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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!

Meet Tony Lawton and Alex Bechtel, the writers of Arden Theatre Company’s original musical The Light Princess. They’ve shared stories about the creation of this new work, their inspirations, and the lessons along the way.

Alex Bechtel

Tell us about the writing process. Why did you choose to adapt this story? When did work on this play first begin?

AB: It was Tony who first decided to adapt The Light Princess. It was a story that he had been fond of for quite some time, and had long thought would make a great play. Once he started working on it, he thought that it should be a musical. It was at this point that he asked me to come aboard as composer. Tony sent me the first drafts of scenes and song lyrics in the spring of 2015 and that was when music started showing up, too.

TL: Most of the time, I wrote drafts and sent lyrics to Alex, who then wrote music for them. We got a grant from the Independence Foundation to workshop the adaptation in early 2015. We had a public reading at Fringe in September 2015. Terry booked us at the Arden not long after that.

What was your favorite scene/song to write?

Tony Lawton

TL: I don’t want to give away the happy ending, but every time I worked on it or read it, I cried. MacDonald really gave us great material there. Also, the Witch was a gas to write.

AB: There’s a song in the second act called “The Turning of the Tide.” It’s the dramatic and emotional climax of the piece, and it was one of the last songs I composed for the show. I believed that if I wrote most of the other musical elements of the story, that I could use the melodies from those songs within this emotional breakthrough. If you listen carefully, the counter-melody that the piano is playing as the Princess sings is from her first love duet with her Prince. Needless to say, I cried a lot while writing it.

Bechtel in rehearsal.

How does it feel to be performing in a musical you wrote the music for?

AB: Great! And scary. I love being able to shape the material as we build things in rehearsal. I’ve done a lot of ensemble-created/devised plays and musicals, and I feel that being able to create something as you perform it gives the actor such a sense of ownership. And Tony has written such wonderful versions of these characters: I have such unbridled fun playing The Witch. She is vengeful, justified, passionate, and absurd–and I love every moment of playing her. The Prince is the scary/hard part for me. I have a tough time imagining myself as the “handsome prince” type. So there’s a bit of nerves that I have to work through on that stuff.

Do you feel connected to George MacDonald, the stories originating author, as a storyteller?

TL: George MacDonald had a heavy influence on C.S. Lewis, another author I’ve adapted.  What they have in common is an insightful and highly nuanced understanding of the human psyche, and a tight grip on the drama of the soul, especially in the context of the Invisible.  MacDonald’s fairy tales are, in my opinion, the clearest and most dramatic of his prolific writing. And The Light Princess offers the most opportunities for humor, which I think we can always stand more of.

Lawton in rehearsal.

What part of this story are you most excited to share with audiences?

AB: I think Tony’s take on this story is so important–the notion that a human being is not complete until they have experienced both joy and sorrow, the fact that sadness is a vital part of the human experience, the idea that “We just are not worth very much until we’ve cried a little.” I tear up a little just writing that down right now. And I feel lucky to be able to share that message with kids, teachers, parents, and grown-ups.

TL: The love story really works like a top; I’m keen to see how that aspect of the story draws  in the audience.  Also, the plight of King and Queen as parents of a spirited child will, I hope, spark recognition among parents in the audience.

Bechtel in rehearsal.

What instrument do you play in the show?

AB: As I write this (things sometimes change in rehearsal!) I play piano, guitar, and accordion in the show. Emily Gardner Hall has me beat, though! (She plays piano, guitar, accordion and viola throughout the show!)

How does this show differ from solo shows? 

TL: The negotiation over the script’s contents was surely a lot more drawn out and complicated. That process required that I learn a lot of diplomatic skills, and more importantly, to keep my ego in the backseat, behind considerations of quality and audience experience.  I’m learning every day that “my concept” is not nearly as important as better ideas that arise from collaboration.

 

The Light Princess is extended by popular demand thru June 1. For tickets, purchase online or call 215.922.1122.

 

Reawakening “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

by Paige Farestveit

In 1998, the Arden Theatre Company’s brand new F. Otto Haas Stage opened with a remarkable production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by company co-founder Aaron Posner, that featured a cast that can only be described as an embarrassment of riches: TonyBraithwaite, Pearce Bunting, Jen Childs, Melanye Finister, Grace Gonglewski, Scott Greer, Leonard Haas, and Ian Merrill Peakes, among others. That year, the Arden led the pack in Barrymore nominations, garnering twenty four total, eight of which were for Midsummer, including Overall Production of a Play, Ensemble Performance, Direction of a Play, Set Design, and more.

Pearce Bunting, Robert Christophe, Ian Merrill Peakes, Scott Greer, Grace Gonglewski, Jen Childs. Arden’s 1998 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Over the last two decades, these artists have not only established themselves as some of the most beloved in the Philadelphia theatre community, but garnered a national reputation for excellence. Some are still regular players on the Arden stage, such as Grace Gonglewski and Ian Merrill Peakes, who have appeared in twenty four and twenty productions, respectively. Others have gone on to Broadway and television work, like Pearce Bunting, who portrayed Bill Austin in Phyllida Lloyd’s rollicking production of Mamma Mia! and appeared on the acclaimed television series Boardwalk Empire. The creative team has likewise fixed themselves in prominent roles on the national stage. Posner has racked up over 250 directing credits at regional theatre companies around the US, and penned celebrated works such as Stupid F**king Bird and District Merchants, while scenic designer David P. Gordon has designed for over 300 productions on and off Broadway.

Posner’s Midsummer was poised at a unique tipping point in the Arden’s history. As the first production staged in the new theatre space, it was not only responsible for drawing on the history and practices that informed the Arden’s developing artistic principles in its first decade of life, but for displaying the rich resources the new space provided and setting a precedent for the young theatre company’s cultural future—to proclaim what the Arden was, and what it was capable of becoming.

According to Producing Artistic Director and co-company founder Terry Nolen, a Shakespearean comedy was the ideal choice for accomplishing such a lofty task. Nolen writes, “Shakespeare was a touchstone for us in 1998. Aaron had a great passion for Shakespeare and we included his work every few years. One of our earliest productions – in 1989 – was As You Like It, from whence the name Arden comes. It was an incredibly beautiful production, and helped establish the Arden’s early reputation as a theatre striving to create exciting and innovative work. We thought opening the F. Otto Haas Stage with another Shakespeare comedy that took us into the woods might be an exciting new way to open our new theatre.”

Pearce Bunting and Melanye Finister. Arden’s 1998 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Further, “the Haas Stage had height that our previous spaces did not have. You can have sky and second floors and action that takes place above the audiences’ heads. In the design process for that production, Aaron and Set Designer David Gordon knew they wanted to take advantage of that height – and created a set with floating beds and ladders. The set also acknowledged the architecture of the new Haas Stage – lighting the ceiling of the theatre (the structure holding up the roof) and the brick walls (newly painted a deep blue). There is a dream quality to the shade of blue chosen by our architects Kieran & Timberlake, and the design team incorporated that into the visual world of the play, lighting the walls and the ceiling above.”
And finally, Nolen notes that such a production in such a space reinforced the most magical element of live theatre: an awareness that the actors and the audience are in the same room together, sharing an experience both precious and fleeting. Amongst the lushly be-decked Midsummer set, Nolen felt an enduring celebration that “everyone was breathing the same air.”

Shakespeare works were written to be performed in the shared light of the public playhouses in early modern England, where groundlings could cheer, boo, hiss, and heckle in full sight of the actors. Reactions were visceral, honest, and immediate- and it no doubt informed the players’ performances and playgoers’ experiences. By leaning into that history with design and direction, Posner’s Midsummer reached back and pulled a particular bit of Shakespearean magic into the present.
Posner and Nolen’s commitment to shared experiences and fresh Philadelphia talent found new life in this season’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Matt Pfieffer.

Katharine Powell as Titania, in Arden Theatre Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Like Posner, Pfeiffer’s production achieves the seemingly impossible task of honoring historical precedent (both Shakespeare’s and the Arden’s) while fiercely pursuing newness. It is an unfortunate truth that contemporary takes on Shakespeare often get so caught up in demonstrating ingenuity that they lose their grip on the text. New stagings become marred by cheap tricks that display an innate mistrust of the audience’s ability to understand four hundred year old verse.
Matt Pfeiffer admirably avoids this trap by stripping away excessive production elements in favor of clear, text-driven storytelling. In his Director’s Notes, Pfeiffer acknowledges the inevitable weight of doing “Shakespeare”—the cultural assumptions and expectations of who Shakespeare is and what his plays should be that follow audiences, for better or for worse, into the playing space.

“History plays an important part in the way you receive Shakespeare,” Pfeiffer writes. “His plays are foundational texts in Western culture. I’m deeply interested in being in conversation with the history of these plays and how Shakespeare’s company would’ve worked on them. How do we as 21st century theatre artists approach this work in the spirit of what Shakespeare had available to him?”

Sean Close as Flute, Brandon J. Pierce as Starvling, Doug Hara as Quince, Taysha Marie Canales as Snout, and Rachel Camp as Snug in Arden Theatre Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway’s peeled back set lets the audience in on the plan from the moment they enter the theatre. Her design is a meeting of the historical and the contemporary theatre. Worn wooden floorboards and a tiring house harken back to the open air playhouses of Shakespeare’s day, while the familiar backstage paraphernalia of a contemporary house—ladders, vanities with bright round lightbulbs, costume pieces and wigs askew—pulls us firmly into the theatrical present. Pfeiffer does not want his audience to lose themselves or their awareness of the theatricality of the experience in an ultra-realistic set. He insists, rather, that we all remain aware and willing participants in the re-telling of a much beloved story.

But to be clear- Pfeiffer is not overly precious with the text, nor with original practice. He describes himself as “committed to working in spirited conversation” with Shakespeare’s world. He pulls in historical elements that assist in the developing of characters and relationships, but always with a contemporary twist. For instance, he draws on the era-appropriate tradition of live music played and sung by members of the company, but the musical selections are hardly early modern. Instead, Alex Bechtel’s beguiling score incorporates folk-rock classics like The Kinks and David Bowie, and infuses original compositions. Pfeiffer also cuts and rearranges Shakespeare’s text to clarify the plot and complicate character arcs; for example, he redistributes some of Theseus’s dialogue to the traditionally silent Hippolyta, and splices together Puck fixing the ass’s nole on Bottom’s head with the sprite’s recounting of the events to Oberon.

Katharine Powell as Titania, and Dan Hodge as Bottom in Arden Theatre Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Mark Garvin.

It is the ensemble, however, that truly brings this production to life. A dazzling display of established Philadelphia talent and bright up-and-comers, their affection for their story and their company shines brightly. They are effortlessly cool, disarmingly honest, and can rattle off verse with smart specificity. They forgo the fourth wall, and draw the audience close with a genuine invitation of camaraderie.

While watching Pfieffer’s work, it is impossible to ignore the peculiar magic of live performance- that moment of connection between audience and actor, between past and present, which promises that well-loved stories can grow more precious through continued re-telling. We will undoubtedly all look back on this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as another defining moment in the Arden’s artistic history—a celebration of where they have been, and a glimpse at the work to come.
Paige Farestveit earned a M.A. with distinction in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe in 2016. She is currently hard at work as an Arden Professional Apprentice, and as an understudy for Titania/Hippolyta in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by William Shakespeare with Original Music by Alex Bechtel is extended thru April 13. For tickets and info visit www.ardentheatre.org, or call the Box Office at 215.922.1122.

Sean Close as Lysander, Rachel Camp as Helena, and Brandon J. Pierce as Demetrius in Arden Theatre Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Ashley LaBonde.

“Paige Hathaway’s scenic design evokes a weathered downtown warehouse with stark steel ladders and a sumptuous moon hanging high over the various found objects in the background. At times the space seems to glow from every corner with the magical fairy ambiance created by lighting designer Thom Weaver.” DC Metro Arts

Photo: Paige Hathaway

Paige Hathaway answers questions about her artistic process as a scenic designer and the magic behind the whimsical and modern set of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

 

What first interested you about theatrical design?

Theatrical design felt like a natural combination of my love of fine art and theatrical storytelling. When I design sets, I’m able to create worlds and environments while collaborating with artists who inspire me to tell a story. For me, there’s nothing more fulfilling.

When you read a play for a job, what information are you searching for to start designing?

When I read a play for the first time, I try to take it in like an audience member would. I like to lose myself in the story and the characters and take note of how the effect me. My second time reading the play, I’ll look for specific staging needs, pieces of furniture, time of day, etc. I also like to pull out pieces of dialogue or stage directions that hint at the emotional landscape of the play or any overarching themes. This will ultimately be the foundation on which I build my design.

What was the vision for A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM set?

Matt Pfeiffer (the director) and I set out to create a neutral, ritualistic theatrical space that contains nods or hints towards the themes and set pieces of Midsummer without being beholden to them. For example, we didn’t feel the need to have actual trees or foliage onstage, the language of Shakespeare alone paints the picture for the audience. Instead, we hint at trees and forest through the ladders on either side of the stage and through Thom Weaver’s amazing lighting design. We wanted tastes of magic and whimsy, while still being firmly in a theatrical space.

Do you have a unique style that runs through all of your scenic design projects?

My friends and I joke that my style can be described as “whimsical stuff and things.” However, I do try to not get stuck in doing any particular style. That being said, a handful of my designs have some common aesthetics. I often find myself trying to incorporate lighting fixtures and elements into my designs as much as possible; from table lamps and strings of lights, to moon light boxes and light-up jam jars. I enjoy incorporating light into my designs, which makes my collaboration with the lighting designer all the more important.

How do you collaborate with the director, costume designer, lights and sound to create one cohesive production?

The structure of my collaboration often fluctuates from project to project. On some projects, my conversations about the design for the show begin with just the director and no other designers. On others, the entire creative team has conversations together (which I prefer). Regardless, most of the time a director will have a clear vision or path down which they would like to take the production. From there, the designers and I will discuss, interrogate, and riff off of these ideas until we find a cohesive whole with everyone playing their part. This is my favorite part of the process and why I enjoy designing for theater.

Describe for your process from design conception to opening night.

My first step when I am designing a show is to, of course, read the script. I read it a couple of times, thinking about the location, time period, emotional landscape, and practical needs. After reading the play, I begin conversations with the director and creative team. We start to dream up the world of the play and how express that world visually. I usually do some visual research after an initial concept meeting. I gather images that inspire me or provide contextual information for era or location.

After the team responds to the research, I usually have enough information to take my first stab at actually designing the set. I create a rendering of the set, typically using Photoshop. I try to render the set to look as realistic as possible so that the creative team can respond to the realities of the set. Depending on the responses of the team, I may revise the renderings or move forward to create a model.

When I’m modeling the design, I end up answering a lot of logistical questions about my design. How tall are the walls, what is the exact position of the deck, how many steps do I need to get to the second level, etc. If I do my job correctly, the model will be a perfect scale representation of what will end up on stage. In tandem with creating the model, I begin drafting the design. I create a groundplan, centerline section, and elevations of every pieces and part of the design. I use a computer-aided drafting program called Vectorworks to do all of this.

Once the final model is approved by the creative team, I send the drafting off to the Technical Director who will analyze my drafting, piece by piece, to create construction drawings for the set. Although I have a cursory knowledge of how to build scenery and the laws of physics, I am nowhere near as knowledgeable as a Technical Director. I rely completely on TDs to make my designs a reality.

After that, I am in touch with the Technical Director as he and his team start to build and paint the set. I’ll also be in conversations with the Prop Designer who will find and create the furniture, dressing, and hand props that are required for the design. This is when the design really starts to become a reality.

After the cast, director, and stage manager have been in rehearsals for a couple of weeks, we move into the final phase of the design and production. We have technical rehearsals where we start to put all of the pieces together. The actors are on the set for the first time, we add costumes, lights, and sound and begin to work through every cue in the show. It can be slow going, but is where the show as a whole truly takes shape. We will adjust or do notes on the set or props as needed to put a final polish on the design.

At last, we add the audience. You would be surprised by how much it changes the show. During preview performances, we listen to the audience’s responses and reactions and adjust if we feel we need to. It’s a vital part of the process. And then, we open!

Photo: Paige Hathaway

What element of this set are you most proud of?

I’m particularly fond of the two light box moons. They look just lovely, and the moment that they rise and glow is wonderful.

What was a challenge for this set?

The most challenging thing about the design was to find the balance between the messy, chaotic “backstage” world of the set and the clean, ritualistic stage-within-a-stage. It took some time during the rendering phase to find the right balance, and we continued to tweak through technical rehearsals. Ultimately, I feel that we found a great balance that is visually interesting.

Is there a play you have not done yet that you would love to design?

This is a hard question, because there are so many different types of shows that I would love to tackle. For a musical, I would love to do “Great Comet of 1812”… for a play, I would love to do a “Macbeth” or “Peter and the Star-catcher”… But more than anything, I get excited about working with people who push me creatively and make me look at a play in a new and inspiring way.

If you could give one piece of advice to young aspiring scenic designers, what would you say?

Reach out to the scenic designers in your area and ask them questions! More often than not, they would love to talk with you and help you find your way into this strange career. Work hard, don’t burn out, and find ways to fill your creative cup!

 

PAIGE HATHAWAY (Set Designer) Arden Debut! Regional: The How and the Why, Another Way Home, (Theater J); Ella Enchanted (Adventure Theatre MTC); Little Thing, Big Thing; Wild Sky (Solas Nua); The Gulf (Signature Theatre); The Pillowman (Forum Theatre); A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Folger Theatre); Godspell (Olney
Theatre Center). Upcoming: A Chorus Line (The Muny); Or, (Round House Theatre); Thurgood (Olney Theatre Center). Training: University of Oklahoma, B.F.A. in Scenic Design, University of Maryland, M.F.A. in Scenic Design. www.paigehathawaydesign.com.

Buy tickets to A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by William Shakespeare, Music by Alex Bechtel, extended by popular demand thru April 13.  For the Box Office, call 215.922.1122.

Photo of the cast by Ashley LaBonde.

Dan Hodge

The Arden Theatre Company is thrilled to welcome Philadelphia artist Dan Hodge to our stage to play Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s DreamEnjoy this interview with him in which he discusses Shakespeare, his career in Philly, and our upcoming production.

What is your favorite Shakespeare play and why?

That’s a tricky question – I love a number of different plays for different reasons, but I have to land on King Lear. It’s a mighty piece of writing and there’s not a bad role in it. The characters are rich, and the story is clear, clean and profoundly moving. The language is tight and strong and we see Shakespeare at the peak of his powers. Othello offers similar joys, but Lear has a greater scope. It’s beautifully constructed and apart from being one of the ‘Greatest Tragedies in English,’ it’s just a solid play.

What is the most important part about performing Shakespeare?

Clarity and human connection. There are traps that even very fine actors can fall into, and one of the primary ones is letting the beauty of the language overwhelm the sense and intention. This can leave the audience sitting there thinking: “Wow, that’s beautiful poetry” or “What a good actor” while ultimately obscuring the sense of what is being said. When handled well, those thoughts never come to mind. Instead the audience is leaning forward thinking: “How could she say that terrible thing to him? What is Cleopatra going to do next?”

Cast of Hamlet at Hedgerow Theatre. Photo by Kyle Cassidy

You directed Hamlet in 2014 at Hedgerow. In an interview, you said that you wanted audiences to identify with the characters. How have you carried this over to A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

The great danger in Shakespeare is tied to this. We tend to elevate these characters beyond the realm of the human, and this is a mistake. Never lose sight of what makes these people human, otherwise the audience will never actually engage with them. Hamlet is not ‘The Prince of Denmark,’ he is a man who happens to be the prince of Denmark. I try to bring that to every classical play I engage with, and Midsummer has been a lot of fun in this regard because the characters are so fallible. When I play a part, I usually try to hunt up what makes the characters weak or afraid, because that is where the humanity lives.

Hodge in rehearsal.

How do you relate to Nick Bottom?

What a dangerous question! I actually relate to Bottom a lot, probably to my own detriment! He is like so many of us: vain, easily hurt and convinced of his own infallibility. Bottom is a fool because he can’t see past the end of his nose (or snout), but that’s not to say that he is only worthy of derision.

Thankfully, he doesn’t operate from a place of malice, and the comedy comes from watching someone inept trying to do a difficult job to the best of their ability. As an actor, that’s what I feel like essentially all the time. That’s only kind of a joke.

What’s your best/favorite experience with Shakespeare?

There have been many, but probably the thing that has given me the greatest satisfaction was creating my one-man performance piece out of Shakespeare’s epic poem The Rape of Lucrece. It’s a tremendous piece of writing and each time I come to it I find something new about myself and about the people in its world. It’s a humbling challenge in trying to breathe honestly in the skin of both the perpetrator and victim of sexual assault, as well as the other people whose world is shaken by the event. The language reveals Shakespeare at his strongest and simplest, and I hope to be speaking those words for the rest of my life.

Hodge in The Rape of Lucrece. | Photo by Kevin Monko.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Matt Pfeiffer
On the F. Otto Haas Stage
March 2 – April 9, 2017

Buy Tickets 

Photo of the cast by Ashley LaBonde.

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.

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