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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!

Now that spring is in the air, we are planning our “summer projects”. In the short time we have between productions and rehearsals, every department has things we want to catch up on. One of the biggest projects upcoming for our 2010 summer break is the renovation of our rehearsal hall and backstage areas.

These renovations will be overseen by Kieran Timberlake, nurse the architects that renovated the Arden when we first moved to N. 2nd Street in 1995, including the design of our F. Otto Haas Stage. Our relationship with the firm has definitely grown since then! Richard Maimon, a principal at Kieran Timberlake is an Arden board member and James Timberlake, a partner at the firm, is a member of the Arden’s Sylvan Society.

While the Arden’s rehearsal hall renovation is certainly a large undertakingLondon Embassy for us, Kieran Timberlake has something even bigger on the horizon. They were recently selected to design the new US Embassy in London. You can read about their embassy design and see photos from The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post.  The Arden is proud to have such prestigious collaborators!

We’ll be sure to post updates on our summer projects, including these renovations, so keep checking the blog!

By Matt Ocks, >decease Manager of Institutional Giving

The Arden’s production of Romeo and Juliet runs for just 2 more weeks, >medicine and I, medicine for one, will be a bit sadder than usual to see this one end.  In my spare time, you see, I’m a playwright (or, rather, I try to be), and one of the things that draws me to the Arden is the company’s commitment to actually producing new plays.  But I wasn’t inspired to become a writer by the work of my contemporaries, or even writers a bit older than me.  Or even really old guys like Edward Albee (who I hope doesn’t read this blog.)  I was inspired, first and foremost, by Shakespeare.  (Well actually Chekhov and then Shakespeare, but the Terry Nolen production of Uncle Vanya I’ve been waiting for since I got here is, sadly, still not on the horizon, so we’ll just keep this part in parentheses).

The first Shakespeare play I read was Merchant of Venice. By accident.  I found it in a shoebox filled with my mom’s dusty college paperbacks and opened it when I was around 10 without realizing that it wasn’t a novel.  It was so good I read it anyway.  Then I read Midsummer Night’s Dream, mainly because I had seen a cartoon version of it on TV with Mr. Magoo as Puck, and I wanted to experience the original text.  Then in high school came comedies (As You Like It, The Tempest), tragedies (Hamlet, the Scottish play), and histories (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2). In college I even played Jacques in As You Like It, one of my favorite Shakespearean roles (and in many ways the precursor to another one of my favorite characters from literature, Eyeore).  I managed to deliver one of the most famous lines ever written – “All the word’s a stage” – without any self-consciousness.  I played my objective.  I made it organic.  (I also sometimes forgot what came after it). 

Romeo and Juliet is actually not one of my personal favorite Shakespeare plays.  As a writer, I can appreciate that it has essentially a perfect structure.  The language is – of course – remarkable.  The nuances of the characters make them remain – after all this time – incredibly convincing.  And yet I still think the play is over-done to the point that so much of it has become too cliché to ever be exciting in performance.

Which is why the surprises in the Arden production are so exciting.  I don’t want to write about all of them.  If you haven’t seen this production yet, get over here and see for yourself – new interpretations of the supporting roles, the director’s smart use of cutting and splicing (And purists of the world remember: Shakespeare himself liked to revise his texts!)

One thing I can write about – or, rather, really, really want to write about – is our balcony scene.  Prior to watching our production, the lingering memory in my mind was all hokey romantic platitudes and tight tights.  Our Romeo’s style is a bit more hipster-chic (pretty sure I saw him shopping at Retrospect one day when he wasn’t too busy sulking), but that’s just scratching the surface of what surprised me in our production.

My pal Evan and his co-star Mahira help make clear the constant shifts in address Shakespeare has given them.  Sometimes Romeo and Juliet are talking to each other.  Sometimes they are talking to themselves.  Sometimes they are talking to the audience.  It’s the sort of thing that only works in theatre.  In film or TV, such constant shifting is jarring.  And it highlights, in my opinion, the intelligence of these two characters, who are, in essence, each involved in 3 separate, simultaneous conversations.  It also highlights theatrically the awkwardness of youthful courtship, where you often regret on the inside what you just said to the other person outside.  And I defy anyone to write in the comments section that they cannot relate to that.

In my own writing (of plays, not grants), I often explore the relationships characters can have simultaneously with each other, the audience, and with their own psyches.  It helps make my plays funnier (I hope) and, though not more realistic, in my mind, more real.  I was encouraged to see that Shakespeare was doing the same thing.  Experienced former English Lit major that I am, I had forgotten that he put so much of my kinda writing in there.

It’s kind of like going for a long time without listening to the Beatles, then playing a song or two like “Love Me Do” and immediately remembering:  “Oh, yeah.  Every musician that came after is essentially just kidding, right?”  Watching Evan and Mah play that great scene – so surprising, so fresh, and so timely – reminded me that for all us post-Shakespeare playwrights, no matter how good we may ever get, in many ways we’re kind of just kidding.

And kudos to Shakespeare, because even though I walk out of the Haas Stage still knowing that, his work remains truly inspiring.

By Evan Jonigkeit, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet

We are three weeks from the closing of “our little skit” as Mr. Fagan (Mercutio) has coined it. Though my heart is full from the people in this production and the audience response, my voice seems to have had its fill. Through the 9 show weeks and emotional roller coaster that has become Romeo’s 2+ hour life, my voice has started ever so slightly to fail me. I visited a wonderful ear, nose and throat specialist by the name of Vinu Divi (I hope I spelled his name right.) He has advised me to not talk unless I am getting paid for it, which is beginning to take a toll on my girlfriend, having a mute in the house. He also introduced me to turmeric root, which is a homeopathic wonder drug. If you were to Google it I think you would be astounded by all the reported health benefits. One of these benefits is serving as an anti-inflammatory, which is helping the surrounding muscles in the neck and the vocal chords themselves.

I have been reminded of the fragility of our bodies, as humans, and am forced to consider what I might be were I not an actor. Though I believe happiness is a state of mind and choice we have, I realize that I am most aware of the world and the people around me on stage. I breathe in every nuance that Tony Lawton sends my way and bask in every blown kiss Juliet bestows upon me. This is such a hard thing to know without being on stage, especially in a Shakespeare play. In Shakespeare’s world the highs are as high as stars and the lows are the center of the earth, and to be able to let yourself go there makes the choice of being happy and content with my station in life all the easier. I am confident my voice will return to normal as soon as the time to rest is granted, but the thought of not having the ability to tell stories like this is a dreadful one.

I have had an amazing experience with this show. I have explored, and am nightly, the depths of myself and this character. I am constantly pushing to find the truth of the love story we have all come to know as our own. Though some of us are tired, some homesick, some are working on other shows, at this very moment we all realize we have, together, done something special.

By Brittany Howard, Arden Professional Apprentice

I come from a family of teachers. Literally, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents—they are all teachers. So, growing up, I was determined that I would be something completely different. Even though I always had a knack for working with kids, I pushed that away, put on a stubborn face, and said, “I’ll never be a teacher.”

In the past months, the Arden has taught me many things (including how to remove fake blood from just about anything), but there is one lesson for which I have the most gratitude. I now know and respect why all my relatives have devoted themselves to education. There is a unique kind of gratification that comes when you get to be a part of bringing a great play to a theatre full of students (even if it is at 9:30 in the morning).

They live and die with these characters, experience every emotion, ponder every confusion, and deal with every anguish.  I get goose bumps when they gasp at Mercutio’s death, or when they cry out, “No!” as Romeo drinks the poison. I’ll never forget the day that a theatre full of children chanted, “Peter! Peter!” as Peter Pan fought Captain Hook.

These students all know how these stories end. They know that Romeo and Juliet don’t live happily ever after. And yet—they allow their imaginations to be captured, and they fall in love just as the characters do. And when every wall and foundation begins to crumble—they too try to hold the cracks together.

Children see hope where adults see inevitability. They see romance, where others see tragedy. They see boy meets girl, and despite the fact that many students have already experienced the harsh realities of this world, they still see the possibility of a happily ever after. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Why wouldn’t you want to remember a time before you’d heard “That’s Life” so many times that you started believing it?

Teachers do their best to show their students a world of possibilities, and the truly great ones open the gates even wider.

I was lucky this past week to be able to accompany Evan Jonigkeit (Romeo) to the Camden Creative Arts High School for a small class with their acting students.  The theatre classroom was a tiny space that was shared with a dance class (only separated by a dividing wall that did little to block out the music from the other room). And I at once felt jealous and pitied these students. I grew up in the middle of nowhere and went to a tiny school, but I at least had a full stage. However, these students were learning things about theatre and being challenged in ways that I didn’t experience until college. I was amazed that this tiny school still managed to create so many opportunities for their students.

So I’m thankful for teachers, my full family included. I’m grateful for every educator that works to give their students a better chance at success. And the Arden is indebted to all of you who donate to the Arden for All program, which allows us to go out and teach in Philadelphia and Camden and brings over 5, 000 students through our doors free of charge.

And I’m gratified that every time I start to stress about how I’m going to make ends meet—a student matinee arrives to remind me that just because you’re told a story goes a certain way, that doesn’t mean you have to sit in your seat and wait for the expected ending.

On Tuesday, March 9, members of the Arden’s board and Sylvan Society were invited to learn stage combat from members of the Romeo and Juliet cast. Watch this video to see how our supporters learned to slap, punch and choke just like professional actors. We finished the evening with a backstage tour to share secrets behind Romeo and Juliet. Thanks to all those that participated!

On Friday, March 5 we hosted a Young Friends of the Arden night at Romeo and Juliet. Our neighborhood dining partner QBBQ + Tequila brought over some tasty tacos, sliders, sickness and chips and salsa as well as margarita samplings for everyone to enjoy before the play. After watching the show, the Romeo and Juliet cast joined us over at QBBQ for a special happy hour and plenty of dancing!

Here are some photos from the pre-show party at the Arden.

Thanks to all those that attended!

Be sure to save the date for the final Young Friends event of the season: Sunday in the Park with George on Friday, June 4!

Blue Door has been sparking conversation.  Here’s a short video where we caught up with some audience members after the show to see what they thought!

Here are some other thoughts that audiences shared with us via email.

My niece and I enjoyed Blue Door. We cried, laughed and reflected.
She is learning about African American History in school and she said
on the car ride home: Wow Auntie I wish my whole class could see Blue
Door.
– Jamie

I enjoyed the production VERY much. As usual,the acting at the Arden was excellent. The story was interesting to me as I lived through many of these years (I was born in 1933). The storyline intertwining the black history of a family and the current crises facing a successful, educated black man at present in our “tolerant” world today were both treated with passion and empathy for the roles of each. -Rhoda

Blue Door was a haunting, powerfully acted, and moving play.  It was amazing. -Sue

I thought the play was amazing as were the two actors. They had a lot to say of importance. Walking in someone else’s shoes makes for fascinating discoveries. -Lois

Blue Door was done extremely well – and what a difficult play it must have been to write (and perform).  My wife and I (we’re old folks) were reminded of how very very far American society has come in just our short lifetimes. -Deane and Francoise

I will try to tell you how much we loved the play.  How moved we were. How we couldn’t possibly have pulled it together at the end of the play to applaud out the honor the actors, and director, and playwright and the Arden, for presenting such a beautiful, moving, professional’s professional production. -Laura

Being now a grandmother of five, it’s always a delightful surprise to suddenly see in one of them a familiar expression, habit or talent that reminds me of my own parents…and that’s when you realize how connected it all is. -Terry

What conversation did Blue Door inspire for you? Leave us a comment!

We opened Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on Wednesday, March 3. Our Sylvan Society members attended a pre-show party at GiGi Restaurant and Lounge in Old City. Following the performance, guests mingled with with the cast and creative team. Romeo and Juliet runs through April 11.

Here are some photos from the evening!

By Ed Sobel, Associate Artistic Director

Quite understandably, very few of the season suggestions we received were brand new plays that had not yet been performed elsewhere.  One of the frequent debates heard in season planning meetings is about the amount of new work present in a season.  Those of you who followed my recent conversation with Terry Teachout on the issue know that the question pervades beyond the small confines of an artistic office at a regional theatre.  The conventional wisdom, Mr. Teachout’s assertions aside, is that new work must make up a small minority of the programming if a company is to maintain fiscal health.  New work is viewed as “risky” and is administered in a season to audiences like medicine – with a spoonful of sugary known quantities and familiar titles.

But when you actually do some empirical digging (through market research, etc.), you find that most audiences don’t care if something is new, they just care if it is good.  I put it that if you ask almost anyone, they’d rather see a good new play than a bad production of A View From the Bridge.

The real question is what will vouchsafe the experience for the audience, so that they  have confidence they are more likely to see something good and not bad.  Sometimes it is the known title of the play or the reputation of the writer.  Sometimes it is the quality of the acting, or a particular actor (hence the rise of star casting in the commercial theater – “Even if I don’t like the play, I still got to see Nicole Kidman/Daniel Craig/Denzel Washington”), or the director.  At the Arden, we try to make it the whole experience; from the moment of our first contact together through attending a production, and after.

This means approaching our relationship with our audiences not as purely transactional (pay good money, get a production in return) but as more holistic and deeper.  The most important relationships in our lives are not reductively transactional;  our job, our family, our education, our community or neighborhood, our spiritual or religious belief.

Most of the time, when we have a bad day at the office, we don’t quit.  When we have an argument with our spouse or parents or children we don’t storm out of the house never to return.  If we take one bad class in a university we don’t drop out of school.  If our neighbor doesn’t shovel his/her walkway, we don’t sell our home and move across town.

Those relationships are built upon greater shared values, and upon a level of trust that is built over time.  That is the kind of relationship we endeavor to have with our audience.  It has to be our task to select a season that demonstrates, and sometimes leads, the shared values of our audience and that validates the trust placed in us.

In our 2010-11 season, you will see a slate of plays each of which in some way exemplifies our trust in you, and yours in us.  One or two may be from a playwright whose work you know and admire, one or two may be lead by a director whom you trust to create a meaningful experience, and one or two may be completely unfamiliar.  For those, we are seeking your trust in your experience with us, and we will do our dedicated best not to let you down.

By Matt Ocks, >treatment Manager of Institutional Giving

At the Arden we’re having conversations about how best to engage you – the audience – in new work.  (You may not know it, but you are experiencing one of our methods right now, just by reading this blog entry.  To paraphrase Dirty Harry – You’ve got to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel engaged?  Well do ya?)  Anyway…

I’m a lifelong theatre buff, thanks in large part to my mother’s perhaps odd decision to take me to Into the Woods on Broadway when I was 5 (Turns out the whole thing is about sex and death.  Who’d a thunk it?).  Having now worked in development and stage management, not to mention as a writer, actor, assistant director, house manager, curtain speech giver, coffee fetcher, and teaching artist — I can honestly say that a lot of the things that first dazzled me about the theatre – like the giant head and the fake white cow – have now been demystified.

And as I listen to my colleagues debate ways to make the theatrical process more transparent, I tend to get anxious.  Isn’t part of the joy of being an audience member not knowing how we did it?  Are we depriving people of the mystery and intrigue of theatre by revealing too many of our secrets?

Arden Children’s Theatre is a great example. As many of you know, each show ends with a Q and A session where kids get to ask the actors how they did things in the show.  It’s inspiring to see so many kids with their hands raised.  But I think about when I was a kid.  I would come home after seeing a play and spend hours trying to figure out how they had achieved various effects.  I had construction paper and crayons and action figures and models.  Going to plays sparked my imagination.  If I had seen through the smoke and mirrors then, I might not be such a theatre guy now.

Or maybe I was just weird as a kid.

Strike that.

I was weird.

And the truth – as Ed Sobel pointed out to me not too long ago – is that a more informed audience is a more passionate audience.  To illustrate his point, Ed spoke about art museums.  A person gets more out of the experience of going to an exhibit if he/she took an art history course in college or a drawing course when they were a kid.

Having given this some serious thought, I would make the same point in another way.  If you’re watching a baseball game, and you’ve never played baseball or you have no idea about the rules of the game, it’s probably going to be a pretty boring experience.  But if you’re an informed fan – if you can tell the difference between a knuckle ball and a curve ball, a fast ball and a slider – you’re gonna find even the most uneventful pitchers’ duel more interesting.

The great thing about baseball is everybody’s an expert.  Those of us who watch the game know all about Chase Utley’s batting stance, Placido Polanco’s throwing arm (let’s hope he’s still got it!), and Jimmy Rollins’ stealing ability.  When the Phillies make a trade that many of us disagree with (Ahem.  Cliff Lee), we can talk about why this was a mistake intelligently.  Because we are informed.

Which brings me to my next point.  You see, dear readers, I, Matt Ocks, have finally figured out the best way to keep you, me, all of us engaged by the theatre:

Sportscasters.

Okay.  Not actual sportscasters.  But people who serve the same role in our field that Cris Collinsworth and Mary Carillo serve in the Olympics.  They keep us informed about how athletes prepare for each event, what they are going to be judged on, and – later  – how well they did.  If it wasn’t for this kind of coverage, I’m not sure how much I would have gotten out of curling the other night.

And I think maybe it does need to work the same way in theatre.  To appreciate – even to criticize – acting, for instance, you should know about how much work goes into crafting a performance; you should know what an objective is, what specificity does, etc.  The same goes for writing, designing and directing.  If you guys all knew as much about the process as we do, you’d be better judges not only of whether or not you like a play, but why you like or don’t like it.  In the same way that you can only get excited about Roy Halladay joiing the team if you understand the art of pitching and what it means for the Phillies to have him.  And how incredible it would have been to have him and Cliff Lee and…oh, never mind.

One final point about sportscasters:  I purposely chose Cris and Mary as my examples over, say, Al Michaels and Bob Costas, because they are not only sportscasters but people who played professional sports.  I don’t think that our “theatrecasters” can only be dramaturgs and arts journalists – people whose job it is to communicate what we do to the public.  I think actors, writers, directors and designers should also play a part in analyzing the work of their peers, giving the “play by play” so to speak.  After all, no one else knows better what it’s like to put everything on the line, on stage, in front of a dark room full of strangers.  No one else is better equipped to judge failure, success and everything in between.

At least in my opinion.  Others may (and probably do) disagree.  I also wonder – if you do agree with me – if you have any thoughts on how active and former theatre artists could play a larger role in “covering” theatre the way Scott Hamilton covers figure skating.

I welcome any response you may have to this in the comments section.

And that includes commiserating over the loss of Cliff Lee.  Did Ruben Amaro watch the world series?!!

Sheesh.

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