by Domenick Scudera, M.F.A.
Professor of Theater, Ursinus College
One of the perks of being an Arden Professional Apprentice (APA) was taking acting classes with one of the Arden’s founders, Aaron Posner. Aaron’s class was lively and eye-opening. If you struck a false note in a scene, he would call you on it. For instance, if your character was trying to get out of the room, he would ask, “Are you actually actually trying to get out?” The lesson: acting is doing, not pretending.
Today, over twenty years later, I am a theater professor at Ursinus College and I find myself challenging my acting students with this same “actually actually” phrase.
I joined the Arden team after receiving my MFA in theater. I was a part of the first class of APAs back in the 1993-94 season. Although not a formal part of my education, my year at the Arden felt like an extension of graduate school. It was here that I learned the most about the craft and the business of making theater. I was surrounded by top-notch administrators, designers, technicians, and performers. Expert actors like Greg Wood and Grace Gonglewski were employing the tools I was learning in Aaron’s class night after night in Aaron’s production of Man and Superman. Through their performances, these actors were teaching master classes in acting – actually actually bringing the characters to life.
23 years after Man and Superman was produced, I brought my Ursinus theater students to see the Arden’s most recent production, Stupid F**king Bird. I am teaching a course in Ursinus’ new Philadelphia Experience program. Students are living in the city for the semester and Philadelphia is their classroom. Each week, we see a different show at a different theater, allowing the vibrant theater scene in Philadelphia to offer its lessons to us.
Returning to the Arden was a full-circle moment. Stupid F**king Bird is written and directed by Aaron Posner and stars Greg Wood and Grace Gonglewski. All these years later, my students were learning from the same master teachers who had taught me.
It was no surprise to hear the characters in Aaron’s play asking each other if they “actually actually” were feeling their feelings. This phrase, used once as a teaching technique, is now a life lesson: are we living in the present moment? Are we “aware of the now” (to borrow a phrase from theater giant Robert Edmond Jones) or are we just pretending?
Stupid F**king Bird is a mature work created by mature artists. It is thrilling to see Aaron, Grace, and Greg, some twenty years later, still at the top of their form, still making art that is both engaging and challenging. We have all aged a bit since we first worked together in 1993 (well, except for Grace, who is still impossibly beautiful and must have an aging portrait in her attic somewhere) – and the years have produced profound and thought-provoking work.
In the play, some of the characters bemoan the fact that the world has gotten meaner, that we lack connection and shared humanity. But you have to look no further than the Arden itself to find examples of kindness. After the performance, Greg and Grace met with my students and shared their experiences of being Philadelphia actors and dedicated artists. They were as warm and gracious as ever.
The Arden has been supportive of my career since I first walked through its doors. It is because of the Arden that I have my job at Ursinus. Someone on the Board of Directors at the Arden knew someone on the Board of Trustees at the college – and recommended me for a position back in 1997. I have been at Ursinus ever since.
The characters in the play repeat the phrase, “We are here,” reminding each other (and us) to be present, to feel our feelings. As I watched, I thought, yes, we are here: me, my students, these artists, this audience. I am actually actually here. And I have the Arden to thank for my past and for this present moment.