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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 Erin Read, Artistic Assistant

Nearly everyone has called out of work or left the office early at least once. Maybe you weren’t feeling well, or there was a doctor’s appointment that couldn’t be scheduled at a more convenient time, or maybe you just needed a mental health day. What happens though, if your office is a theatre? What happens if you have to call out of work and you’re an actor?

What happens is…you call the understudy.

At the Arden, local actors cover every role in each show of our season. There is an entire group of hard-working actors that you may never see, painstakingly taking notes and learning lines.

Being an understudy is not an easy task. They have to learn a show predominantly through observation and their blocking and choices are then finessed during five rehearsals with the Assistant Director.  They have to be on call for the entire run of a production and must be secure in the knowledge that they may never get to perform for an audience. If you are lucky enough to get to go on, you may have to fight to win the audience over as there are often vocal reactions to understudy announcements. And after your big turn in the spotlight, you need to be humble enough to quietly step back in the shadows once your actor has returned to the show. Though it’s a tough gig, being an understudy can have its rewards—just ask the former actors on staff that still indulge their creative side with the occasional understudy turn! (In case you were wondering, our Business Manager makes a beautiful Juliet!)

Our rehearsal process is always open and understudies get the benefit of being in the room with and learning from some of the city’s greatest artists. It is also a great way for the Arden to get to know an actor that may not have worked with us before. Case in point-actor Sean Lally, currently in rehearsal for A Moon for the Misbegotten. We met him last season as an understudy for The History Boys. We had such a good experience with him that he was cast as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, where he also understudied Romeo. You may have been lucky enough to catch him for a few performances when he stepped in for the star-crossed lover. He was also in our production of The Threepenny Opera and now Moon. Three Arden shows in two seasons and he first came through our doors as an understudy.

There a few things that can amp up the energy level of a show than when an understudy goes on. The cast is excited to see what someone new will bring to the show and the crew is on point to make sure that everything runs extra smooth so no one is thrown off. I must admit, it is also a great deal of fun to call an understudy and break the news that they will get to perform (For last minute calls, there are plenty of reminders to breathe). Ideally, we would know ahead of time when an actor will be unavailable (jury duty has been a culprit as of late) and we would we have time to hold a full cast rehearsal with the understudy and answer any questions they might have. More often than not however, we have just a few days notice if we think someone is falling ill, or even as little as a few hours. In fact, an understudy for The Borrowers went on the week after Christmas with less than three hours notice. Understudies have been called at intermission, they’ve been tracked down at work, and once we even sent someone to track an understudy down at a gym where we suspected he was working out. We managed to find him and rush him to the theatre to practice a fight sequence, get fitted for a costume and two hours later he was onstage!

Arden apprentices will often serve as understudies and there has been more than one occasion during the winter holiday show that an apprentice has been pulled from the box office to be onstage just a few minutes later. (I speak the latter from experience. As an apprentice here and an understudy for The BFG I was handing out tickets for a noon performance that I ended up performing in. It was by far the most amazing and most terrifying two hours I’d ever experienced.)

So next time you head to the theatre and see a notice that an understudy is going on, don’t be disappointed. Many greats started out as a standby for someone else: Shirley MacLaine was discovered after going on as an understudy for Carol Hainey in The Pajama Game. Lou Gehrig entered baseball with the Yankees as a pinch hitter and on his second day with the team replaced Wally Pipp before going on to play 2,130 consecutive games. You may have been hoping to see your favorite Philly actor but know that an understudy performance may just be the most pure and ensemble filled show you’ll see. You’ll be witness to the most terrifying/awe-inspiring/nerve-wracking/fantastic few hours that understudy will have. And who knows, you could be watching the next Shirley MacLaine!

[Interested in being an understudy? Contact Associate Producer Matt Decker at]

The Scene is a new program here at the Arden to introduce people to our theatre in a fun, low-key setting. We host a pre-show party, provide a discounted ticket to the show, and then invite audience, cast and crew to join us after the play at a local hot spot.

Our first event of The Scene was on Friday, October 15 for The Threepenny Opera. QBBQ + Tequila served us a tasty spread of tacos and pulled pork sandwiches, along with margaritas. After the show, staff, cast and audience members gathered at Plough & the Stars for drinks and dancing!

Check out these photos from the pre-show party and learn more about upcoming Scene events in 2011!

On Tuesday, >physician October 19 our Sylvan Society worked with Associate Artistic Director Ed Sobel to perform He Who Says No, a play by Bertolt Brecht. This play is one of his Lesson Plays (Lehrstucke), which was a radical theatrical form he developed in the 1920s and 1930s. These works remove the separation from the actors and audience, shifting the focus from the product to the process. Learn more about this theatrical style and see the Sylvan Society on stage in this video recap of the event!

We’ve noticed quite a few comments about The Threepenny Opera around Facebook and Twitter recently.  Here’s a sampling of what people are saying:

“The Arden Theatre on 2nd Street has just mounted a thrilling production of Threepenny Opera. The translation is the best I’ve heard since I saw the legendary New York revival back in 1953. I’m pretty sure it’s very close to the original 1928 Berlin production. GO! You’lll hear a version of Mack the Knife the likes …of which you never would expect.”

“at The Threepenny Opera and. loving it. I love a visually pleasing show! Shoutouts to scenic artists, lighting designers and costume designers all over the world. Without you…there’s no show!”

Threepenny Opera at the Arden had the usual strong works from stalwarts named Greer, Martello and Lawton, >shop but Amanda Schoonover is just right in smaller roles as a beggar and a whore.”

“Terence Archie was spectacular in The Threepenny Opera last night! Welcome to the Arden family Terence.”

If one of these mini-reviews is yours, please claim it in the comments section of this post.

Have you used been talking about Threepenny online and we missed it? Feel free to re-post here in the comments or mention the Arden in your Facebook or Twitter updates.

By Sally Ollove, >advice dramaturg for The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera is the musical Cabaret wishes it could be. No need to reconstruct the decadence of Berlin in the 1920s, Threepenny opens a vein in the Weimar Republic and lets it bleed all over the stage. Written haphazardly in 1928 by an army of contributors helmed by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, >ailment the musical horrified critics, shocked audiences, and sold out every night. Threepenny was both a satire and a celebration of Weimar depravity. It was also a turning point in theatrical history: the first commercial success for theatrical innovator Brecht, and the piece that set avant-garde composer Kurt Weill on the path to musical divinity.

Adapted from a seventeenth century English operetta, Threepenny tells the tale of Mack the Knife, a rapist, crook, and killer who marries Polly Peachum, the daughter of the King of the Beggars despite fathering a baby with Lucy Brown, the daughter of a corrupt constable. Betrayed by his favorite whore and deceived by his wily mother-in-law, Mackie faces the gallows. The story wanders around London’s depraved underbelly, populated by crooked lawmen, slimy thieves, deceitful beggars, and vengeful prostitutes.

Brecht, with the help of translator Elizabeth Hauptmann, punched up the older text by adding a level of titillation rarely achieved on the stage. He accomplished this mostly by making insinuations explicit, introducing dirty words, and ridding characters of as much integrity as possible. Brecht ripped the cover off Berlin theatre to expose the true desires of his Weimar peers. He took a gamble and won: his use of low-brow humor and story-telling revolutionized twentieth century theatre.

Kurt Weill equaled the daring of his collaborator. Weill loved jazz and played an instrumental part in incorporating it into the modern musical. Like Brecht, he was a great synthesizer: the Threepenny score has music influenced by opera, jazz, 1920s avant-garde symphonies, cabaret, and even the original operetta. The music became an instant hit in Europe—the melodies inescapable for years. Famously, his song “Mack the Knife” became a jazz standard performed by everyone from Bobby Darin and Ella Fitzgerald to Nick Cave and Michael Bublè.

Threepenny takes a seventeenth century romantic melodrama and turns it into a celebration of vice where everything is for sale—especially love. Society hums with criminal activity. Rather than check the illegal activity, the law enables it. The celebration of sin invites the audience to revel in a world where everything is covered in grime. Only when leaving does the audience realize the corruption they have endorsed. Nothing has changed since the musical’s premiere: human nature, Brecht and Weill prophesy, will always reduce to its most basic desires. A bitter pill, but the music lets it slide down with verve.

Mackie’s back in town! The Arden opened a raucous production of The Threepenny Opera on Wednesday, here October 6. The opening night celebration began at 5:30pm with a Sylvan Society cocktail party at home of Don and Lynn Haskin. The Haskins, longtime supporters of the Arden, live in Old City with a fabulous view that includes the Arden!

400 guests gathered for the opening night performance and celebrated after the show with a delicious cheese and dessert spread by Starr Events Catering and libations by Hatboro Beverages.

Spirits were high – both for a fabulous production and a win by our Philllies (a victory which was announced to the audience during intermission!) Special thanks to Harmelin Media, the Arden’s Opening Night sponsor.

Philadelphia actors Scott Greer and Mary Martello have performed in more than 30 Arden productions, >medicine and they were last seen on the Arden stage together in the 2008/09 season’s Candide. This season, they will be playing Mr. and Mrs. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera. Despite so much shared theatrical history, when Gigi Lamm, the Arden’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations, invited them to participate in an interview, they each claimed not to know the other. The interview that follows occurred after Lamm introduced the pair.

Gigi Lamm: In total, how many shows have you two done together?
Scott Greer: It feels like 1,000.
Mary Martello: If we’ve done five at the Arden, we’ve probably done five Walnut shows, and some 1812 shows.
SG: 11 shows, I think.

GL: Are you sick of each other yet?
SG: What? Oh, no!
MM: How could we be sick of each other?!
SG: We don’t have to share a dressing room, so that might be the saving grace.
MM: That’s why we still like each other.

GL: Have you ever played husband and wife before?
SG: Every time, right?
MM: The most recent show we did together was Oliver! and we did play husband and wife. But I think [Threepenny] might just be our second time.
SG: Oliver! was really long, I guess.

GL: Do either of you have a preference for performing in musicals?
MM: No.
SG: Me either. It’s all about the material. A good show is a good show. And an interesting role is an interesting role.
MM: I agree completely.

GL: Do you two always agree?
SG: Yes!
MM: That was the correctly husbandly answer!

GL: How familiar with The Threepenny Opera were you before being cast?
MM: I was actually cast in it many, many years ago at the Boarshead Theater in Michigan, but when it came time, I was too pregnant to do it.
SG: When I was in college, we did Brecht on Brecht and we added some material from [Threepenny] and I sang the Tango with a classmate. That was my first exposure to Brecht and this piece.

GL: This is such an iconic work in the history of musical theatre, how do you feel about performing it?
MM: I try never to think about things like that. I’m just going to take Mrs. Peachum one line at a time and try to figure her out.
SG: I agree with Mary! I think there’s a big pitfall when you do Brecht because you’re supposed to do a style, a special thing when you play Brecht and you have to really avoid that and find the truth that these characters are in. Brecht writes about social problems and it’s like playing Shaw in that you really have to invest in the ideas and these ideas are a part of the fabric of the character. It’s a human being that wants things and fears things and that’s what you start with.

GL: What are your thoughts on the show’s message about morality and humanity?
SG: My seven year old daughter is very interested in whatever plays I’m working on, so I was trying to tell her about this and playing the music for her and as I described everybody in the play, she said, “oh, so he’s a bad guy,” and I said “yeah, he’s a bad guy” and then I described Tiger Brown, and then MacHeath, and then Peachum, and they’re all basically bad guys. But I was trying to explain Peachum’s world view and it was very hard to do, not because my daughter isn’t bright, but because it’s a very bleak way of looking at humanity.
MM: I think that it’s a fine time to be doing this show because all of the characters are in it for what they can get. They’re trying to survive or trying to save their own asses, or trying to get ahead, and everyone is using everyone. However, I like that nobody really pretends that they’re not doing that. As opposed to society today where we all pretend like we’re altruistic.
SG: And there is an interesting hypocrisy in that the Peachums don’t want Polly [their daughter] to marry MacHeath because he’s a criminal and they’re really not any better. But they, of course, believe that they are.
MM: We’re just holding a mirror up to society.

GL: Speaking of Polly, are there any skills and experiences you’re bringing to playing Polly’s parents?
SG: The Peachums feel about their child the way any parents feel about their children. They want the best for her. You know, there’s the practical thing that’s true: “Look, you say you love him, honey, but he’s in his third band since college and he delivers pizza and you’re going to be paying his rent! Don’t marry him!” They’re doing the exact same thing that any concerned parent does. They’re great parents! Or certainly, identifiable parents that care about education and a good job—I’m firmly in their camp! I’m a little more optimistic and less coldly practical but who doesn’t want that for their children?
MM: Mrs. Peachum wants the best for her child, but she also wants to make sure that Polly gives them the best that they deserve as her parents.

GL: What are you most looking forward to about the show and your roles?
MM: Doing them! I love the music. I love Kurt Weill and I’ve sung him plenty before and I can’t wait to get in that world.
SG: That music is so down and dirty. It doesn’t sound like anything else. It’s really fun. It reminds me of a street version of Sweeney Todd. It’s so tawdry, it’s great. And the role is irresistible.
MM: And the opportunity for learning is going to be great because even though I may have sung some of these songs before in a cabaret, when you’re doing a role in a show, it gets in your bones in a way that is much more grounded and then you have that at your disposal for the rest of your life.
SG: I also look forward to working with this Marty Minello person. She sounds interesting.
MM: I heard there was a Scott Beer in this show and I can’t wait to meet somebody with that name.
SG: Me either!

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