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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!

Yesterday, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia announced the nominations for Barrymores, our area’s awards for excellence in theatre. We were thrilled to receive 16 nominations, covering the full range of the Arden’s work!

Here is the full list of our nominations:
• Outstanding Overall Production of a Play – The History Boys
• Outstanding Overall Production of a Play – If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
• Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical – Sunday in the Park with George
• Outstanding Direction of a Play – James J. Christy Rabbit Hole
• Outstanding Direction of a Play – Walter DallasBlue Door
• Outstanding Music Direction – Eric Ebbenga Sunday in the Park with George
• Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play – Steve Pacek as Mouse – If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
• Outstanding Leading Actress in a Play – Grace Gonglewski as Becca – Rabbit Hole
• Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play – Kes Khemnu as Simon, Rex, Jesse – Blue Door
• Outstanding Set Design – David P. GordonIf You Give a Mouse a Cookie
• Outstanding Lighting Design – Thom WeaverBlue Door
• Outstanding Costume Design – Rosemarie E. McKelveySunday in the Park with George
• Outstanding Sound Design – Jorge CousineauThe History Boys
• Outstanding Original Music – Christopher ColucciRabbit Hole
• Outstanding Original Music – Robert KaplowitzBlue Door
• Outstanding Ensemble in a Play – The History Boys

Congratulations to all the artists that made our 2009-10 Season such a success!

Who do you think will take home a Barrymore Award on October 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
– 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!

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

When you come to the theatre to see Blue Door, you will notice a display of photos by the production’s director, Walter Dallas. These pictures were taken in Ghana, where he has made many lasting connections.

You can find the full story of Walter’s
Ghana Odyssey here on our website

Here is just a sampl

ing of photos you will see in the lobby, accompanied by Walter’s descriptions of the work.

Blue Door: During my visit to Ghana in the summer of 2007, the family of one of my brilliant proteges, Nathaniel Morrison, from the Fante tribe, (he assured me that tribe was not an offensive term to use) hosted a welcoming party for me. Morrison lives in Teshie-Accra and the entire neighborhood turned out. The DJ was wonderful, playing everything from traditional high-life to hot-life, to world-rap fusion, reggae and American R&B. As everyone, babies to grandmothers danced, he danced in front of a blue door that led into the main compound, the home of Morrison and his family. The Blue Door seemed to energize him and frame him in a way that I had to capture “on film.” Anyone who joined him in front of that door seemed themselves captivated, energized and more animated. When I asked to take his photo he said, “this is a special door; that’s why everyone is happy.” It was a year later that I was discovered an exciting new play: Blue Door by Tanya Barfield.

Maxwell: In the summer of 2009, I visited Accra, Ghana in West Africa for what must have been my 10th time. During this visit I visited and “adopted” a primary school in Nima-Accra. Maxwell, the boy in the center of the photograph, was fascinated with and intrigued by my camera. He did what the other children wouldn’t; he looked an adult stranger in the eye, a gesture that could possibly be perceived as rude, even confrontational. Maxwell’s intellectually curious gaze was far from challenging, it was welcoming and embracing. Our bond grew throughout the day, and I took quite a few shots in which Maxwell was highlighted.

View more of Walter’s photos in this online slideshow. You can also view them in person in the upper lobby of the Arden until March 21.

By Matt Ocks, Manager of Institutional Giving

“Write what you know” is an old adage in the theatre, and it’s probably the reason so many of our country’s worthy playwrights excel at writing stories about their family. Tennessee Williams gave us the Wingfields in The Glass Menagerie; Eugene O’Neill the Tyrones in Long Days Journey Into Night; and our own Bruce Graham the Burks in his first great play, Burkie. I’ve never met Tanya Barfield, the acclaimed author of Blue Door, currently in rehearsals for a January opening here at the Arden, but if I do get the chance, the first think I’ll ask her is how she wrote such a darn good play about people she doesn’t know.

The main character’s dilemma in Blue Door, you see, is that he has no real understanding of the history of his own family. And his lack of understanding may cost him his wife and his integrity, not to mention a good night’s sleep. Yet Lewis’ problem – and Barfield’s by extension – is a common one for African Americans. Whereas Williams, O’Neil and Graham would have had enough information to write not only about themselves but about their parents, grandparents, and even great-great-grandparents, Barfield may have been hard-pressed to find actual historical information about her own ancestors to draw upon in creating Simon and Jesse, the ghosts of Lewis’ lineage who visit him in this play.

Alex Haley believed he was descended from the slave Kunta Kinte, but in spite of years of copious research and travel, he still had to posit Roots, the ostensible history of his own family, as a work of imagination. Today’s scientists have made giant leaps forward in the study of genealogy that might have helped Haley with his research. But anyone looking to DNA testing for answers still needs historical evidence to help pinpoint the origins of their family tree. (For more on the challenges – and successes – African Americans are now having in combining science and history in the search for their lineage, check out this link to African American Lives, a program that aired on PBS in 2006 and was hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

My family is Jewish, and I am only three generations removed from life in Teplick, a shtetl (or small village) in the Ukraine. My great-aunt had the foresight to record the histories of her older sisters before they passed away, and I now have a written document chronicling their immigration to Brooklyn and later Philadelphia (reading it is kind of like watching Fiddler on the Roof without songs). It’s a great thing to have, but it still only takes me back as far as 1900. My roommate’s mother (of English descent) once told me she had papers documenting her family’s arrival in Virginia when it was still a colony. She can trace her roots back past the 1700s.

As much as any of us may know about our family, there will always be things we can’t know. Yet the desire to seek out one’s roots appears to be universal, and it’s a driving force behind Blue Door. It’s also a testament to Barfield’s prowess as a playwright that she could write what she knows by writing what she doesn’t know.

Which kind of makes me wonder – if you’ll excuse the digression – how did the other Arden playwright of the moment, J. M. Barrie, write the geography of Neverland if he didn’t really know it? Hmmm…

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