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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!

By Ed Sobel, >case Associate Artistic Director

First, please accept my thanks to all who have posted comments and suggestions thus far. As promised, I am going to respond to some of these, with an eye toward illustrating some of the process and issues we face when putting together the season.

One of our season planners was kind enough to suggest the Jez Butterworth play Jerusalem. Jez Butterworth is a British writer who, at the ripe old age of 25, became the toast of London theater when the Royal Court produced his play Mojo back in 1995. He then devoted time to making the movie of that play, and several other movies (The Birthday Girl with Nicole Kidman, e.g) and it was seven years before he returned to writing plays including The Night Heron, and now Jerusalem. Jerusalem, like Mojo, has created quite a stir in London, and is scheduled to have a commercial run there shortly. So, as our planner noted, there are likely to be some issues with obtaining performance rights, a subject I will tackle in another post.

One thing that is noteworthy about Jerusalem, is that it requires 14 actors. Think back for a moment to consider when you last saw a play (not a musical, but a play) with 14 actors in it. I’m guessing you either just had a flash-back to college, or perhaps some other non-professional theater experience. In professional theater in America, it is now an extremely rare experience.

Here’s why, and its not exactly shocking: actors cost money. By collective bargaining agreement with the actors union (Actors Equity Association , or “AEA” or “Equity” for short) all actors are guaranteed a set minimum weekly salary, along with certain other rights, work rules, and benefits. At Arden the minimum weekly salary in the Haas is $696, but that is only part of the cost. Like the rest of America, not-for-profit theaters are also struggling with rising health care and other benefit costs. For each AEA actor, in addition to salary, Arden pays over $200 per week in benefits. So, every AEA actor costs over $900 per week. When you start to calculate in all the other costs to producing a play (stage managers and crew, box office staff, directors and designers, playwright royalties, sets/lights/costumes construction labor and materials and on and on) you begin to see both why most theaters operate as not-for-profit entities, and are reluctant these days to do large cast shows.

Or at least, most theaters must consider what in the trade is called “actor weeks”. Even at the Arden, where we have chosen to prioritize having actors on-stage over other production costs like the set, over a whole season we can afford on average 500 actor weeks encompassing seven shows. So if Jerusalem takes up 140 (14 actors x 10 weeks – i.e. four weeks of rehearsal and six weeks of performance) that means our other six shows can only use 360. Two of those six are for family audiences, which on average eat up another 150 actor weeks. So we could do Jerusalem, if that were a high enough priority for the theater, but it means we are going to have to do four smaller cast (five actors or fewer) shows in our subscription season to compensate.

The larger issue here, and one that is truly troubling, is the way in which over the last 30 years, playwrights have adapted to the demands of this new economy. They write smaller plays. The result has been a gradual diminishing of the scale of plays seen on American stages. That has lead to a gradual shrinking of the scale of the ideas they contain. It has made our modern theater the purveyor of internal psychological introspection for a small segment of our culture, rather than the dynamic arena for wide public discourse it might be.

Now, I don’t mean to say that one can’t say something profound about the world with 3 or 4 actors. (Waiting for Godot, afterall, only requires 5). But just as there are beautiful sonatas and quartets yet we would be loathe to give up the full symphony, so too do we need plays that are able to show us the world through a variety of simultaneous cultures, points of view, classes, and experiences.

So, will you see Jerusalem on our season? Probably not. But you will see several larger- than-average size plays, in our effort to swim against a very heavy tide.

Who would you die for? (and other loaded questions)R+J

During the run of Romeo and Juliet, we’ll be posting a different provocative question on Facebook, Twitter, and all around town. We welcome your responses online and at the theatre.

If you see a question chalked on a sidewalk near you, take a picture and follow these simple steps to enter-to-win free tickets to Romeo and Juliet!

If you are on Facebook:
1. Become a fan of Arden Theatre Company: www.facebook.com/ardentheatreco
2. Post a picture of the “Question of the Week” to your own Facebook wall
3. Mention Arden Theatre Company by writing @ArdenTheatreCo in your status message of the picture (so your post shows up on the Arden’s page)
4. Check your Facebook messages in a week to see if you’ve won 2 free tickets to Romeo and Juliet!

If you are on Twitter:
1. Follow Arden Theatre Company www.twitter.com/ardentheatreco
2. Post an update with the “Question of the Week” and cross streets in Philly where you spotted it.
3. @reply ArdenTheatreCo so we know you saw the question
4. Check your Direct Messages in a week to see if you’ve won 2 free tickets to Romeo and Juliet!

See you online, on the streets, and at the theatre!

By Evan Jonigkeit, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet

We have arrived in the world of “our Verona” Our set is simple and our lights are rich. We are in the process of coloring in the lines and the moments of the work we have sketched in, to tell this story. It is the hardest part of working on this show so far… waiting to experience it with all of the technical elements in place.

In the rehearsal room, we found obstacles and broke through them, We developed relationships, connections and I have had the privilege to fall in love in a way few people in the world ever will. I have been immensely lucky to be involved in the creation of this world.
Like Romeo and Juliet, we as a cast sit on the precipice of  finding out who we are. In the process I have had the challenge of taking snippets of my life of love, identity, and rage and using them in this story telling. I have been forced to consider so much of who I, Evan, have become as a lover, son, friend, adversary and how I reached this point in my own life. This self exploration makes me ever grateful for the craft I have chosen for a career.
Matt Pfeiffer and this cast  makes this self exploration a haven of safety and trust. Matt is a compelling communicator and anyone in this field should have the experience of working with a mind like his, one as intelligent as it is passionate. Every single actor in this play is a gift to our Verona. A very good friend of mine and mentor often reminds me, “if you are the smartest person in the room you should walk out.” I couldn’t be farther away from the door. I learn volumes by watching the likes of Scott Greer and Suzanne O’Donnell, Tony Lawton, I could go through the cast and tell you how each person, literally every person has a mind or a presence I envy.
I will attempt to delve into the relationship with my most active scene partner, Juliet,  Mahira Kakkar.  We are both in committed relationship in our real lives and happily so, In the strange world where make believe and reality cross paths I could not find myself in the eyes, arms and lips of a more open soul. My eyes well up at the thought of this process and this story being over, even before a single person has seen the result of our efforts.
Tonight we put our costumes on. Tonight we put the pieces of the story back together, now that we can wear the lights and songs and our set like a comfortable sweater. Tonight we hate and love and everything in between again. in my estimation I am the luckiest person in the world.


by Mark Kennedy, Arden Professional Apprentice

I always think about my father when I work on Blue Door. Whether it’s ironing Kes Khemnu’s stubbornly wrinkled pants, >buy or focusing the lights in Thom Weaver’s design, or chatting up and helping out the Freedom Theatre folk during the Pay What You Can performance, no matter what the task is, my father pops into my head.

My father is a pediatrician with an infectious disease specialty. Always curious. Always learning. Studying for new tests even though he’s worked thirty plus years in his field. Commuting two hours each way to work in a hospital where he gets to treat kids, teach, and research all together. Spending weeks on call, taking consult after consult. Traveling to South Korea to work on the meningitis vaccine. Traveling to Africa to serve as a medical missionary. My father is determined, passionate, and works very, very hard.

Growing up I didn’t understand why my father wasn’t around as much as I wanted him to be. He was always at the hospital, always caring for other people’s children, and I used to think he just didn’t like me, that he cared more about his job than his family. Even in high school, as much as I was interested in science, I chose to focus on the arts, and we began to speak different languages. Platelets to plays.

He was also a hardcore swimmer growing up. Thanks to him, I swam competitively for ten years, and worked my brains out trying to balance swimming, theatre, and school. For a while I enjoyed it all, but by my senior year of high school the pressure of getting scholarships and best times overwhelmed me, and in spite of my father’s extra weight training sessions and personal pep talks, I quit the swim team to play Ernst Ludwig in our high school production of Cabaret. I told my parents I was unhappy swimming, I needed to focus on what I loved, and they listened. I could tell my father was still a little disappointed.

See, he has his own swimming story. When Dad was my age, he slipped a disc in his spine at a swim meet. He was told by his doctor that he would never swim again, but Dad, clearly already thinking he was a doctor, disagreed, and worked out in the pool for however little he could for months on end until he actually rehabilitated his back and was able to compete again. He did the work, all by himself, and actually healed himself.

Now, whenever I work on Blue Door, watching Lewis struggle with the stories of his father and their fathers, I notice how much we inherit from our past. I notice how all the jobs I do in this apprenticeship inherently involve the things my father values most. Working with people. Learning new skills. Diagnosing problems, coming up with solutions. And, above all else, doing hard work, even in the face of the impossible. I think about how I couldn’t have the endurance to do half this job without my training as a swimmer, and I wouldn’t have the support, emotional or financial, to pull it off without my dear old Dad.

His hard work, his love, really, keeps working on me. And this play keeps working on me, too.

By Brittany Howard, Arden Professional Apprentice

I have entered an entirely new world – a world where a sharpened pencil is worth more than gold, where you can expect your phone to ring if you’re even a minute late, and where a person’s every move is watched and recorded. I’m not talking about Orwellian literature or some future dystopian society. I’m not even talking about a reality TV show.

I’m talking about assistant stage managing Romeo and Juliet.

What does an assistant stage manager do? More like… what doesn’t an assistant stage manager do?

You might see me pulling jackets from costume storage for the actors to practice with or maybe in the basement sanding down the sharp edges on one of the knives used in the production. Some patrons attending Blue Door recently may have even heard us rehearsing the fights in the Independence Foundation Studio (trust me, they look as real as they sound).

I have no experience in stage management (or at least, I didn’t), but every Arden Apprentice gets to assistant stage manage a production during their time here. When I was assigned Romeo and Juliet, I wasn’t entirely sure what to feel. I love Shakespeare. My mom is an English teacher, and I grew up living and breathing language. But of all the plays I pretentiously quoted in High school, and feverishly studied in College, I was never really attracted to the “greatest love story of all time.”

Why?

Because I’m too much of a cynic. Now, I know I’m not alone here. Odds are more than half of you reading are just as skeptical as me. Everyone thinks they’ve seen or heard this story a dozen times over, and that each production is as cliche as the last. And Matt Pfeiffer, the director, made plain at the first rehearsal that the actors, designers, and production team would have to pull out all the stops to prove that this story is worth the weight that history has given it.

Once upon a time, I might have told you that Romeo and Juliet was my least favorite Shakespeare play, and now I get so sucked into the story during rehearsal that I forget I’m supposed to be looking for what actor exits where and who is carrying what prop – and that’s after already having watched the play 6 days a week, eight hours a day. We haven’t even entered tech rehearsals yet, and I can safely say that they’ve already broken through my skepticism.

Once the production opens, the actors will only have about two hours to convey this iconic story and win over all the cynics in the house.

But whatever happens – every performance, back in the wings, dressed in black, there will be me.

One doubter down.

By Matt Ocks, Manager of Institutional Giving

This past weekend may have been Super Bowl Sunday, treat but the week started with PTI Monday for all of us in the Philadelphia theatre community.

PTI is short for Philadelphia Theatre Initiative, a grant program made possible by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the University of the Arts. Every year the Arden and other companies in town submit in depth proposals for funding of projects of the highest artistic caliber.

The Arden’s past PTI projects include some of our finest work (in my opinion): Assassins, Candide and my personal favorite Arden show, Caroline, or Change. This year PTI is helping us to make Sunday in the Park with George a reality. That show has a pretty famous number called “Putting it Together” in which George remarks, “art isn’t easy.”

Having worked in professional theatre for 4 years, I can honestly say George is right.

And he’s also wrong.

At the end of a reading we held last week, I went up to talk to an actor who happens to be a pal of mine. I asked about what shows he was working on these days. I remarked that he must be tired, as he has a lot on his plate. “Eh,” he said to me. “Beats working for a living.”

Actors, designers, grant writers. We do all work very hard, often for meager pay, on projects we have a deep personal connection to, the success or failure of which hinges upon the opinion of a select group of others who probably don’t feel as connected to what we’re working on as we do. (We rehearse each play 52 hours a week for a month after all. Audiences are with it a few hours, tops).

But in spite of the blood, sweat and egos, theatre people are pretty lucky. We get to work on things we are passionate about. We get to use our imaginations every day. And if we’re in rehearsal or production, we don’t have to show up on Monday.

When Stephen Sondheim wrote that lyric – “art isn’t easy” – back in the early 1980s, he couldn’t have known how prophetic it was. Funding for the arts was getting scarce then, but nation-wide it’s even worse now. We lost a generation of audiences because of cutbacks on arts programs in schools. The budget for the NEA was nearly cut in half in 1996. This year, due to the state of the economy…well, that’s beating a dead horse, isn’t it?

Besides, in Philadelphia, we theatre people are – dare I repeat myself – lucky. Thanks to grant programs like PTI, we can still take risks and advance our company.

The process is, of course, highly competitive. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first deadline this year fell between the Super Bowl and the start of the Olympics.

In the art of making art, PTI pushes theatre folk to truly go for the gold.

By Matthew Decker, Associate Producer

The Arden kicked off the month of February by working on a new play called The Flea and the Professor. Flea, cure based on Hans Christian Anderson’s final fairy tale, is the first children’s theatre production that the Arden commissioned. Playwright Jordan Harrison, composer Richard Grey and director Annie Kauffman traveled to Philadelphia and spent four days workshopping the new work with some of Philadelphia’s top talent.

What exactly happens in a four day workshop? The playwright, composer and director get a chance to hear the play read out loud. The process is not about preparing for a performance, designing sets or costumes, or choreographing a dance. The goal is simply to hear the play and make it better.

It’s a rare opportunity to be granted time to focus on the work, and we’re grateful to our donors that make these workshops possible – especially Harvey and Virginia Kimmel for their support of The Flea and the Professor and the Independence Foundation New Play Showcase for their overall support of new play development.

Since time is at a premium, you have to assemble great singers and actors who are able to learn material quickly and make strong character choices. Basically, you need some of the best and brightest folks in town to help you learn about your new work. Knowing that, we gathered Arden Children’s Theatre veterans Jeff Coon (Frog and Toad) and Kala Moses Baxter (The BFG), as well as Rob McClure, Krista Apple, Alex Keiper, David Ingram and Dan Hodge. We were lucky to have such immense talent in the room.

The first order of business was tackling the music – the actors worked with Richard while Annie and Jordan listened – and new verses were added, lyrics were re-arranged and notes were changed. Then Annie worked scenes with the actors, staging a bit of the play, and listening to how the story flowed. Jordan made adjustments to the script, giving the actors new pages of dialogue at the start of each day.

The weekend culminated in a staged reading of the piece. In attendance were ten 5th grade students from McCall Elementary, one of the schools that participate in the Arden for All Program. It was important to have young audience members hearing the piece, since that is the audience we are writing for. There reactions help shape the direction we need to go in developing the work.

The next step for Flea is the Kennedy Center’s prestigious New Visions/New Voices Festival. It is a weeklong festival in May for playwrights and theatres to stimulate and support the creation of new plays and musicals for young audiences and families. Five theatres in the country and two theatres internationally are chosen to participate in this festival. There, Flea will take its next major steps.

Following the festival – who knows? We may see Flea on the Arden’s stage in the near future.

In the meantime, we’re always looking for new children’s theatre plays to present on our stage, or great children’s stories to adapt into new plays. If you have any suggestions of stories to adapt or published plays that we should have on our radar, please post them in the comments section here.

By Evan Jonigkeit, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet

Yesterday was our first rehearsal. I walked in with trepidation as I do with many of my projects, wondering if I will be able to pull it off essentially. Romeo and Juliet, >salve being iconographic, sits on a plane above most in the gut tingling nerves area. I have learned that these first rehearsal nerves I have come to expect are, for me, a catalyst for work ethic. I realize the only way to move past the uncertainty of a thing is to know it and contest it backwards, forwards and sideways so I am able, hopefully, to make fearless and unapologetic choices.
I entered the room of the Arden’s rehearsal hall, with its unpainted walls and scattered props from shows past, even some of the rolling tables I came to love and cherish as a security blanket in the world of The History Boys. I remembered immediately something about how the history of this place (like many theatres) somehow holds your hand as an artist to make you trust what you are about to embark on. When my body was done taking in that ethereal first breath, my eyes focused. I saw some of the most talented and lovely people that make living and working in this city a privilege. My nerves were commandeered by joy for a moment as I began my hellos. I could write the first interaction with each person in that room, however in my heightened state of the moment, I would surely bore you with the minutia of each (worth noting – Scott Greer and I agree the Mets had an awful off-season).This I will say: the coming together of two actors that worked together in the past is like closest childhood friends running into one another in the supermarket. With childhood friends we immediately remember how to play, remember it is ok to cry, they remind us of a time when it was us against everything. At least that’s what my childhood friends and I were like. With the old friends, were scattered new ones. Like Suzanne the lovely Nurse and Shawn Fagan, Mercutio (we agree the Jets really broke some hearts against the Colts, but a good season overall) and Mahira, my Juliet…
After we met with the Arden staff, many of whom have become personal friends, we began to talk. Matt Pfeiffer, our captain on this voyage towards the horizon, told us what this play is through his eyes. By the end of his thoughts, I had tears welled up in mine. It was then I knew, I wanted nothing more in that moment than to be exactly where I was, amongst these people, in this room, and living one of the greatest stories time has given us – one that has survived in our society through every renaissance or revolution and is as pertinent as any religion.
And then, with this wealth of talented individuals around a table, we read the play…

Evan will be blogging throughout the process of Romeo and Juliet, so check back often for more posts!

By Donna Ellis and Brian Morrison from Hands UP Productions

In order to bring the magical story Peter Pan alive for a Deaf audience, Hands UP Productions and the Arden collaborated on a shadow interpreted performance that brought three sign language interpreters onstage and made them part of the action. As opposed to the more ‘traditional’ method of having the interpreters standing off to the side with the action taking place behind them, shadow interpreting brings the interpreters on to the stage while they ‘shadow’ their characters. The result is an exciting performance that allows the Deaf audience the opportunity to experience the play on a level equal to the audience members that can hear.

In order to make this happen, the interpreters; Donna Ellis, Katie MacKavanagh, and Brian Morrison participated in rehearsals with the cast and crew. This was truly a collaborative experience and the excitement for creating the performance was shared by all. The cast learned some of their lines in American Sign Language and worked with the interpreters to find ways to interact with their ‘shadows’. You could feel the creative energy in the room during both rehearsals and the performance.

Having worked with the Arden last year in the first shadowed performance, A Year With Frog and Toad, the Arden is quickly moving toward the forefront in accessible theatre for Deaf audience members. Hands UP has encountered nothing but wonderful experiences with everyone from the Arden staff and the cast and crews of every show we have interpreted there. We look forward to continuing this incredible relationship in bringing unique and creative theatre experiences for Deaf and hearing audiences alike.

At right, Jacqueline Real (Wendy) and Chris Bresky (Peter) with Cade and Cal who attended the shadow-interpreted performance.

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