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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!

Here’s a brief video teaser of Blue Door, featuring actors Johnnie Hobbs, >pharm Jr. and Kes Khemnu. The play is now on stage through March 21, so come on down to the theatre and see the whole play for yourself!

You can learn more about the production by visiting the Get Familiar link on the Blue Door page of our website.

By Brittany Howard, Arden Professional Apprentice

I was lucky enough over the holidays to spend a few days back in my home state of Texas where I slept a little, saw my middle sister get married, and played with my nieces and nephews, including baby Lily, who was born shortly before I made the 1600 mile journey to Philadelphia. I was overwhelmed with how much those kids had changed. The oldest, Emily, can now read. Aaron, at four-years-old, is far more skilled at Mario Kart than I could ever hope to be. And wide-eyed Lily, who did little more than blink up at me cutely before I left, now chatters with a language all her own.

I have to say, watching someone grow up is much more enjoyable than actually doing the growing. That period in life – when one comes of age – has inspired some of the most unforgettable stories in every avenue of the arts. What is it that makes the art of growing up (and believe me, it is an art form all its own) so magical? Is it because in adolescence every new development is either a triumph or a tragedy? Or because kids feel emotions so much stronger and more openly than adults? Whatever it is – it is this magic that lives and breathes in the Arden’s production of Peter Pan, even if Peter Pan himself doesn’t actually grow up.

Through all the times I’ve watched this play (and trust me, that’s a great many), my favorite line is still in the final fight scene between Hook and Peter. Hook is outdone, and gasping, asks, “What fiend is fighting me?” A little part of me cheers every time Peter answers, “I am youth! I am joy! I’m the little bird that’s broken out of the egg!”

Joy.

I’ve come to believe that it is joy that lies at the root of this magic.

Peter Pan did not say, “I am happiness!” In fact, adolescence is almost certainly the most painful, awkward, troublesome, and stressful part of life. Peter Pan did not say that being a kid is easy. On the contrary, for a baby bird, breaking out of the egg might just be the hardest thing to do. But somehow, miraculously, the shell breaks, and in its place is nothing but supreme joy. For some that joy comes from overcoming the obstacles of a bad childhood, for others it’s remembering those fun-filled years with fondness, for many it’s attempting to make childhood dreams a reality. This joy can come immediately, or surface years down the road.

I won’t lie. I’m not quite adjusted to this whole “adult” thing, and by extension, I’m pretty terrible at it. My apartment is a mess. I have to leave myself notes everywhere to make sure I pay the bills on time. And my kitchen is pretty much empty of anything that isn’t microwaveable. I’m at that place where being a grown up is sort of like breaking in a new pair of shoes. It’s a little uncomfortable, but the old shoes don’t fit anymore so I have no choice.

I’m sure at some point, those new shoes will fit perfectly, but for now, I’m content to cheer on the boy-who-would-not-grow-up in his battles against the fearsome Captain Hook. I’m happy to sit in the back of the theatre, mouthing the words under my breath, memorizing the way it feels to be young, and have an entire life, an entire world, and an entire adventure ahead of me.

I may not technically be “youth” anymore, but I’m pretty sure I’m still joy.

By Matt Ocks, >medical Manager of Institutional Giving

This morning I attended an information session at the offices of the Independence Foundation here in Philadelphia. The Foundation is about to launch a new funding initiative that will encourage the theatre companies in our town to create new play development programs, very much in the spirit of our own Independence Foundation New Play Showcase, the program that brought you Opus and Something Intangible.

“New Play Development” has become something of a buzz term in the funding community. Developing new work has helped our company leverage increased national support. That support, in turn, is helping us bring new writers to Philadelphia. Of the three playwrights most recently commissioned by the Arden, only one has had his work produced here in the last couple seasons (That would be Jordan Harrison, whose Kid Simple was put on by Azuka). We get to help Jordan develop his first piece for kids. A workshop of The Flea and the Professor, his hip and witty adaptation of a little known Hans Christian Anderson story is happening this week.

Someone at the meeting today told us to think of these new grants as “risk money.” In other words, money we can use to play with, experiment. The folks at Independence are not as interested in results (though, of course, they hope our work leads to actual productions!). What they’re interested in most of all, I think, is supporting the process by which we develop work, whatever that may be.

Often times, when people ask what I do at the Arden, I say, “I’m kind of a producer” rather then go into the gritty details of what it means to work in development. But saying that word – “Producer”- often conjures up, for me at least, images of Zero Mostel cavorting with little old ladies. (Thanks a lot, Mel Brooks).

I’m sure my bosses at the Arden don’t think of themselves as latter day Max Bialystocks. Nor do I. And I’m glad we don’t have to resort to the same degrading measures in order to get new plays on their feet. I’m especially glad to work in Philly, where the philanthropic community is so attuned to the needs of our producers. It’s a rare thing indeed to find a foundation willing to grant us money so we can go off and play.

If only Bialystock and Bloom had had it so easy…

We opened the Philadelphia premiere of Blue Door on Wednesday, January 20. Our Sylvan Society members attended a pre-show party at Triumph Brewing Company in Old City. Following the performance, guests mingled with with the cast and creative team. Blue Door runs through March 21.

Here are some photos from the evening!

By Brittany Howard, Arden Professional Apprentice

Apprentice Class 17 has just passed our four month mark at the Arden. A lot can happen in four months – mistakes, victories, trials (lots of trials). Here are just a few.

Almost Cry #1
The Opening Night of The History Boys: It was our first Opening Night, and was what my mother would call a doozy. We started our day bright and early by cleaning the theatre in preparation for the night’s festivities. By the time the last guest left the lobby late that night, we were all on our last leg – sticky from that time when we tried to carry too many drinks, in denial about the piles and piles of full trash bags that we’d stashed in the basement until we had time to deal with them, and wishing we didn’t have hours of clean-up left to go. Things got even worse when Apprentice Kristyn was injured in what we’ll now refer to as THE TABLE INCIDENT, leaving us with one less set of bleach-spraying hands. I’d like to say that there was one point in there where I thought about crying, but I’d be lying (there were at least three or four). But we finally finished, and on the walk home we were hit with delirium and the satisfaction of a job done, well done, we hope.

Almost Cry #2
Distribution: in which we learn the true meaning of “Going Postal”: In rain, sleet, snow, winds blowing so hard that no umbrella has a chance of survival – we’ve been there, drenched to the bone, Arden Theatre Season Brochure in hand.

Almost Cry #3
House Managing: a bizarre land where I got to use a powder called Devour to clean up bodily fluids.

Almost Cry #4
The Great Snow of December 19: Let me preface this by saying that I’m from Texas. I’m used to staying inside to avoid a heatstroke, not frostbite. When I first arrived at work, I was excited: I took pictures (which really only got my phone wet), ran through the untouched snow (which really only got my jeans wet), and made my first snowball (which really only got my gloves wet… see a pattern?). By the end of that day, I’d seen enough snow to last me for the next decade. Hello Winter, it’s nice to meet you too.

As frustrating as some of these events were, not one of them made me cry, even when they coincided with long hours and stressful days.

But there was one day when my emotions got the best of me, when my throat tightened and tears blurred my vision. On that day I encountered an older gentleman in the lobby of the Arden, just before a performance of The History Boys. He asked me if he could watch the show on the late seating monitor in the lobby. I told him he could, and asked if he was waiting on someone. He’d actually already seen the Pay-What-You-Can Performance (the final dress rehearsal that the Arden opens to the public to benefit another non-profit), and wanted to see it again, but didn’t have a ticket. He professed that he hadn’t enjoyed a show so much since 1955 when he saw the original production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams.

What made this moment so profound for me was not the comparison to a classic (though that’s certainly a comparison we’ll always take), but the fact that he remembered the exact year he saw that production. I’m sure if I would have asked, he could have told me whether his seat was comfortable, what the theatre smelled like, and exactly how he felt the moment the curtain dropped.

Maybe I cried that day because I was tired and stressed and anything could have set me off. Or maybe I cried because whatever else my life may become, I sincerely hope that one day I’ll be able to look back and remember my life by the great shows I saw and the theatre I had a hand in creating. Theatre thrives because it’s connected to life – both life represented on stage and the connections we make to other people and to literature when it is brought to life. Sometimes, even we forget that. One moment in which I’m reminded of that is enough to blot out dozens of bad days and dirty jobs.

What plays – funny and sad, good and oh-so-very-bad – have you seen that will always stick with you?

By Jacqueline E. Lawton, dramaturg for Blue Door.

Jacequline E. Lawton: In Blue Door, we follow a family, from father to son, from Simon all the way to Lewis. What was your impulse to make your central figures men?
Tanya Barfield: People have often asked why I wrote a male story. Fortunately, African-American men of Lewis’s age have embraced the play. I didn’t “decide” on the play when I sat down to write it. If I had, I probably would have chosen to employ African-American women since there are fewer great roles written for women. But, the characters that spoke to me were male and so I wrote them. Perhaps, this is because there are more men in family; perhaps, this is because my African-American legacy is traced through my father.

The play follows Lewis’ journey of self discovery. This journey is sometimes very painful and difficult for him, but it is also quite funny, touching and very rewarding. What part of Lewis’ character do you most relate to?
I relate to Lewis’s drive to prove himself. I relate to his awareness of his own “otherness.”

It’s not easy to write a play that connects so deeply and honestly with audiences and also proves to stand the test of time. What do think it is about this particular play, this story, these characters that continues to resonate with audiences today?
Ultimately, I believe there is an universality to Lewis’s story. Storytelling and song has preserved many cultures’ communal identity and history. Oral history is not uniquely African-American. The Odyssey, The Iliad, and the Scandinavian Sagas are only a few famous examples from other cultures. It is my hope that many of the themes explored in Blue Door are ones in which people of any culture can relate to. Every culture has a legacy from which it’s birthed. I think it is part of human nature to be pulled by our ancestors, to feel their watchful spirits, to wish we knew their stories, to both scorn and adore them. In times of crisis (when our own self threatens to fragment), we might wonder if our ancestors could answer the basic question of identity. In this vast and complicated universe: who am I? It is only through memory that the soul of an ancestor is kept alive. If we forget our past, do we in some way forget ourselves?

Each time I read Blue Door, I am struck by the notion that the math theories that Lewis’ teaches are happening to him. How did you discover this part of the story? Did you always know that Lewis’ was a mathematician?
There’s a line Lewis has in the play where he says, “I want to rise above the drudgery of existence and apprehend the eternal verities.” I spoke with a mathematician about the play (in order to verify that all the math was possible and accurate), and I asked, “Does it make sense to you that Lewis is a mathematician?” And he said, “Absolutely!” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “I can’t think of anything else he would be.” And I said, “Because I think the reason it’s interesting to me that Lewis is a mathematician is because not only does he want to get beyond race, he wants to get beyond the self.” I’m talking about the physical body, the drudgery of existence that everyone experiences – not just black people. And he wants to reach a higher plane – perfect symmetry of the world – the master design which is mathematical. And there’s that beauty in math that he’s looking for. So, it’s not only that he uses math to escape himself. He uses math in pursuit of something greater than the self.

Throughout Lewis’ journey, we meet his ancestors, all the people who lived, loved, and struggled for survival, so that Lewis could exist. Did you always know that he would be visited by his ancestors, that that would be necessary for his survival?
I wrote the character of Simon first. Simon’s voice was very strong, so I just kept writing Simon. I listened to Simon, and eventually, I said to myself, “Well, who needs to hear Simon? Am I going to write a play just because Simon’s talking to me?” And that’s how Lewis was born, because I felt that Lewis needed to hear Simon. And all the other characters came after that.

Blue Door dramatizes the old adage: “If you don’t know where you came from, how can you know where you’re going.” In interviews you have spoken about feelings of “separation from an ancestral heritage” and that writing this play helped you feel more connected. What do you feel is lost for a people who have no immediate sense of their ancestry?
There is a spiritual mindset handed down from the West African Adinkra people. It’s the belief in “sankofa.” Sankofa literally translates: “Go back and fetch it” – meaning go back to your roots in order to move forward. This point of view is loosely incorporated into the beliefs of many African-Americans today. Sankofa is symbolized iconically by a mythic bird that flies forward while looking backward and holding an egg in its mouth. I was not think about sankofa while writing Blue Door, but in reexamining the play, I can only muse that this perspective was at least partially motivating my creative process.

What message do you feel this play has at a time in America’s history when an African American is now president of the United States?
I would be curious to see/hear the play with a post-Obama audience. Certainly, the “Beer Summit” reminds me that many of the issues in the play have not died as President Obama’s election may have originally made us surmise. Like so many black Americans, I cried when Obama was elected president. For me, the inauguration was resonant (but not the same, of course) of how Simon may have felt on the day he learned of his freedom. It was a dream Simon could barely imagine. I wrote Blue Door two years before most of America had ever heard of Barack Obama. If you had told me at that time that in two years a black man would be president, I would have laughed in your face. It was a dream I could not imagine. Blue Door is about moments in time; moments that are a piece of a legacy. For me, Barack Obama is a piece of the African-American experience. But, more than that, he represents part of the American experience. However cruel the post-slavery years of Jim Crow were, I am also interested in the moment of history in which Simon and Katie felt hope. That is why a moment of hope is the play’s climax – the last monologue in the play.

When the play was first performed, what surprised you most about it? If you have seen any recent productions, what continues to surprise you?
My surprise has been delight. It’s deeply humbling to have talented actors, designers and a director come together to work on my words. The first time I heard from audience members how the story touched them was humbling. The laughter and sniffles that came from the audience, the gasps, the questions — all of that is what a playwright wishes for. I admit, I haven’t seen recent productions of the play. Blue Door has been so significant for me as an artist and as a person, it would be easy for me to want to meddle in every production, but I’ve chosen to let the play be.

When researching Blue Door, you have spoken about listening to oral histories and reading books about slavery, and also folktales. How did you decide what stories would be told?
I wrote reams of material (about all the characters) that did not make it into the play. I’ve never written so much material for a play that did not make it into the final draft. It was a phenomenal amount of material to discard. I like many of the stories that didn’t make it into the final draft. Indeed a huge chunk of the play was rewritten after the world-premiere at South Coast Repertory. The published version of the play is the off-Broadway production from Playwrights Horizons.

Do you think any of these stories would make their way into another play some day?
I used to think I might write a companion play. People have often asked when I’m going to write “The Women of Blue Door?” But, I think the play stands alone. I admire writers that write trilogies and such, but Lewis feels isolated to me and therefore there may be a singularity to his story. I’m not sure.

Speaking of which, what next for you as a writer?
I try not to talk about my work while I am “in process.” I find the intellectual discussion of my work can be an interrupter. So, for that reason, I’ll stay silent.

Part 1 of Jacqueline’s interview with Tanya can be found here.

On Sunday, January 17th, the Arden celebrated PECO Day! As a thank you to their employees, PECO invited their staff and families to a pre-show party at the Arden, complete with hot dogs, chicken nuggets, a sundae bar and crafts for the kids. They enjoyed the 4pm performance of Peter Pan. PECO, longtime supporters of Arden Children’s Theatre, served as the production sponsor for Peter Pan.

Here are some photos from the afternoon!

Young Friends of the Arden is a new program that welcomes professionals in their 20s and 30s to the theatre, along with an opportunity to mix and mingle with each other before the show. For Peter Pan, remedy we invited our Young Friends to bring their younger friends to the show. On Sunday, January 10 we hosted a pre-show party which included snacks from Cosi and craft projects like eyepatches and pirate hats, coloring, and facepainting.

Here are some photos of our Younger Friends in action!

We’ll be hosting Young Friends events for Romeo and Juliet and Sunday in the Park with George. Visit the Young Friends page of our website for dates, details and ticket information.

By Jacqueline E. Lawton, >salve dramaturg for Blue Door.

Jacqueline E. Lawton: To begin, can you tell me a little bit about where you live?
Tanya Barfield: I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn fairly close to Prospect Park. I’m on Eastern Parkway, a huge tree-lined boulevard with park benches and a few remaining cobble-stones. I hear traffic. But I can imagine another time when the parkway was filled with open-air markets and horse-drawn carriages.

Brilliant! Inspiration is everywhere! Now, tell me a little bit about your favorite place to write.
I don’t have a favorite place to write. I write where and when I can. Usually, I write pre-dawn on the couch – with coffee. I’m not a morning person. I write in the wee-hours because I have kids.

Okay, give us a little bit of background where you’re from originally and how you ended up where you are now…
I was born in San Francisco and grew up in Portland, Oregon. I came to New York for undergrad and never left. I studied acting at NYU and did solo-performance for a few years after college. Then, I was invited to participate in New York Theatre Workshop’s Van Lier Fellowship where I wrote my first attempt at a play. Around the same time, I met the now well-known and extremely talented director, Leigh Silverman. At that time, she was an intern and I had barely written a play. Leigh and I did a workshop together where I wrote ten pages a night and the next day she staged my pages with actors. After a week, I had an act of a play called DENT. I wrote the second act over the next couple of months and Leigh suggested I apply to the Juilliard Playwriting Program. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Juilliard where I studied with Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman.

I’m curious, other than being a playwright, what other forms of writing have you done? Were you always drawn to the theater? If so, why? If not, what brought you here?
I haven’t endeavored into other forms of writing. I love plays and I believe that’s primarily where my talent lies. I wouldn’t close the door to other mediums of storytelling but right now, my brain thinks theatrically. I was drawn to the theater in elementary school but I didn’t dream I could be a part of it until my junior year of high school. In elementary school, the advanced English class, of which I was not a part, did a production of Macbeth. Perhaps, I was the only youngster in the audience that watched the show. I was riveted. It was storytelling and poetry like I had never heard. I went on to a very small high school with no theater department. With intensity only a teenager could muster, I lamented over the fact that we had no theater department. So I decided to put on the school’s first play. I chose the only play I had ever read, Macbeth. Indeed, I staged it and it was performed. Everyone that auditioned was cast, and Macduff was played by a girl because not enough boys tried out. I saw my first professional production of a play at the age of 17 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After that, I was hooked on theater. Looking back on it, I think the only reason I studied acting instead of playwriting was because I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a living playwright.

Describe for me the first time you had one of your plays produced and you sat in the audience while it was performed…
The first time I heard my work, I had butterflies in my stomach. I was tremendously happy and about to be sick. I’ve always been drawn to working with people that are interested in collaboration. To me, this is the most exciting aspect of theater. Of course, writing is a solitary activity and I’m not interested in “writing plays by committee.” But I do enjoy the exchange between playwright and director; the actor’s input and how they bring the script to life; the way in which the designers contribute to the storytelling; and finally the audience. I’ve seen shows, my own included, change drastically dependent on the audience reaction. Funnier moments can become funnier, sad moments sadder. I’m excited about the relationships one forms with other artists throughout their careers – such as Walter Dallas directing Blue Door at the Arden. I feel honored that Walter’s chosen to work on the play again [Walter Dallas directed African Continuum Theatre Company’s production of Blue Door in the Spring of 2009]. Or – yourself [referring to Jacqueline E. Lawton, who served as dramaturg for African Continuum Theatre Company]. I’m glad that you will be revisiting the play and hopefully the new cast and designers will illuminate new aspects of the story. The life of a play is so short. Each production or night in the theater is unique. To me, that’s what makes performance so compelling and different from all other art-forms. It happens in real time and while the script may stay the same, there is no repetition. No two nights in the theater are the same. For this reason, no matter how grand, theater is always intimate.

What inspires you to write? And do you have any particular writing rituals that you follow?
I write because I don’t feel like I have a choice. When I write, I feel like myself. And if I go long periods without writing, I feel estranged. Often it is an arduous task. At times it is joyful. I don’t follow any particular rituals.

What sorts of people, situation, circumstances, do you like to write about?
I like to write about people in a state of emotional crisis; people on the edge of discovery.

Part 2 of Jacqueline’s interview with Tanya can be found here.

By Matt Ocks, mind Manager of Institutional Giving

My boss Terry just asked me to pull a quote from Alan “History Boys” Bennett, and it got me to thinking.

But first off, here’s the quote:

“…theatre is often at its most absorbing when it’s school.”

The History Boys, of course, is set in a school in northern England. During the run of Peter Pan, a whole bunch of us Ardenites got to visit actual students in actual schools thanks to Arden for All, the theatre’s educational outreach program. Blue Door, which opens next Wednesday, is not set in a school, but it is the second play in the season to feature a teacher in turmoil.

And maybe this is a stretch, but even our recently closed Rabbit Hole with its scenes of intergenerational connection, could be viewed as a play about teaching. In my favorite scene, when Becca and her mother Nan clean out Becca’s son’s room, Nan teaches Becca a lot about what to expect from her grief in the coming years.

Romeo and Juliet has student/teacher-ish relationships as well, such as Romeo and Friar Lawrence and Juliet and her Nurse. The main character in Sunday in the Park with George gets frustrated because the people he cares about don’t fully grasp his art. Who knows? Maybe if George was a better teacher, he and Dot wouldn’t have to – ahem – “move on.”

The interweaving of school and theatre is especially important to me. I help put on plays, but my mom is a school librarian. Storytelling – whether on stage or in the classroom – is the family trade.

I’m often struck by how much our rehearsal hall resembles a classroom. Dramaturgs come in to share historical background with the actors. A director shares a personal story to make a challenging passage in a play more relatable.

Teachers also make great protagonists for plays. Hector and Mrs. Lintott are mightily compelling. I know from talking to my pals Frank X and Maureen Torsney-Weir that they are also very satisfying to play. I’ll bet playing Lewis – the math professor in Blue Door – is equally satisfying, and not just because the guy doing it, Johnnie Hobbs Jr., is a teacher himself at the University of the Arts.

David Howey, who played the Headmaster in The History Boys, also teaches acting at the University of the Arts. One of the joys of assistant directing that play was watching him work with several of his current and former students. I have no doubt that he is a great instructor at school, but at the Arden he taught by example.

Teachers tend to be colorful characters in life and in plays, and the connections between theatre and school are deep and varied. I’m loving the responses to my colleague Ed Sobel’s entry about season planning for next year. I’m also loving this season because it’s all about the art of teaching.

As people continue to chime in with play suggestions, can anyone recommend other plays about teachers? Even if our Artistic Department doesn’t program them next year, this particular blogger would love to add them to his syllabus.

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