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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 Patrick Ressler, Videographer

 

Every night, I have the privilege of watching The Secret Garden up close. Very close. With a video camera, I capture the world beneath the stage—a 360 degree turntable filled with miniature sets made of paper and other finely crafted materials. Throughout the show, we see Mary’s imagination flourish in a world of paper dolls and pop-up books. This conceit led co-conceivers Jorge Cousineau and Terry Nolen to the idea of filming miniature sets live and projecting the images onto a large screen onstage. As the turntable spins, the audience travels with Mary on her journey from India to England and, finally, the Secret Garden.

In "The Secret Garden", a large screen projects live video from the camera filming a turntable below the stage. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

In “The Secret Garden”, a large screen projects live video from the camera filming a turntable below the stage. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

From behind the camera, I think of myself as a storyteller filming the world as Mary remembers it. The world of miniature sets is childlike and playful. At times, the audience can see someone’s fingers in the shot, opening a gate or closing windows. Like a doll’s house, each detail has been carefully crafted to look realistic—down to miniature sconces that light the hallway. A large team of people worked to build the tiny sets, including Scenic & Video Designer Jorge Cousineau, Model Assistant Alicia Crosby, Props Master Chris Haig, and Props Intern Scott McMaster. Every second of video represents the hard work of the set, props and lighting departments.

The camera captures a shot of India.

The camera captures a shot of India, one of many miniature sets on the turntable below the stage.

My favorite moment of video storytelling is our first arrival in Colin’s room. During a storm, the camera travels down a sconce-lit hallway to a foreboding door. As the chorus swells, we see a hand open the door to reveal a bedroom with lightning flashing in the window. Onstage, Mary sees Colin for the first time. In these moments the video becomes a dramatic presence, adding suspense to the onstage action.

Live video is filmed beneath the stage. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

On the right, live video of miniature sets is captured beneath the stage. Pictured: Elisa Matthews as Lily Craven and Bailey Ryon as Mary Lennox. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

A lot of thought and energy goes into every moment of live video. For each movement of the camera, I’ve memorized specifics of how I’m moving the camera unit, panning the camera, zooming, focusing and the speed/duration of all these functions. I’m also thinking about specific moments in the music where my movement will begin and where it will end. With more and more performances under my belt, the specifics of this choreographed “dance” have become fun and familiar.

I’m grateful to be a part of the large team of people who put hard work into each moment of The Secret Garden. When it was time for our first preview performances, I was struck with just how personal and intimate it felt to invite an audience to this show. It felt like we were inviting people to come into our home and explore every room. The orchestra, crew, cast and creative team poured their energy and passion into this project—and for me, it has made The Secret Garden a much more relatable human story. From my seat, I watch Mary find belonging and empowerment every night and lend a hand to create her world. In The Secret Garden, magic is close enough to touch.

By Brian Bembridge

In 2003 I was introduced to Arden Theatre Company, because we were bringing a show called Hard Times from Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago to the Arden. Lookingglass is a company that Terry Nolen admired and supported while he attended Northwestern University with several members of the Lookingglass company back in the day.

I was still new to Lookingglass and Hard Times was my second design with the company in their regular season. I had designed two other productions outside of their standard season, which was how I met Doug Hara, a now consistent collaborator of mine who recently directed Metamorphoses and is now appearing in Stinky Cheese Man as Jack.

Hard Times, Lookingglass Theatre Company, 2001

Hard Times, Lookingglass Theatre Company, 2001

I was mostly working in Chicago, so it’s funny to look back at heading to an unknown theater. I remember missing a flight to Philadelphia for tech, so I was a hysterical disaster, worried I would get fired. Flying is just a commute today; sometimes I fly in and out of Philly, Louisville, or Atlanta in one day just for a meeting.

Hard Times, Arden Theatre Company, 2004

Hard Times, Arden Theatre Company, 2004

The staff back then is a little different from the staff today, but it is family here Arden. And yes sometimes we disagree and argue over silly things, but in the end it’s FAMILY.

I was designing lights for Hard Times, directed by good friend and Lookingglass Artistic Director Heidi Stillman. We were excited but nervous as we were out of our element in this new city, this new theater. I was fortunate enough to meet Glenn Perlman, the amazing Technical Director here at the Arden. We hit it off immediately, and today he is a good friend. He and his wife Alison Roberts, the Costume Supervisor, and Courtney Riggar, the Production Manager, are family among many others here. Arden Founders Terry Nolen, Amy Murphy, and Aaron Posner (emeritus) were and continue to be thoughtful at cultivating this family at the Arden.

I kept in touch with Terry after I left Philadelphia when email was still young, and he always took the time to respond. Five years later I got a call from Matt Pfeiffer (who recently directed Funnyman), someone who is now family, asking if I would design Go Dog Go; of course I would! Matt and I didn’t know each other but we knew of each other; it’s a great thing about theater. The people you meet and the friends you make are better than your best design. They ground you.

Go, Dog, Go, Arden Theatre Company, 2008

Go, Dog, Go, Arden Theatre Company, 2008

I was picked up at the airport by an apprentice named Scott, his name will come up later, and was dropped off into a theater full of love and laughter and excitement, and this was a show for younger kids. I learned some, I taught some. It was a beautiful experience.

I came back to design Romeo and Juliet with Matt, with whom I would design a fabulous production at Theater Exile the following year. Next came sets and lights for Cat and the Hat, Beauty and the Beast, Macbeth, Funnyman, and one of my most proud theatrical experiences in 20 years, Metamorphoses. This was the first show I experienced at Lookingglass when they premiered it in 1999: a show that said theater is not just a stage, a show that had the same designers as those on Hard Times. Designers that elevated me, that taught me the ropes, that shared their truths in theater. It was a show that brought me full circle with Doug Hara directing, whom I met designing sets, lights, and costumes for our four person Hamlet at Lookingglass.

Romeo and Juliet, Arden Theatre Company, 2010

Romeo and Juliet, Arden Theatre Company, 2010

Our team of artists, designers, craftsmen, technicians, and actors blew the walls and ceiling off the Arden. What everyone gave every night was above and beyond any other show I have worked on. The care and trust and love was felt when one entered into the theater. It will never be forgotten.

Metamorphoses, Arden Theatre Company, 2015

Metamorphoses, Arden Theatre Company, 2015

All of this history brings me to show TEN. Ten shows is a lot for a punk artist who doesn’t live in the city in which the theater inhabits (although I want you to know I feel part of this community, whether they want me or not). I have a mass of thoughtful friends, family, and artists. I even told this to the Mayor one night as I was having dinner in Northern Liberties. I was having a beautiful dinner with the chef at Fernando’s when he walked by us to use the restroom. I had to stop him on his way back to his table with his wife to say thank you. I put out my hand and grabbed his shoulder and thanked him him for supporting the arts in Philadelphia. I reminded him we had met in Chicago at Chicago Ideas Week a few years before where I had thanked him previously. He had no idea who I was, but his eyes perked up when I said “Arden”. We talked for a minute, and I said I’m sorry and didn’t want to keep him. He thanked me and finished his dinner. They waved on their way out. (A side note: the other Mayors walked out the side doors with security, but this Mayor walked out through the lobby, on his own, without any security, and that spoke to me as to who he is as a human.)

 

Show number ten: Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. So fitting and an honor to revisit the show that honestly shifted family theater at the Arden in 2006, originally designed by my friend Matt York, a brilliant designer.

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2006

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2006

So remember Scott, the apprentice who picked me up at the airport on my first trip back to Philadelphia, in this long telling of my life here? Well this actor, friend, and artist, is THE Stinky Cheese Man among many roles in this incarnation. What I love about theater, about the Arden, about Philadelphia is that it all comes full circle more than you think.

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2016

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2016

I am now on a plane commuting once again. A place where I get to collect my thoughts. A place where I look at theories of life and love and art. I left Philly only two weeks ago and I have already opened a show and I’m in tech for another. This is the life designers lead. Seven day weeks are so very common.

This show has been a gift of laughter and absurdity for the director Matt Decker and myself. Theater is a gift and a giving art that all ages should see and share. Thank you Arden Theater Company. Thank you Terry and Amy. Thank you Glenn and Alison and Matt and Chris and Courtney.

Here’s to ten more!!!

Xoxo Brian B.

By: Jacqueline Matusow, Teacher-Librarian, Media Elementary School

I have lots in common with Jon Scieszka (rhymes with Fresca), author of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.  He loves NY pizza and pasta of every shape.  So do I.  He was born in early September.  So was I.  He loves to write funny books.  I love to read funny books.  Also, I love Fresca soda.  But mostly, as a children’s librarian, I love to make my students laugh.  The Stinky Cheese Man always does the trick!

Scott Sheppard as Actor 5 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Scott Sheppard as Actor 5 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ok.  This is the perfect place to insert a Giant Thumbs-Up to the illustrator, Lane Smith.    I once shared the Caldecott Honor-winner without reading the text- just the whimsically nefarious illustrations.  I didn’t actually measure the level of student engagement- nothing scientific like that.  But I can report that the laughs came just as often- and just as loudly.  As I recall, the principal poked her head in.  I blamed the kiddos.  They blamed the book.

If you asked me, “Why do you love this collection of goofy, sarcastic parodies of classic stories, I would have to say, it’s the whacky characters and their stories, such as “Cinderumplestiltskin; Or the Girl Who Really Blew it.”  (Yep.  No fancy ball for her.)  Maybe, “The Princess and the Bowling Ball.”  (I like a prince who knows what he wants.) OR, maybe it is that bacon and olive cheese man (AKA, The Stinky Cheese Man- who isn’t nearly as cute or tasty as The Gingerbread Man.)   Actually, I think it’s that pesky Little Red Hen.  (You never know when she’s going to jump in and kvetch.)

Since I couldn’t decide, I surveyed students, Kindergarten-Grade 5, to tell me why they love The Stinky Cheese Man.  Here’s a sampling:

Kindergarten:  “They weren’t the real stories, but they were funny!”

Leah Walton as Actor 4, Scott Sheppard as Actor 5, Doug Hara as Jack, Ashton Carter as Actor 3, Rachel Camp as Actor 2 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Leah Walton as Actor 4, Scott Sheppard as Actor 5, Doug Hara as Jack, Ashton Carter as Actor 3, Rachel Camp as Actor 2 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Grade 1:  “They were all funny.  I think it was because some of the characters were dumb.  Like the Cinderella who wouldn’t talk to the stranger who just wanted to help her.”

Grade 2:  “The Giant was funny.  He wasn’t mean.”

Grade 3:  “Those stories have the funnest names.  I got that joke about The Tortoise and the Hair!”

Grade 4:  “No one lives Happily-Ever-After!  Or if they do, they cheated to get there.  Now THAT was funny.”

Grade 5:  “The end papers!  The title page!  The dedication!  They’re hilarious!”

I still think it’s the hen.

On an unseasonably warm and rainy late Wednesday afternoon in early February a group of timid yet very excited and curious Philadelphia public school teachers arrived at the Arden’s Hamilton Family Arts center to partake in the first of three professional development workshops that will be offered at the Arden to the participating faculty of Arden for All partner schools.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers work together to strengthen team building skills in the classroom.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers work together to strengthen team building skills in the classroom.

The evening consisted of a meet and greet and then a fun and active workshop on how to integrate improv and theatre games into the classroom. These games and activities are designed to  inspire 21st-Century skills, such as collaboration, team work, and utilizing creative imagination. Taught by local improv teaching artist, Tara Demmy (a former Arden Apprentice), the workshop also instilled “thinking quick on your feet” skills to enhance classroom engagement. The night ended with a light dinner and a performance of the Arden’s production of Funnyman.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers enjoy a laugh during an improv activity.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers enjoy a laugh during an improv activity.

The workshop began quietly with teachers getting to know each other through a name game and by the time we were 15-20 minutes into it, the sounds of uproarious laughter and applause permeated through the Hamilton Family Arts Center! By the end of the workshop, the teachers created a common bond and this energy spilled into conversations while having dinner about how they planned to use the exercises not only with their students but also with fellow colleagues at their perspective schools! They vowed to share their results via video and photos with each other and the Arden! By the end they became a team and felt a part of the Arden family. As we headed to the theatre to see a show together, it definitely felt like a mission accomplished!

Arden for All Partner School Teachers with Improv Teaching Artist, Tara Demmy (far left) and Director of Educational Outreach, Jose Aviles (far right).

Arden for All Partner School Teachers with Improv Teaching Artist, Tara Demmy (far left) and Director of Educational Outreach, Jose Aviles (far right).

Emilie Krause writes on the female perspective in Funnyman

I fall in love with my characters. I can’t help it. It’s what happens when you spend hours obsessing over someone. I open my eyes in the morning and I think: why does she do that? On my walk to the coffee shop I think: what does she really want? I’m in the grocery store and instead of choosing which kind of canned bean I should buy for my chili, mind I’m wondering what kind of music my character listens to when she is alone. Her actions are printed on the page; the words she uses are already written down. They’re out of my control. It’s my job to wonder why. The parallel to a potential partner’s inscrutable actions is remarkable. I suppose that’s what falling in love is anyway: an intense, focused curiosity about another human being. Over the past few months, I have been getting to know my character in Funnyman, Katharine Sherman. I love her. Katharine is wry, self-sufficient, and she prides herself on being ruled by logic rather than emotions. She values her own intelligence and is passionately interested in the world and the people around her. She likes to read plays in French. She is also, in the context of the play, the lone woman in a world of men.

Emilie Krause as Katherine Sherman and Brian Cowden as Nathan Wise. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Emilie Krause as Katherine Sherman and Brian Cowden as Nathan Wise. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Obsession is only a part of the process. Another very satisfying part of being an actor is making choices about who our character will be. Plays with only one female perspective are tricky. I’ve never actually done one before, which is rare for an actress. My last play was The Children’s Hour and before that I helped make an all female Film-Noir play for the Fringe Festival. Knowing that I’d be the only woman in the rehearsal room, particularly after a flurry of female-centric environments, was a somewhat intimidating prospect. It led to questions that I’ve never had to ask.

In the second scene of Funnyman, the audience meets Katharine. She has just gotten a new job in New York City working as an archivist in the basement of Carnegie Hall. As she busily sorts through old music scores, a young male co-worker, Nathan, pokes his head in and does his best to flirt with her. The scene is wonderfully written. Katharine is surrounded by a great deal of work, and responds curtly to Nathan’s advances. It’s fun to play. Early on in the rehearsal process my approach was to almost completely ignore Nathan; I wanted Katharine to be genuinely more interested in her work than the man flirting with her. As we went through the scene, our director Matt Pfeiffer encouraged me to pay a bit more attention to him, suggesting that perhaps Katharine was more intrigued by Nathan than I initially thought. As we debated about about whether she should allow herself to become distracted by his advances, this idea of “likeability” entered my mind. My instinct was to play Katharine’s tough exterior. I wanted her to possess a genuine disinterest in the romantic side of things, especially in the beginning of the play, but in my conversations with Matt I began to wonder: if Katharine is cold to a likeable co-worker, how will that affect how the audience sees her? This thought nagged at me, and like a virus, began to spread to every aspect of the show. Should I show how much her feelings are hurt? Should I try to deliver this nicely? These kinds of questions had never haunted me as an actor before, but knowing that there were no other female characters in the play sparked a sense of obligation to make sure she represented all women, and that she represented them well. I wanted the audience to like her. I wanted them to see her side of the story. Any theater maker will tell you that this is a poisonous idea; “Being true to yourself” (or your character) is of the upmost importance, and in theater, as well as life, this cliché rings true. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of you, so long as you are doing what you believe is right; but inside of such a distilled world, I wasn’t able to shake the sense that I should craft a Katharine that people would like. This quixotic agenda came to a head during previews, in a scene where Katharine gets into a fight with Nathan.

KATHARINE
… a husband could just sign a piece of paper- bribe some quack to go along with it and bang- his wife’s locked up in a straightjacket.

NATHAN
The good old days—

KATHARINE
It’s not funny! Jesus, Nathan, this is my mother!

During the first public performance, the audience laughed at the joke in Nathan’s line and as I yelled at him afterwards, I felt as though I was rebuking the audience as well. When we went over the performance with Matt afterwards, I brought up how uncomfortable that moment made me, and the whole cast looked at me like I was crazy.

“Emilie,” they said, “they’re laughing at how inappropriate that joke is.” Our assistant director Dan O’Neil even told me that he overheard an audience member whisper “Jeez, that’s her mother” in the pause between our lines. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe how out of touch I was with the audience’s experience. I was so distracted by the conundrum of being the only woman that I lost touch with what was really going on in that moment. On my walk home that night, I went over the play in my head. I realized that I had made choices, throughout the entire play, that were based solely on a desire to protect Katharine, to make her a “nice” person. And as a result, I was getting in the way of my character becoming a fully realized human. I also went through the performances of the male characters and remembered moments when they were angry, when they made mistakes, and when they were cruel. Most of all, I marveled at how far I had went down a path which was exactly the opposite of how I had initially wanted to approach the character. Throughout the process, our director Matt had encouraged me to play Katharine a bit sharper here, a bit colder there, and my conflicted feelings on representing “all women” had gotten in the way of hearing him.

Now, I enjoy that argument with Nathan. And whether the audience laughs with Nathan or at him, Katharine’s experience doesn’t change. She is angry, as she should be, at the difficult task of navigating the masculine world of 1959. I think that Bruce Graham also falls in love with his characters. If you look at each character’s arc in Funnyman, you can see that every one of them are complicated, messy, and interesting people. Graham has written Katharine to be a powerful driving force; a woman who is both passionately interested in the past, and entirely unsentimental. She is complicated. We are all complicated. I wish that I had learned my lessons sooner. I wish that I hadn’t felt the need to soften Katharine’s intensity. I am complicated. And as I step onto the stage again tonight, I will relish walking in the shoes of my bright, hard-edged, unfettered Katharine.

Eric Hissom as "Shagspeare." Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom as “Shagspeare.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

It’s London, 1606. William Shakespeare (in the play spelled Shagspeare, or Shag) has just been made an offer he can’t refuse: King James I wants him to write a play about the recently foiled Gunpowder Plot. Shagspeare is leery: it’s dangerous for playwrights to write about current events. Robert Cecil, the king’s ruthless chief advisor, gives Shag the sanitized version of events, telling him to just add some dialogue — and witches. The king wants witches. The rest of Equivocation is about Shagspeare’s struggle to write a play that will please — or at least not offend — the king.

Shagspeare, like any good writer, is working on more than one play at once — specifically Macbeth and King Lear. And, of course, the themes from those works can’t help but invade his commission for the king — as well as those of Equivocation. The word equivocation means, “A statement that is not literally false but that cleverly avoids an unpleasant truth” or, as Father Garnet says in the play, a way “to speak the truth in difficult times.”

Simply put, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed assassination attempt by a group of English Catholics against King James I. The plot intended to kill the king and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. But, as we all know too well, politics and history are never simple. Although Robert Catesby (who is a character in Equivocation) led the plot, there is another name that has gone down in history: Guido (aka Guy) Fawkes who was recruited to execute the plan due to his military background. He was caught while guarding the gun powder. More than 400 years later, British children still roam the streets in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) carrying effigies known as “Guys” and asking passers-by for a “penny for the guy.” Also known as Bonfire Night, families gather to celebrate the defeat of Fawkes and his other conspirators with fireworks, childish rhymes (see below) and bonfires.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.

King James I was first King James VI of Scotland, rising to power at the ripe old age of 13 months. He became King of England and Ireland in 1603, succeeding Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors (like that HBO series). He then ruled the kingdom of England, Scotland, and Ireland for 22 years, often using the title King of Great Britain, until his death at the age of 58.

When Bill Cain began writing Equivocation in 2004, he steeped himself in 16th and 17th century England, but contemporary concerns couldn’t help but creep in—the search for WMDs, Abu Ghraib, and the two wars. “There are many, many questions [from 17th-century England] identical to the invasion of Iraq,” recalls Cain. “And that was a big motive for writing the play. It was about seeing this stuff and going, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got plenty of people dying over there and we’re killing people by the tens of thousands, based upon what was a lie.’”
Used with permission from Seattle Repertory Theatre

Eric Hissom as "Shagspeare." Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom as “Shagspeare.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

Bill Cain spent months researching and writing Equivocation, a play that imagines a crisis in Shakespeare’s creative and personal life. He’s spent more time revising the script for production. Here is the playwright sharing what he’s learned about this immersion in Shakespeare—and about the questions he’d ask him, if he could:

Working on this play about Shakespeare has been a journey into his life and my own life from the perspective of what matters.

From the point of view of history, Shakespeare is invisible. As Equivocation says, “He’s the only major writer whose very existence is a question of debate.” He lived in an age in which there were enormous moral questions, and people who took stands on those questions have left their mark on the world. And Shakespeare was invisible, in that sense.

My question for myself is, do I wish to live an invisible life or do I want to make a mark on the world? When I saw the names of those who had been tortured and killed in connection with the Gunpowder Plot, written on the walls of the Tower of London, I had an immediate sense of the power of commitment of these people—what they were willing to die for and what they were willing to put their names on. Shakespeare was not such a person.

There was a debate when I was in England, “Is Shakespeare a millstone around the neck of British culture?” I think it’s a very good question. There’s a speech in Equivocation that strikes me as apt. Cecil says to Shag (Shakespeare’s name in the play): “You make them happy, but not so happy as to reject their unhappiness. You make them angry, but not so angry as to inspire action. You reduce all of reality to spectacle, making action unnecessary, even impossible. . . . You’ve kept the willing suspension of disbelief and gotten rid of the moral demands.”

Eric Hissom and Ian Merrill Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom and Ian Merrill Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Watching Shakespeare is never a call to action. You sit back and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?”

Many scholars are writing now about the “coded messages” in the plays. I’d like to ask Shakespeare, what was the code? Did you believe in God? What did you find sacred? Because you always took both sides of everything, what finally mattered to you? Not where you came down in terms of Catholic or Protestant, but where you came down in terms of speaking truth to power.

You were in an extraordinarily powerful position; you were the king’s playwright. But you were not Lear’s fool; Lear’s fool told Lear the truth. Did you see yourself having that position in the kingdom, and if so, what was the truth you were trying to speak? What if the genius on the king’s payroll had stood up and said, “Enough of these killings.” Yes, you wrote a play called Henry VIII, but in it you don’t tell the truth. Henry VIII killed tens of thousands of people and he’s presented in your play and in the history of England as this jolly old man. What about the murders?

Knowing that whoever wrote the plays was a genius, I wonder what his human life was like, and if he got to those human, personal issues that art is for. Art isn’t a way to disguise; it’s a way to speak. It’s a way to say, in concentrated form, this is what matters to me.

The question of Shakespeare excites me now, rather than accepting him as a given; entering into a dialogue with him, rather than as holy writ. Asking him, Why did you not act? Why are you such a cipher? On the other hand, What was it that you thought was so important that you got up every day and told these stories?

From the 2009 summer Prologue magazine, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s magazine for members. Editor: Catherine Foster

By Dramaturg Jessica Bedford

In an interview with New York magazine, playwright Bill Cain discussed his favorite example of equivocation. It comes from Miep Gies who told the Nazis, treat “We are hiding no one.” On the surface, this a bold face lie. They were in fact hiding eight Jews, including Anne Frank and her family. But on another level, it is profoundly true: they weren’t hiding anyone, what they were actually doing was saving their lives. In his play, Equivocation, Cain presents us with a character, an early prototype of Macbeth, who tells us, “We live between two fires: above – the Sun – /God’s all-seeing Eye – and yet beneath our feet /Another fire burns.” Heaven and Hell. And we live in the tension between – in the grey area, the place where, often, two things are true. Miep Gies was lying and Miep Gies was telling the greatest truth of her life.

Dan Hodge, Sean Lally, and Anthony Lawton in Equivocation. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Dan Hodge, Sean Lally, and Anthony Lawton in Equivocation. Photo by Mark Garvin.

 

I teach Theatre History. When I have a student who is stumped on the order of things, my favorite thing to tell him or her is to look at the themes of the plays. History reveals itself in the themes. Equivocation takes us back to early 1606. King James I of England has a commission for his playwright, William Shagspeare. (This is a historically acceptable spelling of Shakespeare’s name. We’re dealing with a time that’s before the codification of spelling and a largely illiterate society which put more weight in what they heard. In fact, in the extant signatures we have belonging to Shakespeare, he spells his name differently in each one. But I digress…) The commission? Write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, the failed terrorist attempt by thirteen young Catholic men to blow up the Protestant Parliament and Protestant King with it; a play which will live in posterity and become the official version of the events. An official version of the events… You will likely gather from the need for such a version that the “events” are very much in question. There seem to be two realities and Shagspeare, or Shag, is living in the tension between. Despite the historical setting, Equivocation is a very recent play. If I take my own advice and look to the themes, it’s easy to draw parallels: terrorism plots, official versions of events (WMD’s? What WMD’s?), etc. But I think Cain is exploring something more complicated and delicate than just a political message: how divisively black and white contemporary American society has become in its thinking and how dangerous it is to deny that humans really exist in the grey, in the tension between black and white. And Cain recruits Shagspeare into his plot. Instead of a straightforward, propagandistic retelling of the Gunpowder story, casting Guy Fawkes and Garnet as evil terrorists and the foiling of their attempt a victory for the powers of good, what does Shag write for his king? Macbeth: the story of a man ambitious above his station, complicit in regicide and its tragic and horrific consequences both for the country and the murderers. I leave it to you to look for the equivocation in that choice.

Ian Merrill-Peakes as Richard Burbage playing Macbeth as Sean Lally and Dan Hodge look on. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ian Merrill Peakes as Richard Burbage playing Macbeth as Sean Lally and Dan Hodge look on. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Equivocation is a play written about the writing of a play, set in a theatre (Shag’s Globe) which you will see in a theatre (the Arden’s Arcadia Stage). It’s more than a little bit what the scholars would call “meta.” But with this production, the layers don’t end there. Ian Merrill Peakes, who played Macbeth at the Arden last season, will play Richard Burbage, a member of Shag’s company, who was the original Macbeth. Richard Burbage was the son of actor and theatre manager James Burbage. Ian Merrill Peakes is the son of actor and former artistic director John Peakes. James Burbage owned and ran The Theatre, the first permanent English theatre, so Richard grew up in a theatre. John Peakes founded and ran the BoarsHead Theatre, a prominent regional theatre in Lansing, Michigan, so Ian grew up in a theatre. Kind of amazing, right? Joining Ian as the remaining players in the King’s Men are Tony Lawton, Dan Hodge, and Sean Lally; some of Philly’s favorite sons doing virtuosic turns in multiple roles. Longtime Arden favorite Eric Hissom rounds out the company as Shag himself and Arden newcomer Campbell O’Hare joins as Judith, Shag’s daughter.

Equivocation is a rich many-layered piece of theatre, and it places tremendous faith in the passion and intelligence of its artists and its audience. It requires both artists and audience to sit forward rather than back, to engage and to think. Terry Nolen, the designers and actors of this production have endeavored to lift the play’s language, bringing it electrically to life, and to bring the audience face to face with its own assumptions about truth. I hope you enjoyed the show.

By Brittany Brewer

FIRST LAUNDRESS:
What would you do with all the money in the world?

SECOND LAUNDRESS:
What a question.

FIRST LAUNDRESS:
I know what I’d do. [Pause]. Do you want to know what I’d do?

SECOND LAUNDRESS:
No.

FIRST LAUNDRESS:
I’d never do laundry again.

SECOND LAUNDRESS:
That’s it. That’s the big dream?

Towel Models

Once upon a time at a company called Arden, there was a show, >sick a show with lots of water. It was called Metamorphoses. Those who worked at the company knew that producing the show would bring many challenges: heating the pool, keeping the pool clean, making costumes that could withstand weeks of sogginess, and – of course – towels. Many, many towels. And no matter how hard they tried, this Arden just couldn’t keep up with the mountains of towels that piled up in the laundry.

And just when it seemed that all laundry hope was lost – Wash Cycle Laundry came to the rescue!   Wash Cycle Laundry – a company who helps individuals and businesses surmount their mountains of laundry – agreed to help the Arden meet the challenge.

This is the story of that partnership – and of the one little towel who wanted more than anything to make a difference!

The little towel

Once upon a time, there was a towel. And on one crisp fall morning – clean, fresh, fluffy – this little towel found himself bumping along the back of a bicycle! The bicycle was helmed by Wash Cycle Cyclist Route Manager, Jason. As Jason wove in and through Philadelphia city streets, the towel felt the cool breeze in his fibers.

Jason and the towels

Suddenly, the bike veered to a stop and Jason was lifting the little towel and his neatly folded friends off of the bike and into a building. As the little towel and his friends whipped through the doors of the building, he noticed the large sign on the front: “The Arden Theatre Company.” The little towel began quivering with excitement. Helping out behind the scenes at the Arden was his favorite post! What purpose would he have today? Would he embark alone or share in the journey of toil with other towels?

Jason soon was backstage, and the little towel could hear the actors as they rushed between dressing rooms, stretching for their performance, and warming up their voices in preparation. Jason handed the little towel and his friends off to Rebecca, the Arden’s wardrobe supervisor.

The towel catches dripsSome of the little towel’s friends were being placed by Rebecca on the ground to catch water from dripping costumes. Others were brought into the dressing rooms to assist actors. The little towel wondered what his job would be! Before he knew it, the assistant to the stage manager was ending his speech, the lights were dimming, music was filling the space, and the show was in motion.

IMG_3911The little towel’s day at work was a blur, but beautifully transformative. He felt joy in the many ways he contributed in moving the show forward. From the moment the show began, everyone and everything was in constant movement.

Sometimes, the little towel lined the floor of “the hotbox” – a heated space backstage where the actors changed costumes.

At another point, the little towel served as a personal assistant to the actors. The little towel assisted an actor in drying his hair. Then, he was immediately wrapped around the actor’s waist and the little towel assisted him in relocating to a dressing room for a longer costume change. In moments of movement like this, the little towel spotted some other of his towel friends at work: draped across different actors’ heads and bodies as they lounged for a quick breather backstage or hustled to make a quick entrance. Many more lined the floors. The little towel was happy; it felt nice to be needed.

The towel is a 'personal assistant'

When the show finally came to an end, the little towel found himself back in “the hotbox”, tossed quickly into a pile as his actor returned to stage. Though the show was over, the little towel had more work to do! After audience members sifted out, crew members grabbed the little towel (and some of his friends) and began to wipe down the wet stage.

IMG_3914

Then, when that was done, the little towel was returned to a large yellow bag. The little towel was now damp, rumpled, and dirty – a far cry from the fluffiness he had felt just 2 hours ago!

The rumpled towel

Days passed and the little towel waited. He waited, and waited, damp and dirty, for Jason to return and transform him back to his fluffy old self.  Days passed, and more shows were performed, and more towels joined the little towel in his dirty bag – but still no Jason. And just when the little towel was about to give up hope – he heard the familiar shuffling of Jason’s shoes coming through the backstage door. And suddenly, the little towel and his friends were being lifted into Jason’s bike!

As the little towel sighed a breath of relief, he and his soggy compatriots were bumping along the old city cobblestone once again. In and out of the historic side streets of Old City they weaved until they arrived at 16th and South, where Tracey and the Wash Cycle laundry team were waiting. Tracey and her team scooped up the little towel and his friends, dropped them into the washers, and the little towel’s second transformation had begun. In the care of Tracey and the Wash Cycle team, the little towel was tumbled, soaked, soaped, dried, fluffed, and folded. He was placed into a pile that was soon to be loaded onto a bike, and just as if he had never been dirty before, the little towel set off on his next big adventure.

Partners in Transformation: Arden and Wash Cycle Laundry

The Arden is very grateful for the support of Wash Cycle Laundry as a partner in our production of Metamorphoses. Metamorphoses requires the use of 75 towels per performance, which is about 600 towels a week. We needed to find assistance in laundering our daunting number of backstage towels so that each performance, our actors can truly take our audience through the transformation that is Metamorphoses. Fortunately, we did not need all of the money in the world and Wash Cycle Laundry is not intimated by our massive loads of laundry.

Transformation is a theme that is very important to the Arden. We always transform of spaces: our seating is flexible and the audience area can change from show to show, depending on the needs of the story we are telling. The Arden is also committed to the transformation of the environment, and as such, through our partnerships with Revolution Recovery and The Resource Exchange, we diverted 78% of our trash from landfills last season. But, the theme of transformation extends even further for us this year. It is a pivotal component to storytelling that can be seen in the selection of our 2015/2016 season: Shagspeare’s belief in his purpose as a playwright transforms in Equivocation, Chick Sherman seeks to transform his legacy in Funnyman, the cultural landscape of America is transforming in Two Trains Running, and the garden undergoes a lively transformation in The Secret Garden.

Transformation is a theme that also really speaks to the mission of Wash Cycle Laundry. Nearly 50% of Wash Cycle employees have a history of incarceration, addiction, homelessness, or welfare dependence. Over 80% of their employees in management/leadership positions began on the front lines and they double Philadelphia’s average for employee retention with welfare to work recipients. They are transforming people’s lives by creating stable jobs with upward mobility and providing people with opportunity. They are showing that being sustainable can actually save money and improve our cities. They are cutting down on the number of trucks blocking traffic or polluting the air and getting places faster and more often because of their use of bikes.

The Arden is proud to partner with a company as dedicated to sustainability and community as Wash Cycle to help tell our stories onstage. Thank you to Jason, Tracey, and all those who work behind the scenes at Wash Cycle Laundry who have helped to make Metamorphoses possible.

 

By Krista Apple-Hodge (Aphrodite and others)

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as Psyche, >physician takes the plunge” width=”254″ height=”300″ /> Krista, as Psyche, takes the plunge

I know what you’re wondering. And yes, the water is warm. Delightfully, wonderfully warm.

As the audience takes their seats in the Haas theatre, the heating pumps have just been turned off and the water is at a balmy 104 degrees. By curtain call, it’s usually cooled to about 100. Not too bad for a night’s work, eh?

We had a week of rehearsal on dry land before we got in the pool; and when we did, we were given a detailed and often cheeky list of “Pool Rules” by the stage management team. It included the temperature info I gave you above. It also outlined personal requirements. Little sacrifices. No lotions, hair products, or makeup (they’ll stay in the water and make it…. well, gross). And, yes, no peeing in the pool.

As I’m sure you can imagine (and probably sympathize), it’s not every day you’re given pool rules at work! Maybe a few of you out there are few water-workers, but the majority of us just aren’t. So this feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us all.

Actress Leigha Kato tries to keep warm backstage during rehearsals

Actress Leigha Kato tries to keep warm backstage during rehearsals

There were plenty of pool-related things we were prepared for. Dry skin; water up the nose. There were also a lot of things that we weren’t prepared for. EVERYTHING in our lives is sopping wet, basically, all the time. We spend eight hours a day in towels and bathing suits. Our ears are waterlogged. Our lips are chapped two months before winter has even arrived.

We also weren’t prepared for the water’s power onstage. We’d been properly warned; Doug Hara, our director, kept describing the pool to us as “another cast member.” But there’s simply no way to prepare yourself for its beauty, its power, and its demands.

One of our biggest jobs as actors is to stay ‘in the moment’ onstage. To stay completely alive to the story we’re telling and not check out at all, even when we’ve said the same words a hundred times before. This show is a great exercise in that. We truly have no idea what’s going to happen next. The water is completely unpredictable, and it keeps us perpetually on our toes.

Metamorphoses pays great homage to all the elements: water, fire, earth, sky. These elements are thrillingly beautiful. Essential for our survival, and our evolution. They deserve our complete reverence, admiration, and respect.

Actress Leigha Kato waits in the pool during a moment of rehearsal

Actress Leigha Kato waits in the pool during a moment of rehearsal

It’s a great reminder of why the stories of these gods were told in the first place. The story of Poseidon, the god of water and the sea; the story of Apollo, the god of fire and the sun; or Ceres, the goddess of the harvest and the earth. The gods who, as the stories go, used these elements to reward us when we obeyed, and punished us when we didn’t.

So of course, you try and follow all the rules and maintain your respect. But even when you follow all the rules (no running backstage; no horseplay in the pool), accidents still happen. People still slip on the pool deck, get water up their nose, get singed by a candle or two. Just as in the real world, hurricanes and forest fires and elemental events completely out of our control are still visited upon us. Unpredictable.

Lindsay Smiling as Erysicthon and Leigha Kato as hunger

Lindsay Smiling as Erysicthon and Leigha Kato as hunger

But unpredictability is also where transformation takes place. It’s no accident that the water is where change always happens in our play. Where true love transforms grieving lovers into birds, where lust gets the better of a father and daughter, where greed gets the best of a disrespectful man, and where lovers lose and find and lose each other again and again.

It’s always our hope, as storytellers, that the stories we tell will change something in you. Offer a new perspective, or maybe just a little bit of entertainment, comfort, hope. The stories found in Metamorphoses have all of these things to offer; and the act of telling them has changed us, too. For all its unpredictability, and all its Rules and demands, the water has been a transformative place for us. We think it will be for you, too.

See you poolside!

 

The Cast of Metamorphsoes in the pool for the first time

The Cast of Metamorphsoes in the pool for the first time

Krista Apple-Hodge

& the cast of METAMORPHOSES

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