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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!
Robi and Marielle

Robi Hagar (left) and Melanie Horton (right) sing “Wick” from The Secret Garden

Eli Russell of Teen Arden gives audiences a peek behind the scenes of the Cabaret of Duets, an evening of cabaret which paired professional performers with members of Teen Arden.  Teen Arden is an extracurricular program for 9th – 12th graders, comprised of kids who are passionate about developing an arts community among peers from diverse social and economic backgrounds. We give teens full access to Arden Theatre Company resources as well as open channels of communication between them and the professional artists who have helped build Philadelphia’s theatre community.

On my first day at Arden Summer Camp, everyone gathered in a circle and we introduced ourselves, sharing our name, age, and favorite place in the world. When my turn came, I bent the rules and shared a fantasy destination combining the comfort of my bed, the beauty of a Jamaican beach, and the atmosphere of the Arden. When I hosted the Cabaret of Duets on December 15, I realized that this daydream wasn’t so fantastical after all, as I could find all three qualities–– comfort, beauty, and atmosphere–– in abundance at the Arden.

The audience for the Cabaret of Duets. Can you spot Artistic Director Terry Nolen?

The audience for the Cabaret of Duets. Can you spot Artistic Director Terry Nolen?

The Cabaret of Duets, which took place at the Hamilton Family Arts Center on December 15, featured a dozen duets between Teen Arden members and professional artists like Jeff Coon, Rachel Camp, and Carl Clemons-Hopkins. Behind the scenes, teens were involved in all stages of planning, writing, and producing the event. It was an audacious undertaking, but our adult directors Jonathan Silver and Amanda Morton ensured that the process of producing the Cabaret of Duets was a comfortable and fun experience. Everyone was convivial as we brainstormed themes, divvied up tasks, and managed the hundred other minutiae that goes into an event like the Cabaret of Duets. One thing that makes Teen Arden special is that the adults involved expect a lot of us, which feels great as a teenager looking to be seen as more than a walking lump of angst and puberty. I doubt that many theatres would entrust teenagers with as much responsibility as we were given in the planning stages for this event. I felt the impact of this trust especially as I wrote the script with my co-host Sydney Chin. Obviously, not all of my jokes made it to the final script, but Sydney and I were grateful that Jonathan took all of our ideas seriously and treated us as equals in the writing process

My fantasy destination included the somewhat generic beauty of a Jamaican beach. I now know that there is a much more meaningful kind of beauty at the Arden (although I certainly wouldn’t mind a Caribbean vacation). First of all, the performances at the Cabaret of Duets were stunning. One thing that made them so beautiful is how different they all were. Who would think that a hard-hitting rock anthem from Rent (performed by the ever-awesome Iyke McCoy and Michael Philip O’Brien) would pair so well with a heartwrenching mother-daughter duet from Next to Normal (performed by actual mother-daughter duo Krissy Fraelich and Zoe Hunchak)? Knowing that the final product was the culmination of many people’s hard work made the event all the more beautiful and inspiring. At the Arden, a lot of emphasis is placed on the process. Everyone was engaged in the process at different stages, bringing their own skills to the table with the common goal of producing a great event.

Co-emcees Eli Russell and Sydney Chin

Co-emcees Eli Russell and Sydney Chin

The theme of the evening was “Autumnal Campfire,” and we found plenty of parallels between the Arden and a campfire. As I sermonized while emceeing, “the Arden Theatre Company is dedicated to bringing to life great stories by great storytellers, and what do we do at campfires? We tell stories! Some are scary, some are hilarious, some have music, some are classics, some are original, the list goes on.” Most of all, both are warm and inviting environments. I know that I can always come to the Arden for support or advice and I’ll be warmly welcomed by my friends and instructors. I could especially feel this warmth at the Cabaret of Duets (and not just because Sydney and I were sitting in front of the lighting booth). The professional artists were friendly and supportive and the audience blew us away with their responses to our emcee schtick and the beautiful duets. Lastly, the Cabaret of Duets demonstrated the Arden’s low-key atmosphere. Whenever I attend classes at the Arden Drama School, I am impressed both by the expertise of the instructors and their modesty. There is plenty of incredible and brag-worthy artistry going on at the Arden, but the theatre maintains a refreshing lack of snootiness or competitiveness. This comfortable, beautiful, and warm atmosphere is what keeps bringing me back to the Arden.


Eli Russell is a junior at Abington Friends School, where he leads both the Cappies team and a National History Day club. He has been involved with Teen Arden for three years and is currently co-chair of the Teen Council’s Artistic Committee.  Eli performs in Arden Summer Camp’s Musical Theatre Studio productions, and will be one of three head writers developing an original play to be presented in this year’s FringeArts Festival.

By Jonathan Silver, Assistant Director for Under the Skin

Jonathan Silver (left) as Timms with Michael Doherty (right) as Posner in the Arden's production of The History Boys

Jonathan Silver (left) as Timms with Michael Doherty (right) as Posner in the Arden’s production of “The History Boys”

“This blog post is not about kidneys.”

The last time I was involved in a creative rehearsal process with Terry Nolen was 5 years ago during Arden Theatre Company’s 2009/2010 season opener The History Boys.  During those rehearsals a half-decade ago, I had the privilege to focus my attention on my portrayal of Timms, the role I was cast in (and my first professional acting experience post-college!). This time around, I have the honor of serving as Assistant Director for this world-premiere piece.  But that’s not what this blog post is about – nor is it about kidneys.

Like a human being, every production of a play or musical is its own unique, individual entity that requires natural evolutionary growth and exploration.  For the actors, director, and design team, the seeds of this growth happen during the first few days of rehearsals sitting around a table reading the text, discussing the text, rereading the text, discussing more of the text, rereading the text again, discussing the … well, you get the picture.

For Under the Skin, Terry Nolen (director) and Michael Hollinger (playwright) led the cast through 5 days of table work (5 days x 6 hour rehearsals = 30 hours of sitting, reading, and discussing).  Under the proper leadership (which we are), these rehearsals can be the most exhilarating – it’s the point in the process where the cast is getting to know one another and seeds of ideas are being planted and the themes and motifs begin to take shape.  The repetition of the above stated reading, discussing, etc., is a chance for the actors to familiarize themselves with the text and for Terry to encourage the actors to “feel free to explore the wrong choices,” and “Find your footing in the text,” and “MORE READING, LESS ACTING!”  For Michael, these rehearsals are to experience his words spoken aloud and alter words, sentences, or punctuation.  It also provides him with an opportunity to hear different versions of scenes he has written so he may discover a multitude of possibilities then narrow in on orchestrating the story he wants to tell (As of the writing of this post, we received five interpretations of one particular scene and six rewritten scenes).

Because Under the Skin focuses on a family crisis and the figurative walls they need to overcome, while at the table, the cast was also invited to share (or not) personal stories that related to those said walls.  Since the rehearsal room is a sacred place, I’m not at liberty to delve into what was shared (or not) but I can say that Terry, Michael and the cast opened their hearts to one another and instantly created an environment of safety and sincerity. You won’t hear their personal stories, but you will sense a depth of connection between the performers that is a result of this kind of sharing.

When a playwright brings in new pages to replace the original ones, they are printed in color. Each of these colors represents a new set of pages!

When a playwright brings in new pages to replace the original ones, they are printed in color. Each of these colors represents a new set of pages!

After these revealing 5 days were over, the work from the table was implemented when we started staging the show on our feet.  Without the table work – the intellectual exploration of every punctuation mark, word, sentence, plot point, etc. – it would prove rather challenging to dive into the physical and emotional journey that takes place during staging.

For me, table work is the most electrifying process of rehearsals.  It’s the point in a production’s development where the show only exists in my mind’s eye – it remains on the page and is not yet tactile.  As these sessions at the table progress, preconceived notions of what I thought the show might be slowly disappear and the real nature of the play takes shape.  What you saw when you came to the Arden and witnessed Under the Skin is the product of Michael Hollinger’s imagination, Terry Nolen’s orchestration, and the ensemble’s passionate dedication to executing a great story…

not about kidneys.


 

Jonathan Silver is a director and actor. Arden: Cabaret of Duets (Director), Incorruptible (Assistant Director), The History Boys (Timms). Regional: Old Jews Telling Jokes (Penn’s Landing Playhouse); Max in Lend Me A Tenor, and Professor in South Pacific (Delaware Theatre Company); Elliot in Completeness (Round Table Theatre Company); Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady (Act II Playhouse); Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts). Television: Alain on Pokemon (Cartoon Network). Education: BFA in Dramatic Performance from University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. 

In Beauty and the Beast, we use a lot of small objects to create big shadows!  Those shadows create the rose garden, the wolves, Belle’s bed, and more!  Making shadow puppets of your own is easy, and a great way to tell your very own stories!  We asked Sebastienne Mundheim of White Box Theatre, who created all of the shadow puppets that we use in our show, to tell you a little bit about how she makes them so you can try it yourself! 

You can make a shadow puppet using stiff paper and a pair of scissors and a little tape or glue.  If you are older you might use an x-acto knife which is tool some people use for cutting very exact lines into paper.  I like just using scissors.

I start by making a drawing of a character or an object on the stiff paper.

I cut out the big outline first.

Then I use my scissors to cut out the most important lines inside the drawing.  I have to choose carefully so I don’t cut too many lines.

Sebastienne at work cutting puppets

Sebastienne at work cutting puppets

CHOOSING WHAT KINDS OF LINES TO MAKE:

I like to make lines that show the action, gesture or expression in the drawing.

That means lines that show where parts of the body might change direction.

Smiling mouths and eyes give expression and change the direction of the face. Your mouth and eyes have lines that express happiness, sadness, surprise.

If you turn your head, you can feel where your skin crunches together between your chin and your neck.

Or if you bend your knee, there is also a line on the back of your leg where the skin folds or crunches together.

I think about which of those lines tell the most about the character I am making.  Is it most important that my character is running?  Smiling?  Jumping? How do the lines I make show that?

For example, when I made the running wolves in Beauty and the Beast I made a very few simple lines to show their muscles and how active they are.

Some people like to make lines that show the decoration on something — the textures or patterns of clothing.  See if you can notice different kinds of lines in the world around you.  Ones that show gesture or expression or ones that show texture and pattern.

CUTTING

Once I have made my drawing I cut out the big shape and then I cut away the important lines.  For me those are the lines that show the most expression or gesture.

If I need to get into the middle of the paper to get to my line, I just cut straight to my line and cut away the section where I want the gesture to show.  I tape up the cut I made to get into the center.

I check my cut outs as I go by holding them up to the light to see how the shadow looks.

That’s the best part.  The shadows are always beautiful.

Different kinds of lights make different shadows.  We use a single bulb LED flashlight for our show.  It makes a really clear shadow!  But the sun makes good shadows too!

Take a look at these photos of us experimenting with our shadow puppets and lights to see what would look the best!

 

Testing some of the shadows used in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Testing some of the shadows used in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

YOU can make shadow puppets at home, just like the ones we use onstage in Beauty and the Beast!  With those shadow puppets, you can create a new imaginary world of your own and tell your own stories at home!  If you make a shadow puppet, have an adult help you take a picture of the shadow it creates and share it with us on social media! Make sure to use the hashtag #ArdenBeast so that we see your photo. 

Everyone who shares their shadow puppet photo with us will be entered to win four tickets to see The Jungle Book this spring.

 

The Arden’s upcoming production of the world premiere of Michael Hollinger’s Under the Skin has sparked some interesting conversations about kidney donation within the Arden community. Would you give up your kidney for a parent? For your child? For a sibling? For all of your siblings? For a stranger? Below are three stories of people who answered yes to someone. If you have a story about how you or a loved one has been affected by organ donation, please use the comment section to share!

Joan Saltzman:

I found John, my Mr. Right, when I was forty-six. He had end-stage kidney disease. John’s nephrologist suggested I become a living donor. No way, I thought, this medical malpractice lawyer was not volunteering for unnecessary surgery. John became more ill; he was ashen. I changed my mind. I saw John just after my kidney was implanted; his skin was, miraculously, already pink. Giving John my kidney was the best thing I have ever done. I had given new life to someone I already loved.

Joan has written a book about her experience entitled Mr. Right and My Left Kidney

Marie Manley:

My husband, Bob and I have four children and we were very involved in our parish and neighborhood while the children were younger. We moved a few years ago and it was while sitting in our new church one Sunday that I thought about how little we were doing for our new community. The following Sunday I read a plea for help in our parish bulletin, a request from a young woman, Christine for a kidney. After reading the letter and finding that I met the initial criteria, I leaned over to my husband and said, “I can do this”. That morning, every hymn, reading and the sermon itself were all about giving. We were both touched by the ‘sharing’ message and after Mass Bob said, we should go for it. So hand in hand, as we approach all things, Bob and I began the process. We decided that we would research the logistics before presenting it to the children. My concern was that our decision would further burden us financially, which turned out not to be the case. Bob was beginning a new job and we were tuition-poor with our girls away in college and our boys attending Cardinal O’Hara high school. My first search on the computer was for “the financial risk to a kidney donor”. Without my knowing it, our drama queen, who was home for the weekend, began reading over my shoulder and shrieked, “Are things so bad now, that you’re selling your organs?”…so much for not involving the kids! I explained to her what we were considering and told our other children, knowing it was too big a secret for Sarah to keep. The girls were a little more anxious about the plan while the boys were more like yeah, well, that is a little weird Mom even for you!

Once we met with the transplant coordinator and began the testing, our daughters went to some of the appointments so that they could hear first-hand, the risks and benefits of organ donation. Our nurse was terrific explaining in full detail the entire process. She was a wealth of information and made us all feel confident that we were making an informed decision. After those meetings, the children gave us their blessing and supported Bob and I throughout the process. It was a family gift to a person in need. At this point I still had not met my recipient. I decided to remain anonymous for a few reasons; one of which is that I wanted our children to have the last say and if they were not comfortable with the surgery, I would have had to back out.

Another reason was that I did not want Christine to worry about me. I was sure she would be concerned about the ‘donor’ but if she did not know me personally, I hoped she could concentrate more on her own healing. The last reason to remain anonymous was that I did not want to be interviewed by Oprah. You laugh but right after our surgery, it was all over the news about the Starbucks barista who gave to a customer, a Minister who donated to a Rabbi and the first simultaneous six-way transplant at John Hopkins in Baltimore. Everywhere I turned there was a public kidney-thing going on! This publicity was not for me. My kidney was a personal gift to Christine and it would feel boastful telling anyone else about it. Besides, this gift was not about me. My prayer every morning before I even get out of bed is “Lead Me Lord”. …and He did.

My prayer for direction intersected with Christine’s prayer for help…it was as simple as that. The surgery went very well and a month later I was asked to talk to a potential donor. After listening to the woman talk about donating to her friend, I felt something missing in our experience and I e-mailed Christine. We met on Mother’s day, 2 months after our surgery. We developed an immediate and very close relationship, one that defies explanation. We are closer than friends are, different from family. I thought I had everything I needed, that my life was complete until I met this young woman and her family. Yes, I am her donor but more importantly, I am a recipient. It was through my giving to Christine that I received– renewed faith, enhanced compassion and empathy for others, gratitude for all of God’s blessings. I continue to learn courage and determination, witnessing the daily challenges of the chronically ill. My life was transformed by this awesome experience. I thank God for the direction and I thank Christine for her request.
On March 11th it will be 5 years since the transplant. As Bob and I volunteer with Gift of Life, I am slowly ‘coming out’ of the anonymous closet. I understand now that the importance of promoting donor awareness supersedes my need for obscurity.…and again, just when I thought life could not get any better…my journey took another turn…This kidney is the gift that keeps on giving.

When our oldest daughter Kristin became engaged, I felt it was time to go back to work fulltime. For twenty-four years, I was able to work part time and be home with our children. Then all of a sudden I was home and they were not! My friend suggested looking at area hospitals for openings. This did not make a bit of sense to me since I had been a retail vendor most of my life. Nevertheless…again… I followed direction and the first hospital and the first position that came up in my search was Transplant Assistant in the Lankenau Kidney Transplant Program.
I know this was not a coincidence. I have loved my job for more than 5 years now. I witness first hand how the frail and needy among us receive hope and healing through selfless acts of others. The look on their faces the morning after transplant is priceless and humbling.

I understand that living donation is not for everyone…but I ask you for two things: One: please consider donating your organs and tissue after you no longer need them. One person can save or enhance the lives of 50 people. What a legacy you can leave behind…what an ultimate gift…offering someone a second chance!
Secondly, please share your decision with your families. When the time comes, if your loved ones do not know what you want, they are asked to decide for you which may add more anguish to an already very difficult situation. Thank you and God bless you.

Marie Manley (left) and Christine, her recipient (right)

Marie Manley (left) and Christine, her recipient (right)

Marie is now a Transplant Assistant at Lankenau Hospital, a job she took a year after her own donation. This is excerpted from a talk she gives about donation.

Patsy Semple: 

In 2010, I was going to donate my kidney to my husband, and my antibodies weren’t quite a match, but they were a perfect match for a young man on the registry. A doctor at Georgetown in DC presented an idea of doing a huge swap. 32 of us would participate. The doctor’s name was Keith Melancon, he is no longer at Georgetown in DC. It was his idea to do the share. There were going to be 40, but when the time came 16 of us went through—16 donors and 16 recipients. He sought them out from three hospitals. Some recipients came from out of town and certainly donors came from out of town. He presented this idea of sharing. It was like: “My niece wants to do it but she’s not a match for me, but she’s a match for so-and-so.” Well when you have a family member, you’ll do anything. And you have trust in your doctors, and if you can helps someone live a little better life, why not?

My kidney went to a young black man who had been born with just one kidney. We didn’t know who was getting it until after the surgery when they had us all meet. And that’s when I met Jonathon. The poor guy when he found out I was his donor, his eyes bugged out because I was older than his mom and I was this Caucasian lady with white hair. He’s a great kid, a young man. His mother took part in the share and her kidney went to a sixty-nine-year old engineer of Indian descent. A couple of people involved just did it altruistically. To see the diversity of ages and nationalities participating in this share was a moving experience; it was made possible because of a group of people determined to donate the gift of life to help a loved one, a friend, or someone in need. If you can help someone live a little better life, why not?

Patsy is a Kidney Donor and Advocate. Excerpted from an interview with Patsy.

 During rehearsals for Under the Skin, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about kidney donation from the recipient perspective, which you can read here.

A costume designer is the person who decides what the different people in the play will wear. Here is what Richard St Clair, the costume designer, thinks about being a costume designer and how he thought about the costumes for Beauty and the Beast:

I really believe this—a costume designer has to be one of the smartest people in the room.  You need to know about costume history, art history, world history, psychology, geography, music, pop culture, movies and MANY other things. Each new show gives you an opportunity to learn more things which is very exciting.

Because so much of the storytelling for Beauty and the Beast happens through shadows, I felt that the costumes should give a feeling of time and place (around the year 1800 in England), but be simple enough not to distract us from the shadows.

The costumes focus on three areas:  shape, color and texture.  With these three things the clothing tells the story of Beauty and the Beast.  There are four sets of costumes and each one looks different:

A sketch of Belle's Devon costume

A sketch of Belle’s Devon costume

  1.  LONDON—Belle and Cassandra’s father is a wealthy merchant and they wear expensive looking clothes, made out of very nice materials like silk and brocade. Everything is CHOSEN to look expensive because at this point of the story they are rich.
  2. DEVON—Belle and Cassandra are now poor because their father has lost all their money in the shipwreck. They have matching simple dresses of plain cotton with a rustic weave.  The father has a coat of brown linen with wooden buttons.  The colors are sad and country looking.
  3. THE CASTLE OF THE BEAST—Belle puts on a blue wool hooded cape to travel to the Beast’s castle.  When we are sad, we say that we are blue, and blue felt right for Belle for now. The Beast and the Housekeeper are in shades of black and grey.  They live literally in the shadows, and there is no color left in their unhappy lives. The Housekeeper has magical powers, but Whit, the director, liked the idea of keeping the secret until the ending, so her colors are simple and ordinary—grey with a white collar.

    A sketch of Belle’s red dress, inspired by the color of the roses she loves

  4. TRANSFORMATION—This play is all about transformation—turning one thing into another.  And not just the Beast, who turns into a Prince.  Belle transforms from a frightened girl into a confident young woman.  Cassandra transforms from a selfish sister into a young bride.  We have used very little color since the move to Devon in Act 1, so the director and I wanted the costumes for the end of the play to have a splash of vivid color to create a fairy tale ending. Suddenly the color palette for the show has changed from poor and sad to HAPPILY EVER AFTER!

 

Now it’s your turn to think like a costume designer!

Richard talks about how many of the people in the play transform from one thing into another. If you were the costume designer for Beauty and the Beast, what would your Beast look like? What clothes would he wear? Would he have a mask? What colors will you use? Now think about what your Prince looks like? Does he wear the same clothes as the Beast or something totally different? Draw the two characters next to each other like you see below.

A sketch of the Prince, after transformation

A sketch of the Prince, after transformation

A Costume Sketch of the Beast's costume

A Costume Sketch of the Beast’s costume

weast_nielsen1Beauty and the Beast is a very old story that has been told many times, in many different ways, and in many different places. Sometimes what the beast looks like changes (a pig, a bull, a monkey, a frog, even a fish!). Here are some of the other versions of the story. You can find these stories, and many others, in your local library.

La Belle et La Bete: The first written-down version of the story titled Beauty and the Beast was written by a woman named Madame Le Prince de Beaumont in 1756. In this version, Beauty has two older, lazy sisters. When their father is about to take a long journey, the sisters ask for expensive things, but the youngest asks only for a rose. From there, the story is very similar to the one you saw at the Arden or might know already.

East of the Sun and West of the Moon: This version is even older than Beauty and the Beast and comes from Scandinavia. In this story, a young woman is made to leave home and marry a bear. It turns out that the bear is really a prince. He was enchanted by an evil troll, and becomes a man again at night.

The Clinking Clanking Lowesleaf: Instead of a rose, in this German version, the youngest daughter asks for “a clinking clanking lowesleaf” from her father. Even experts aren’t sure what a “clinking clanking lowesleaf” is, so it isn’t surprising that Beauty’s father can’t find one. Fortunately, a beast—a giant black dog—is able to help him locate the leaf. But of course, the gift comes with a price!

The Fairy Serpent: In this version from China, the Beast is an enchanted snake, and he insists that Beauty marry him while he is still a snake. He is so nice to her that Beauty comes to like him. Eventually, when she learns to love him, he turns into a prince.

Little Broomstick: This is another version of the story from Germany. In this story, Beauty has a best friend named Little Broomstick who goes with her to the Beast’s castle.

These are just a few versions of the story. There are others from places like Denmark, where the beast is an enchanted horse and Italy, where Beauty is called Zelinda. There are even grown up versions of this story like Jane Eyre written by a woman named Charlotte Bronte and Pride and Prejudice written by a woman named Jane Austen.

Can you tell your own version of Beauty and the Beast? What would your beast look like? What would Beauty ask her father for as a gift? Would Beauty have brothers or sisters or friends?

In this adaptation, six actors play over 40 characters to bring Dickens’ novel to life. That requires actors with broad range who are capable of making each character distinctive and memorable. In addition to costume changes, the actors create characters by changing their voices and their physicality. Here is how Doug Hara, who plays Herbert Pocket and Mr. Wopsle among others, created some of the many characters he plays:

In this play we switch characters so often, and sometimes for just a line or two at a time, so it seems friendly to the audience to make sure I make clear and strong choices and lean deeply into those choices with each character turn.

Herbert Pocket:

Pocket

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herbert is Pip’s true and loyal friend.  He is highly educated and cultured, so with Herbert I have focused the most on speaking with proper high-class British elocution.  But he also needs to be accessible and likable, so I’ve placed him in a higher register and I always give him a smile to keep him warm.

Mr. Wopsle:

Wopsle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If there is a clown in this play, Mr. Wopsle is probably it.  He is a provincial man with grandiose ambitions.  I’ve given him a bit of a crooked eyebrow-y smile, and an artificially deep resonant affectation.  When I speak I’m conjuring a little Sam the Eagle from the Muppets and Ted Baxter from the Mary Tyler Moore Show…only British.

The Coachman:

Coachman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I literally say 5 or 6 words as the Coachman.  Years of whiskey and cigars, gravelly and rough and lower class.  A Cockney Tom Waits.

The Sergeant:  He’s an imposing character who interrupts Christmas dinner and hunts down convicts.  As the shortest person in the cast (by a lot), I’ve taken to leaping onto a chair as soon as I enter (Seriously, I stand on a chair so I can look down on everyone.  It totally helps).  I put my voice in as deep a resonance as I can muster without sounding fake.  He’s an authentic fellow.

On an 18 degree January night in Philadelphia in 1868 people lined up on Chestnut Street before midnight, bringing tents and blankets, prepared to camp out in order to be first in line. What were they waiting for? Tickets to see the novelist Charles Dickens, reading selections from his novels. The first six readings were sold out in four hours and the Public Ledger declared “a state of popular excitement that, taken in all its phases, is without parallel on our side of the ocean.” When Dickens left the city for what was to be the last time, the Inquirer wrote: “the remembrance of his visit will be a life-long possession.” In fact, the remembrance of his visits would stay with the city much longer than that.

Despite explicit instructions in Dickens’ will that he be remembered by his words and not by statues, in 1893, the sculptor Frank Elwell createdDickens-Clark-Park1-290x290 a life-size statue of him for the Chicago World’s Fair. Upon the closing of the Fair, the statue was sent to England to Dickens’s family, who, angry at the violation of Dickens’ wishes, returned to sender. The statue never made its way back to Chicago, ending up instead in a
Philadelphia warehouse, where it was purchased in 1901 by Clark Park in West Philadelphia, where it remained the only statue of Dickens in the world for over 100 years, though a few have emerged in the last few years. You can still visit it at Clark Park (4398 Chester Ave).

In 1984, Strawbridges’s and Clothier commissioned artists Ray Daub and Mary Wimberly to create a Christmas display. Daub remembered his family reading A Christmas Carol every year, and so he made the Dickens Christmas Village: a miniature replica of 1843 London with animatronic figures acting out scenes from A Christmas Carol. The Village is such a draw that when Strawbridges’s closed, Macy’s rescued the village and installed it in their 13th and Walnut location on the third floor in time for Christmas. You can still see it there starting November 29th.

In 2012, Philadelphia celebrated “The Year of Dickens” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth. With a year of events, the celebration was one of the largest held outside of the UK. It makes sense. Following Dickens’ death, his relatives sold off many of his possessions in order to make ends meet. Many of them ended up in collections at two of Philadelphia’s most venerable institutions for bibliophiles—the Rosenbach Museum and Library and the Rare Books Department of the Free Library—have impressive Dickens collections. The Rosenbach boasts many Dickens letters, special editions of the books, rare photographs, manuscripts and a few first printings of his novels in installments. These are currently on display in the Rosenbach’s Hands-On Tour for Dickens in which patrons are able to handle some of these rare items under the guidance of a member of the Rosenbach staff (2008-2010 Delancy Street).

The Rare Books of Department at the Free Library has one of the most unusual Dickens’ holdings in the world: Grip, Dickens’s pet raven which was stuffed and mounted after his death. Grip was a minor character in Dickens’s short story, Barnaby Rudge, which Philadelphian Edgar Allen Poe reviewed in his capacity as a literary critic. While Poe enjoyed the story, he felt there was more to mine in the character of the raven. In addition to Grip, who presides imperiously over the Rare Books Department hallway, the Free Library also boasts sam_1151
possession of a desk and chair belonging to Dickens, sets of Dickens’ work in their original parts (the original installations, see image), first additions, and original artwork, including the set of parts for The Pickwick Papers inscribed by Dickens to his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth. All of these can be seen Monday-Friday on the daily tour of the Department at 11am (1901 Vine Street).

Dickens first toured the United States in 1848 and wrote about his travels in his nonfiction book:  American Notes for General Circulation. Of Philadelphia, he writes: “It is a handsome city, but distractingly regular. After walking about it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street. The collar of my coat appeared to stiffen, and the brim of my hat to expand, beneath its quakery influence.” While he was impressed by Philadelphia’s hospitals, libraries, and post offices, he was horrified by a visit he made to Eastern State Penitentiary (2027 Fairmount Avenue) which forms the bulk of his write-up on the city: “In the outskirts, stands a great prison, called the Eastern Penitentiary: conducted on a plan peculiar to the state of Pennsylvania.  The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement.  I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.” Dickens acknowledged the effort to be well-intentioned, but greatly objected to the amount of solitary confinement imposed on the prisoners. Despite his reservations, Dickens returned to Philadelphia a second time in 1868 in which he gave, by all accounts, an energetic, heartfelt, and exciting reading of his novels.

by Sally Ollove, Arden Literary Manager

NOTE: Best read after seeing La Bête.

At the beginning of La Bête, Elomire and Bejart have left their troupe at dinner to discuss unwelcome dinner guest, Valere. Valere quickly follows. In the world of the play, the acting troupe is left alone offstage. The actors who play those characters are left in a very similar situation. Since they don’t appear in Act 1, they must amuse themselves backstage while waiting to go on. Here’s a snapshot of what I observed during the epic monologue delivered by Scott Greer.

 

Minute 0- I am in the greenroom next to a mound of croissants brought in by director Emmanuelle Delpech for the hard working cast. The only people I’ve seen in costume are the folks on the stage. The rest have over 50 minutes left to get ready before they are onstage.ping pong

Minute 2: I visit the women’s dressing room. Alex Keiper (Madame Du Parc) and Wendy Staton (Madame De Brie) start putting on their make-up.

Minute 3: The greenroom and dressing rooms are equipped with sound monitors so the actors can keep track of where in the play they are so they don’t miss an entrance. Since only Amanda Schoonover who plays Dorine needs to pay careful attention, the actors only half-listen. At minute 3, a huge wave of laughs comes in from the audience—the ladies look up from what they are doing, and try to figure out what caused the laugh. They are pleased for Scott. Alex and Amanda say some of the words with him, mimicking his delivery: “he turns them slowly, slowly on the spit.”

Minute 6: All the women are now busily putting on elaborate make-up. As they do, they chat about the film achievements of Samuel L. Jackson. Amanda keeps one ear on the monitor and plays games on her iPad.

Minute 9: I visit the men’s dressing room. Michael Doherty (Du Parc) is working on play he is writing. Alex Bechtel (De Brie) gets his wig on.

Minute 16: Becca Rose, the backstage dresser who helps the actors with their costumes, wanders in to the greenroom, where there is a television monitor trained on the stage. She checks where we are in Scott’s monologue: Valere is sharing his vision of a play performed in Ghent.

Minute 18: Alex Keiper checks the make-up work of Taysha Canales (Madeleine Bejart). Eye-lashes are tricky to get even, but Taysha nails it.

Minute 19: Alex Bechtel has gotten his wig on and made his way to the piano in the greenroom. He noodles around, then plays “Love Me Like the World is Ending” by Ben Lee.

Minute 20: The music attracts followers. Dito van Reigersberg (Prince Conti) dances into the greenroom, and uses a rolly chair for some dance moves. Alex Keiper, in make-up and wig cap, joins in and Dito offers her a “spin” with the rolly chair.

Minute 22: Request time from the piano player! Dito requests some gritty funk. Alex Bechtel responds with Bill Withers’s “Use Me Up,” which Dito sings.

Minute 26: Alex Keiper does a Sarah Mclachlan impression. Alex Bechtel plays some Tears for Fears, which brings Wendy to the dance party.

Minute 31: Fears that we can be heard onstage breaks up the dance party. Plus, Scott’s almost finished.

Minute 31.31: Scott finishes his monologue and gets applause, from the audience and the backstage audience. Wendy challenges Taysha to a ping-pong match. Both agree that during the course of the run of La Bête, their skill sets will probably dramatically improve. Considering the formidable skills of Arden regulars such as Scott Greer and Ian Merrill Peakes and the amount of time they have to practice, they are probably right.

by Sally Ollove, Arden Literary Managermoliere

With its rhyming couplets, clever wordplay, door-slamming farce, boors and know-it-alls, David Hirson’s La Bête is a fabulous homage to the writing of 17th century comic playwright Moliére. But the inspiration Hirson drew from Molière doesn’t stop at the verse. While the events depicted in La Bête are entirely fictional, bits and pieces of Molière’s real life are woven into the fabric of the play, with references hidden throughout the script for those in the know. Here are a few:

 

  • The name “Elomire” when unscrambled spells “Molière.” Yet, Elomire is not the real-life Molière. Elomire’s work is praised and criticized for its seriousness and its tragic portent while the name Molière conjures French comedy. Though Molière did aspire to be a great tragic actor, it is hard to imagine the Elomire who leaves the stage at the end of the play being anything other than a career tragedian, much less becoming the funniest and most transgressive writer of 17th century France.
  • Molière’s troupe spent 3 years under the patronage of Prince Conti, who met Molière in school. While in residence with the Prince, Molière and his troupe were able to perform at several of his estates and live well. For a company of traveling actors who lived at the lowest end of the class system, this patronage was invaluable, bringing the group respectability and security. It was only made possible by Molière’s middle class upbringing which afforded him connections unavailable to most traveling players. In 1657, Prince Conti had a religious awakening and kicked Molière and his company out as an act of penitence.
  • Elmire (not quite Elomire) and Valère (not quite Valere) are both character names in Tartuffe, one of Molière’s best known plays. Though the characters are very different (Elmire is a wife and Valére a young suitor), the names are a link, and the central figure of Tartuffe bears some resemblance to La Bête’s Valere. As in La Bête, the characters in Tartuffe can’t agree about whether Tartuffe is a hypocritical con man or a saintly wise man.
  • Dorine is the name of the maid in Tartuffe. Tartuffe’s Dorine is a manipulator and commentator on what happens in the family.
  • Both Elomire and Molière’s troupes included the Béjart siblings—Molière had a long-time affair with Madeleine Béjart. Madeleine and her brothers were founding members of Molière’s troupe, traveling around the countryside with him and then later establishing a theatre in Paris. There is no similar hint of a relationship between Elomire and Madeleine Bejart.
  • Molière’s real life troupe also included the Du Parcs and the De Bries. Marquis-Therese Du Parc (played by Alex Keiper) was a particular favorite. Her beauty (and her scandalous costumes) won her many admirers, including the French playwrights Corneille and Racine. She was rumored to have had many affairs.

 

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