receiving a BFA in Acting from University of the Arts, she stuck around and is a proud Philly-based artist. She loves being able to help her students find their unique voice through exploration of their boundless imaginations. 

(Classes: Acting K-2: Section 2
MLK Play in a Day)

 

Gina Giachero is excited to be back teaching at the Arden! She has been involved in musical theater education for over 10 years and has worked with students from 1st grade to college level. She is a freelance music director and accompanist in the Philly area, working with numerous companies such as 11th Hour Theatre Company, Upper Darby Summer Stage, The Walnut Street Theatre, and more. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Temple University.  Along with being a harpist, she is proud mama of her 7 year old son, Milo, who helps keep in her the loop of what’s “hip to the scene” with the kids these days. Milo continues to be embarrassed by his mom when she uses words like “hip to the scene.” (Classes: Musical Theatre 6-8: Fundamentals Musical Theatre 9-12: Technique)

TJ Harris is excited to return to Arden Drama School for his 3rd year as a teaching artist. TJ is a Philadelphia-based musician, theatre artist, and educator. He received his Bachelor of Music in Music Education from Mansfield University where he studied the trombone and instrumental music studies. A recent graduate of the Arden Professional Apprenticeship at Arden Theatre Company, TJ just celebrated his Philadelphia music directorial debut in this past Fringe Festival with Bryant Edward’s The Vs. Series, music directing, arranging, and playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the fight round entitled Miley vs. Mozart: An Epic Poperatic Smackdown. TJ recently closed The Carols with 1812 productions, a new holiday musical, for which he was the Music Director and played a limping piano-player named Teddy. TJ is looking forward to serving as the Assistant Director of the Arden’s upcoming production of Gypsy. In addition to the Arden’s educational programs, TJ also serves as the Stage Manager and Fall Play Director for the Bala Cynwyd Middle School theatre program in the Lower Merion School District. TJ enjoys using songs, musical underscores, and movement to enhance his students’ theatrical experiences. A pianist and trombonist for over 15 years, TJ has also served as a musician for groups such as 11th Hour Theatre Company, Philly Performance Network, Quintessence Theatre, Philly Heart and Soul, and the New Voices Cabaret. TJ is looking forward to writing and telling new stories and making lively music with all of his Arden Drama School students. (Classes: Musical Theatre 3-5 Bookworms)

Matthew Mastronardi first came to the Arden as the Assistant Director to Anne Kauffman for the world premiere production of The Flea and the Professor. Soon after, he was hired as a teaching artist here at the Arden, and has been working as such for nearly six years now. Matthew has also taught for Drexel University, Walnut Street Theatre, 11th Hour Theatre Company, People’s Light, and Wilma Theater. While not teaching, he is a Philadelphia based actor/musician. He was last seen at the Walnut Street Theatre in A Child’s Christmas in Wales, where he also served as the music and vocal director for the production. Some of his favorite acting credits include: Ted in Peter and the Starcatcher (Walnut Street Theatre), Barber/Housekeeper/Cellist in Man of La Mancha (Act II Playhouse), Bunthorne in Patience (Theater at Monmouth), Mr. Fezziwig/Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol (Walnut Street Theatre), and Sir Hugh Evans in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare in Clark Park) just to name a few. Soon Matthew will fly to Italy to appear in another production of The Merry Wives of Windsor with Teatro delle Due, this time as Sir John Falstaff. While in Italy, he will also help conduct workshops about the production and Shakespeare to local high school students. Matthew holds a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre from the University of the Arts. And he is a proud member of the Actors Equity Association. (Classes: MT Jam 3-5: Frog and Toad)

Maura Roche is a scenic designer, scenic painter, craftsperson, teaching artist, and marketing professional in the arts and culture sector of Philadelphia. Regional scenic design work includes designs for Theater Horizon (Lobby Hero, Into the Woods, Circle Mirror Transformation, Spring Awakening, I Am My Own Wife, …Spelling Bee, and more),11th Hour Theatre Company (See What I Wanna See, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, The Bomb-itty of Errors, The Winter Wonderettes, Altar Boyz), Act II Playhouse (Behind the Music: Holiday Tunes, Murray the Elf, On the Road Again, Mark Twain Unplugged, Making Spirits Bright, and more), Walnut Street Theater (Ethel), Ursinus College (God, Death Knocks) and others. With a passion for teaching and education, Maura helped develop and grow the Autism Education Outreach Program at Theatre Horizon, has taught for over 5 years with the Arden for All program in Philadelphia and Camden public schools, and for a number of theatre and arts summer camp programs throughout the past 10 years. Now, Maura spends her weekdays as the Marketing Manager at the Franklin Institute—painting, creating, and teaching in her free time. In a class with Maura, expect to collaboratively discover creative solutions to challenges, to let your imagination take flight, and to explore the ways in which you can bring a vision in your head to life! (Classes: Puppet Making K-2, and 3-5)

Jenna Stelmok is a Philadelphia-based freelance artist with a diverse background in theatre, spanning both performance and production work. She holds a B.A. in Theatre Performance from Northeastern University and has lived in Philly since 2012. Jenna has been the Acti
ng for K-2 teacher since 2013 (formerly Storycrafters). In addition to the Arden, Jenna teaches acting and playwriting for other organizations such as The Walnut, Philly Young Playwrights, and St. Peter’s School. She also works as a writer and production/stage manager, is a hiker, musician, soap and candle maker, and loves practicing yoga. All of these experiences blend together to make Acting for K-2 one of her favorite classes from start to finish. Working with students to develop actor tools, write plays, craft design elements, and come together to create a finished project is a fantastic experience, and one that she looks forward to sharing! (Classes: Acting K-2: Section 1)

Arden Drama School’s Winter Session begins Jan. 14 thru March 4, 2017. Want to learn more about Arden Drama School and all of our programming for grades  PreK-12? Visit us online at www.ardendramaschool.com

Returning to Old Friends

by Jessica Celli

I had just turned four when I saw my first show at the Arden, A Year with Frog and Toad. It was my Christmas gift from my aunt and uncle, packing a van full of cousins and driving down to the winter children’s show at the Arden is now a tradition, and it all started with this show. Being four, I had no idea what was going to unfold before my eyes. I remember climbing into my seat and my feet not even touching the ground. I didn’t know what to expect when I sat and looked at two houses illuminated by stage lights. It was enchanting to watch, things came from the ceiling, and people came from under the floor! My four year old self was enchanted by this magic. I fell in love with theatre that day, and I haven’t looked back. I see multiple shows at the Arden every year. Now I’ve became a performer myself. I wanted to learn all of the magic, and make people feel exactly as I had.

Seeing it again was wonderful. I hadn’t even remember a lot about the show until the first song had broken out, and I began to also sing along, like I had seen the show yesterday and not twelve years ago. I brought my boyfriend and dad to see this production. Our first Arden experiences were the same show, just twelve years apart. Even being nearly seventeen and fifty five, they were just as captivated as I was all those years ago. The oldest of three younger brothers, my boyfriend knows the Frog and Toad stories by heart. He was bouncing in his seat when the cookie scene started. It was his favorite story, and he was so excited it was included in A Year with Frog and Toad.

 

A Year with Frog and Toad runs thru Jan. 29. Buy tickets online at www.ardentheatre.org, or call the Box Office at 215.922.1122.

A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD actor Steve Pacek reflects on his experience as in Children’s Theatre as an actor and director.

One of the first acting exercises in one of my first acting classes in college was to tell a children’s story.  We had to select a book from our childhood and bring it to life…playing every character, enacting every wild moment.  I chose The Day Jimmys’ Boa Ate the Wash and I couldn’t have been more excited!  I had always been super interested in getting to explore characters that are as different from myself as possible–the way they walk, the way they talk, how I could get my body to look completely different–it fascinated me.  I had to play a boa constrictor, every farm animal imaginable, Jimmy, his sister, a grandma, and a cow that some of my friends still ask me to do to this day.  We had to find a way to give ourselves permission to make the biggest, boldest choices while remaining true to the story–that was the purpose of the exercise.  That and be as entertaining as possible!  No small challenge.  But it was one that I gladly accepted.  And though I might not have realized it at the time, that children’s story exercise was laying the foundation upon which I’d build an awesome career in the years to come…

Flash forward a handful of years and I get cast in my first Arden Children’s Theatre show, Franklin’s Apprentice, in 2004.  In that show, I played William Franklin, the son of Benjamin Franklin.  Although my character was relatively normal (a human being, that is), our director, Aaron Posner urged us to really dig into the adventure in the story–sibling rivalries, family arguments, standing up for what you believe in, flying a kite in a lightning storm!  And it was in rehearsals for that piece that I was given a direction that I am still trying to figure out how to do to this day: to sit without sitting. Think about that for second…

After Franklin’s Apprentice, my next Arden Children’s Theatre show was the one I still get stopped on the street and asked about the most…If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  So many people seem to remember that show so vividly and always ask, “You were the mouse, weren’t you?!?!”  That’s also the first show I got to work on with the director, Whit McLaughlin.  It was a masterclass in physical theatre and clowning.  Whit would have very specific ideas and choreography mapped out for me and Davy Raphaely, who played the boy.  But he would also give us some time to go and create some of our own bits, taking what we were learning and applying it on the spot.  That was the first time I realized how scientific and mathematical comedy is.  Through repetition, I learned how slight changes in the pitch of my voice or the tilt of my head or the length of a pause effects how the audience responds.  This was also the show that I learned the importance of not reaching for the laugh.  There was a scene where Mouse was trying to reach the milk in the bottom of a big, over-sized glass.  He would stick his whole face in the glass and try to reach down to the bottom with his tongue.  This would always get a laugh during rehearsals and during the first couple of previews, but then the laughs started fading.  I asked Whit why that was happening and he offered me some advice that was so simple, yet so profound…”Reach for the milk, not the laugh.” I had started playing the moment for the laugh instead of the the truth  of Mouse’s intention to get the milk at the bottom of the glass…

Next up was The Borrowers, again with Whit.  The challenge this time would force me to draw on my training of creating many different characters with voice and movement work.  I played a handful of characters from a friendly handy-man, to a ferocious, miniature Tarzan, to a delightfully silly long-lost cousin.  How do you make it look like you’re moving on water on a dry stage?  How do you have a battle with a giant wasp while playing both opponents?  How do you make a journey of a couple inches feel like you’re crossing the Sahara?  In The Borrowers, I learned a thing or two about adventure acting…high stakes, full-bodied story-telling.  And Whit shared with us another technique from the world of clowning: drinking tea while on the precipice.  Every moment should feel as if there is a very clear and present danger right under you, but that you are always in control.  That’s adventure acting!

Then it was Robin Hood with the director, Matt Decker.  Adventure acting at its finest–Sword fights, zip-lines, flipping over the jungle gym.  And the unforgettable clown that was Prince John…that money-loving, trumpet-playing, short-tempered, self-righteous, man-child.  An exercise in extremes, to be sure.  And a challenge to play a lovable villain…

Sideways Stories from the Wayside School again had me playing the villains, Mr. and Mrs. Gorf…but the kind you love to hate.  Also the tango teacher, Ms. Valoosh, a rat boy, a buffoon of a principal and the voice of a completely animated character, which was a first for me!

Then, I switched gears and co-directed The Cat in the Hat with Doug Hara.  Harnessing all that I had learned from performing in the Arden Children’s Theatre shows over the years and trying to pass it on, not only to the performers but also to the audience.  But working with the magnificent clowning of Charlotte Ford and Dave Johnson and the acrobatic and intellectual Doug Hara and the earnestness and curiosity of Maggie Johnson and Richard Cradle made telling one of the greatest stories ever written such a joy.

Which leads us to A Year With Frog and Toad.  I think I may be one of the only people in Philadelphia who hadn’t seen the show at the Arden the last two times they did it.  But coming to this show with fresh eyes and no expectations was delightful.  It gave me the permission to create from scratch again, which has truly become a passion of mine.  It has all the hallmarks of a Whit show…the precision deliveries, the challenging physical feats, maintaining a sense of adventure at all costs, but it also has such a wonderful ease about it.  And the music (directed by Amanda Morton) has been such gift to add into the mix.  I also do a lot of musicals, so for me, this has really been a merging of my two loves and I’m ever so grateful to be a part of it!

One of my lines toward the end of the show is “Well, here we are again folks.  Over the years, some things change and that’s good.  And some things don’t change and that’s good too.”  And over my years of doing these shows with Arden Children’s Theatre, some things do change, like the shows, the performers, the directors and the audiences.  And like we say, “that’s good.”  But other things don’t change, like the commitment to excellence, the crafting of productions that truly are fun for everyone, and the commitment to treating kids like the smart people they are, resisting ever feeling like we have to talk down to the them or overdo something so they’ll “get it.”  And that’s good too.  VERY good!  Kids get it.

I believe in the work for young audiences so much that I have devoted a large portion of my professional career to it.  I feel the palpable energy in the theatre when a group of kids are seeing their first show.  I’ve answered thousands of questions because curiosity and imagination has been peaked so keenly that they just have to know how we created that special effect on-stage.  I’ve been on the receiving end of a hug so strong that tells me someone has connected to the story so deeply and that maybe they don’t feel so alone in the world now.  There is power in the theatre.  And with that power comes responsibility.  Rest assured that those who are helping to create theatre at the Arden are in a constant state of honing their craft and learning as we continue telling stories into the future…

I hope to see you at A Year With Frog and Toad and then later in the spring at The Light Princess, which I’ll be directing!  It has truly been my pleasure.

UP NEXT IN ARDEN’S CHILDREN’S THEATRE:

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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.

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