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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!

Peter Roccaforte discusses what it was like to go on as Asher for one night in My Name Is Asher Lev.

When you take on an understudy position it is almost understood that the likelihood of you going on as that role for a scheduled performance is similar to the likelihood of being able to make a five minute visit to the DMV. When I accepted the understudy role of Asher Lev I was just excited to have a 90 minute audition in a lead role for the casting director of the Arden and call it a day. However, about a month after we had that understudy run for the staff at the I received a call from Erin Read, the Artistic Assistant at the theatre. She said that Karl Miller, the man playing Asher, has been having a little tickle in his throat and is going to the doctor to get it checked out. This unnerved me just enough to go over my script that night before bed, just in case. On the other hand, the truth is I have had tickles in my own throat and been perfectly fine through a run of a show before.

I did not expect the phone call I got the following morning. Karl was sick. He was given steroids and antibiotics to rehabilitate his voice and was going to sleep through the day so he would be ok for the show that night. At this point as an understudy one begins to feel an urge to suppress whatever hopes or fears they might have, because Karl was going to sleep it off and be fine for the 8 o’clock show. He had all day to wake up with a voice. When Erin called me again at 5:45 PM I felt a sensation similar to being at the peak of a dangerous roller coaster ride. A wave of fear, then a wave of joy and excitement, followed promptly by another wave of fear. After leaving a rehearsal I was in the middle of and calling out of work for the night; I freaked out in the middle of the street on Locust and 12th, scared several passer-bys, collected myself, and rushed to the theatre as fast as I could. The staff, crew, and cast were incredibly supportive and helpful from the moment I walked in the door. Also, having the chance to perform with actors of such merit as Adam Heller and Gabra Zackman was remarkable. I knew that I had some challenges in the sense that Asher doesn’t leave the stage, has quite a few lines, and it had been a while since we had the understudy run. There wasn’t going to be a time where I could double check the script, or try to figure out what was going on if I lost it, I just had to be right for 90 straight minutes.

Suddenly, I realized how rickety this roller coaster really was. I spent the time before the show running it aloud in my mind looking to rough out patches that might have left me since the one time I ran the show a month ago. Regardless of how surprising and difficult understudying can be sometimes, the point is that that is your job. The job is only to be able to go on if the person playing the part is out, and you have a responsibility to that job. Having that sense of responsibility was the only thing that made that evening an enjoyable experience over a scary one.

On the stage I found myself very nervous, in an unfamiliar space, working with incredibly talented actors that had been doing this over and over again for weeks, and also in front of a sold out house. The first few scenes I felt jittery, I wanted to jump lines to prove to myself that I knew the script, and I had trouble finding balance in my shaking legs. Then something changed, and all of a sudden the work that I had invested to do my job if the time came was married with the passion I had for the show and the joy I felt. The rest of the show went smoothly for me, and although the underlying nerves never left until it was over, I enjoyed my time as Asher Lev. It was such an amazing opportunity to be able to perform as a lead role at the Arden, even for a night. I’ve never been so excited to do my job before.

A View from the Trenches: APA Katherine discusses her experience as Assistant Stage Manager for My Name Is Asher Lev.

My Name Is Asher Lev has its final performance this Sunday evening. From what I hear from former apprentices, >pharm the final week of a show’s run – particularly shows that, like mine, run in the Arcadia for 8 or 9 weeks at a time -tend to have the assistant stage managers humming “The Final Countdown” between quick-changes. And while I feel that perhaps it is about time to let go and move on to other pursuits within my apprenticeship, I don’t think it will be at all easy for me to say goodbye to this extraordinary group of people, whom I have been honored to work alongside telling this story night after night.

I first read Chaim Potok’s novel when I was fourteen. In my opinion, it’s the perfect age to discover this story. I was hopelessly nerdy as a kid, to the point where when the recommended reading material (in this case, Potok’s The Chosen) wasn’t on the shelf, I simply moved on to the next title in line. I’m pretty sure I might have held off on reading it until I had finished all of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but once I did finally open to the first page, I was hooked. Asher’s struggle to define himself – as an artist, as a son, as an individual – resonated strongly with me, at a time in my life when I was first beginning to explore the conflict between the person my parents wanted me to become, and my realization that their dreams for me were not necessarily my own. Although the book is set within a Brooklyn Hasidic Jewish community – a world that could not, at least on the surface, been more different than my Irish Catholic upbringing in an Albany suburb – it is, at its core, a family story much like my own. I would have been hard-pressed at the time to tell you why, but the truth is, I read and re-read Asher six or seven times that year. It was a time in my life where I began to ask myself what it was that I was passionate about, what motivated and inspired me. Not only that, but it was at this age when I finally began to see my parents as imperfect beings, and had to start that journey towards accepting and loving them as people, flawed and human, even when I didn’t agree with them. It all fits neatly into context now, of course – although at the time, I’m sure I couldn’t have explained why the story resonated with me the way that it did. I just felt somehow connected to this character, and felt an overwhelming sense of recognition as I read Chaim’s words on the page and Identified my own, previously unknown emotions, articulated in front of me as clear as if I’d written the words myself.

Fast-forward to age twenty-two, lounging around my college dorm room in my sweatpants and nervously trying to prepare for my first “real” job interview, typing “Arden Theatre Company” into Google and trying to ascertain whether or not this was a place I could see myself being happy. While, to be honest, the job description, the salary, and the promise of health insurance were pretty big factors in deciding to apply, my heart skipped a beat when I saw that Asher was on the docket for the next season. (In fact, both Asher and Candide – two stories I have long loved – were hugely thrilling to me artistically. Of course, I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get the job that I spent several months trying not to dwell on how very much I wanted to work on those two shows, consequently bringing up none of this during either of my interviews and stammering out something like “Next season? Looks neat!” It’s a wonder I was hired at all).

Of course, as it turned out, I was hired. And I knew that each apprentice would be assigned one show to work on as an assistant to the stage manager (in addition to the multitude of other duties we are assigned in all areas of the building). And although I’d be hard pressed to say why, exactly… I had a good gut feeling about Asher Lev. Next thing you know, I’m in a design meeting with Dan Conway and Thom Weaver; then taping out the stage floor with stage manager Alec Ferrell, and then, whaddya know – I’m shaking hands with Adena Potok (widow of Chaim Potok and artistic consultant), and meeting the cast and creative team who would be bringing the story to life.

I wish I had the words to fully explain the rehearsal process. Thanks to the generosity of the Edgerton Foundation, we had five weeks of rehearsal for Asher, and it made all the difference in the world. In a shorter amount of time, I am certain it would have been more focused upon “we just need to finish – even if it’s not perfect, it’ll be done.” What we did, instead, was make wild and sprawling discoveries every day. Personal stories from everyone’s childhoods would be interspersed with period details from dramaturg Michele Volansky, quietly taking notes in a corner. Actor Karl Miller would ask questions about Asher’s character, motivations, or word choice, to adaptor/director Aaron Posner – more often than not ending in a heated argument or philosophical debate, but also admittedly a much stronger script. With the help of Arden Drama School students Orin and Cooper (as well as their parents!) – the actors were able to rehearse their scenes with actual small children, and could observe firsthand how kids behave, talk, walk, and draw. Adam Heller and Gabra Zackman, complete strangers to each other at the beginning of the process, grew to become close friends, invariably strengthening the onstage relationship between Aryeh and Rivkeh Lev. We added props and subtracted them again; I ran countless times between the rehearsal hall and the photocopier with more and more revised scripts; we celebrated Channukah together with Adena’s famous latkes. And what startled me the most were the moments where my opinions would be asked. Not always, certainly. But how wonderful to find I had a voice in the room, and could share my own stories, and could contribute in a tangible way. Certainly not always the case, as any assistant stage manager will tell you. Certainly not expected, that anyone would really care what the shiksa from upstate New York had to say.

Nearly eighty-some-odd performances later, it’s a radically different script from when I first read it. It’s in many ways a different show with each different audience. The actors still are finding nuances within these words they have now long committed to memory, and that playful spirit still sneaks in at unexpected moments, allowing them to make new discoveries nightly.

I am, frankly, someone who usually has zero sympathy for actors (and please, please understand that I don’t mean to sound like a callous, horrible person when I say this. I say this because I come from a costume background, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a costume designer who doesn’t have a few horror stories about actors who can be divas or jerks; I say this because no matter how many hours the actors are working, trust me, I see what goes on backstage, and the technical staff is always working more). And I was initially terrified of the notion of spending nine weeks with these unknown actors, in much the same way as I was terrified of the first day of kindergarten. Partly due to the question “Are these people up to the challenge of this material, nine times a week for nine weeks?”…but, okay, also,”…and will anybody be nice to me?” And in yet another unexpected surprise, I have found myself amidst something wonderful and rare – not only are they good actors, but they are also quite good people, and that has made all the difference. The sense they have helped instill in me is that I am a critical component to the show as a whole, that we all function as one unit in telling this story. We all work together – not “for” anyone else. On those days when I just want to hit the snooze button, it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. If I’m having a lousy day in the box office, set build, or any other of the thousand tasks I could be doing on a typical “apprentice day,” I look forward to the time where I can drop out of my life and into the story. And to be able to come to work and get paid to help three smart, funny, and talented actors tell a story I’ve long loved, bolstered by my eminently capable stage manager Alec – well, then, I think I’m just about the luckiest apprentice of them all.

I understand, of course, that all things need to come to an end, and change is almost always a good thing. I am looking forward to some elements of the show closing – getting a night off, for one! – and I am hoping for some new and exciting projects to tackle that I simply couldn’t take on due to the time demands of running nine shows a week. I do know, though, that the Arden will seem a little strange to me without the comfort of the same familiar, wonderful group of people that have been a part of my life for the past three months. Somewhere in between tracking script changes and changing over the laundry, I have made some unexpected and true friends, and it is my hope that in sharing this story with our audience, Asher Lev has had an impact in an unexpected and true way as well.

Richard St. Clair is the costume designer for A Year with Frog and Toad. He also designed the costumes for the original Arden production of Frog and Toad in 2004 as well as last season’s production of Sleeping Beauty, both of which earned him Barrymore Awards.

Lindsay Warner, the Arts & Culture Editor of The Bulletin, spent some time in the Costume Shop with Richard as he described how to dress a cast that plays many different animals, without making them look like school mascots.

Read the interview here.

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