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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 mdecker@ardentheatre.org]

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?

By Jennifer Peck, the Arden’s General Manager

As part of our commitment to providing programming for everyone, The Arden offered two accessible performances of The History Boys. C2 Captioning provided open captions for all of our audience members, especially those who are hard of hearing or deaf, and for our low vision and blind patrons, we offered large print programs (which we provide for all of our performances) and audio description.

I audio described my first show in the fall of 2007. It was Assassins and it was the first time the Arden offered audio description. Since then, I’ve described several Arden shows including the several costume changes that Ian Merril Peakes made in the Barrymore-Award winning Something Intangible to our first fully accessible Children’s Theatre performance of A Year With Frog and Toad, made possible by Art-Reach. Audio description is when someone uses the natural pauses in dialogue or narration to insert descriptions of essential visual elements of a production to ensure that people who have blind or low vision enjoy equal access to cultural events. Descriptions are delivered through a wireless earphone to permit people using the service to sit anywhere in the audience. (The Arden is fortunate enough to provide audio description thanks to the equipment lent to us by VSA Arts of Pennsylvania.)

Each show has its particular audio description challenges. With Assassins, it was figuring out where, as an Audio Describer, I should sit. Our seating changes for each show and, if you remember, we flipped the seating in the Haas around for Assasssins. Because of this staging, I couldn’t actually see the stage from the booth and so, I had to describe Assassins while watching a live feed of the show on a television set up in the booth. While History Boys didn’t have the sightline challenges of Assassins – I got to share the booth with the show’s Stage Manager, the lovely and talented Kate Hanley – it was still the hardest show I’ve ever had to audio describe. (And not just because I really like 1980’s British post punk dance music and often found myself trying to figure out which New Order remix was playing when I should have been describing where the boys were putting the desks on stage.)

Here’s two things to know about audio description: You can not talk while the actors are talking and you need to be absolutely unbiased in your describing. Both of these rules, while usually challenging, were especially difficult with History Boys which, if you saw it, you know is a very ‘talk-y’ show. (Up there with David Davalo’s World Premiere of Wittenberg which I described in the spring of 2008, trying to get a word in between Scott Greer’s Faustus and Greg Wood’s Martin Luther.) But while there are a lot – A LOT – of words in History Boys, there’s also a lot going on when characters are not talking. While it is mentioned by actors, it’s very important to know that the boys, or Hector, always locked the door and, in our production, pulled down the blinds, when Hector was teaching. Scripps told the audience that Posner always looked at Dakin and so Dakin knew that Irwin also looked at Dakin but it’s important that you see that in the play, too. And think about how important Alison Robert’s costumes are to the production. Each of the boys in the show wore the same uniform but they each wore it differently. Rudge carried a gym bag and, sometimes, a rugby ball. Lockwood wore sunglasses and black and white tennis shoes. There were subtle and sometimes not so subtle details (like a wheelchair) in Irwin’s character when the story flash forwards. The sighted audience knew that Hector often carried his motorcycle helmet with him and that Dakin was not wearing pants when the Headmaster entered the classroom during the French lesson and so it is necessary that those who can’t see were aware of these details as well.

All of the above needed to be described and, as I said before, it needed to be described when the actors weren’t speaking and with as little personal opinion as possible. “Like a police report,” is the advice that Bill Patterson gives. Bill Patterson is one of the founding members of the Audio Description Coalition and he trained me (as well as Sally Wojcik and Stephanie Borton, others who have described performances at the Arden) in preparation for the Festival of Disability Arts and Culture that took place in Philadelphia in the fall of 2007. (I was also lucky enough to take Bill’s audio description workshop this past summer as part of the Kennedy Center’s LEAD conference.) Bill stresses the importance of being completely unbiased in your description. Mrs. Lintott might have looked frustrated when she called the Headmaster a twat but as a describer, you can’t say that she looks frustrated. What made her look frustrated? How do you, as a sighted patron, know that she was frustrated? It is not fair to say Irwin looked young or Dakin was good looking when describing. These are personal opinions. What drew you to these conclusions?

The example I always give when discussing audio description training is of the movie “Love Actually“. Remember that scene when Sarah, Laura Linney’s character, turns the corner to hide from her crush and freaks out from excitement and then returns composed? That’s the scene we had to audio describe in training. It’s easy to say that Sarah “freaks out” but it’s important to describe, in the most unbiased terms, what that freaking out entails. “Sarah jumped up and down. Sarah shook her head frantically. Sarah’s lip spread across her face in a giant smile.” And you have to say all of this in the time between the dialogue.

I am a writer. I have a graduate degree in writing. I have spent a great deal of my life dedicated to words. This both helps and hurts me as an Audio Describer. It helps because I thrive on the challenge of finding the perfect word to describe someone or something. One of the most beautiful moments, to me, in History Boys, was when Hector collapsed at his desk and broke down. Posner got up and gently put his hand on Hector’s back even though Scripps, as Scripps told us, was closest to Hector and Dakin, and some of the other boys, just looked away. I love being able to describe scenes like this to the audience. The flip side of this however; is that, like I said, I am a writer. And I love words. And I like to use a lot of them. And, as an Audio Describer, I need to find a way to describe Hector’s breakdown moment in a very short amount of time. (Especially since Scripps starts talking about it as it happens. Thank you, Alan Bennett, for making it even more difficult for me.) And I can’t use the words breakdown because that’s a judgement. So how did I describe it? “Hector collapses at his desk, puts his head into his hands, his chest rose and fell, his eyes filled up with water. Posner gets up and gently puts his hand on Hector’s back.”

After the audio described performance of Assassins, I received feedback from a blind audience member who told me that her favorite part of the show was the irony of Zangara reading a newspaper from the electric chair. I knew that she would have never known that Zangara was reading that newspaper had I not been describing it for her. I hope that the audio description provided during History Boys similarly added to patrons experiences while attending the show and I look forward to describing Romeo and Juliet in the spring.

The next audio described performance at the Arden will be Rabbit Hole on Saturday, December 5 at 8:00pm.

You can read more about accessible arts and culture all around Philadelphia in this Inquirer article.

With this video trailer, you can learn about The History Boys in just 90 seconds! Our production’s Sound and Projection Designer Jorge Cousineau filmed and edited this piece. Enjoy, forward to friends, and come see the show, playing through November 1!

Two cast members of The History Boys, Jonathan Silver (Timms) and Michael Doherty (Posner), created a backstage video one hour before Opening Night. Watch as they find out how each actor prepares, and look for surprises like ping-pong, naps, iPods and more!

By Matt Ocks: Assistant Director for The History Boys

Tech is the time when everything comes together. Scenery, lighting, video, sound, costumes and actors all become one, and the play we’ve been rehearsing upstairs in street clothes takes on new life downstairs in the Haas.

It’s also a grueling series of 10 to 12 hour days that leave everyone – cast, crew, design team, you name it – feeling worn out and sleep deprived.

And it’s invariably a bit absurd.

How else, then, could one capture it than through a series of haikus –an album of poetic snapshots, miniature moments ripe with technical absurdity.

It’s even more fitting for The History Boys, a play that wears its love of poetry on its sleeve.

So without adieu
Straight from our tech, just for you
The AD’s haiku…

“Ten seconds” says Jorge
Typing cues in his Mac Book.
But it will be more.

Boys nap in the House
While teachers try on costumes
Grown ups wear more clothes.

Kate says “restore please”
She is our Stage Manager
She looks good in hats

A ten minute break;
Ping Pong in the green room; Can
Anyone beat Jorge?!!

Where’s David Howey?
Traversing the catacombs.
Tricky Headmaster

At the Piano
It’s the Matt Leisy Special
Step in the light, Matt!

Chris and Mike step dance
While Brian makes a joke and
Jon eats a donut

“No tea in the Haas”
As I swallow the last drop
Crisis averted.

The esteemed Frank X
Walks through walls on his exit
Too cool for the door?

“Ankit on the floor”
“Peterson move back a step”
Terry’s re-blocking

After rehearsal
Evan shows us a jazz club
It’s good to unwind

By Hazel Bowers, Dialect Coach for The History Boys

When I saw The History Boys on Broadway a couple of years ago, I fell in love with the play, >discount and couldn’t wait until a company in Philadelphia decided to stage it – Yea Arden! So, when Terry Nolen called and asked if I would work on the dialects, I was absolutely delighted. Especially as the North of England “sound” is one of my favorites. There are also several characters in the play speaking standard British, which is my native tongue! How great is that!

As far as the process is concerned, I always prefer to work one-on-one with actors, slowly moving through the script, one sentence, even one word at a time, making sure, with constant repetition, that the actor starts to hear and mimic the specific sound of whatever dialect we are working on (in this case,Yorkshire and standard Britlish). I am a firm believer that work of this nature ideally has to be done early on in the rehearsal process, so that as an actor is learning his/her lines, they are also learning to incorporate the correct sounds to ensure that the dialect slowly becomes a natural extension of their characters. I am, in fact, quite a stickler, even having actors mark/highlight their scripts on all words that have to be changed to the correct sound, e.g. change the word ONE to WUN which is the correct Yorkshire pronunciation.

After a couple of weeks of constant reminders, all that should be necessary now are the occasional “tweaks” during runs of the play. I also encourage the use of tapes; movies; websites, YouTube clips etc., to steep actors in the cadence of the appropriate dialect. Finally, I have a personal mantra: CLARITY, CLARITY, CLARITY! – a perfect dialect is of no use whatsoever, if it is too “thick” for audiences to understand. I know that I have done my job if I can understand every word, yet still have the strong flavor we need to honor the play. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a dream cast, which is what I have in The History Boys!

By Matt Ocks: Assistant Director for The History Boys.

So I know it’s called The History Boys but Alan Bennett’s play has one of the juiciest roles for a woman to come along in quite some time. Mrs. Dorothy Lintott, she of the droll asides and witty interjections, is a treasure. Part Ms. Jean Brody (in her prime, of course) and part Professor McGonagall, she’s a no-nonsense, just-the-facts-ma’am sort of teacher who is loved and respected by her pupils nonetheless.

Lucky for us that she’s being played in this production by Maureen Torsney-Weir. Maureen was in the very first production I worked on at the Arden: A Prayer for Owen Meany. I remember attending a Sunday evening run-through and marveling at how, as Lydia, the Wheelright’s persnickety maid, she could make such an impression while perched in a wheelchair, magnificently maintaining the illusion that she had lost both her legs. Her warm-hearted performance as the grandmother in Caroline, or Change later that season (does anyone else remember how she danced with such abandon in the Channukah number?) confirmed for me her stage presence. One of the great joys of The History Boys has been the opportunity to get to know Maureen not only as an actress but as a friend.

In many ways Mrs. Lintott is the hardest role to play in The History Boys (I can already hear the men in this show crumpling up paper to throw at me, as if I were Posner, the class victim). Mrs. Lintott’s lines tend to be cryptic, rife with double meanings and innuendo. She is able to say a lot to her fellow teachers without saying too much, if that makes sense. Figuring out exactly what she is doing line-by-line has been a challenge for all of us on the rehearsal team, but Maureen’s willingness to experiment with different ideas each time we try a scene has been a lesson in acting and what a safe rehearsal process can allow for.

Take Mrs. Lintott’s impassioned speech in the middle of Act 2 on the role of women in the study of history. We grappled with this speech for several days, but through discussion, experiment, and continually returning to our scripts, Maureen, Terry, our dramaturg Sally and I were able to figure out that the speech, though seemingly directed at the history boys, is in many ways for the benefit of their male teachers, her colleagues. Once Maureen figured out the two-fold purpose of the speech, so to speak, the scene came to life in a whole new way. It was an exciting breakthrough, and of my favorite Mrs. Lintott moments in the play.

Maureen’s done double-duty on this production, serving as our French teacher for the infamous brothel/veterans hospital re-enactment scene (Performed by 9 American actors! Playing Brits! Speaking French!). Maureen instructed the history boys a week before she even began to act as their instructor in the play. When she came to her first rehearsal as actress instead of teacher, art imitated life in a wonderful way.

I’ve watched run-throughs of this play almost every night the past week. I know that when we open, audiences are going to fall in love with all our history boys. Thanks to Maureen, they’re sure to fall in love with Mrs. Lintott as well.

By Matt Ocks: Assistant Director for The History Boys.

In our second week, The History Boys has reverted from a play about history, memory, poetry and teaching to a play about furniture.

Desks. Chairs. A door. A lamp. The piano.

What goes where? When? And who puts it there? And then who takes it off again?

Blocking is a major part of early rehearsals for a play, and one of a director’s many responsibilities. Some directors come in with an entire plan mapped out, but Terry Nolen works differently. He usually has some preliminary thoughts about how things will go, but he starts every day with an open mind, so that the play can literally come to life through a combination of impulse, instinct, experiment, and collaboration.

I have a theory (I’m not the only one, trust me) that well written plays tend to stage themselves in a lot of respects. So far Alan Bennett’s words have guided us well, even though he sometimes seems reticent to share information. Bennett doesn’t always specify where a scene takes place, or when, so a lot of this week has been about searching for the clues. (Picture our fearless leader Terry in a deerstalker cap a la Sherlock Holmes, with me his bumbling assistant Watson, and you’ve got the idea).

Some of the cases we’ve been cracking: Which boys need to stay in the classroom after a bell has rung? Can a conversation between the irrepressibly witty Mr. Hector and the deliciously droll Mrs. Lintott happen as they walk through the school hallway, or must they be sitting in the staff room? Bennet doesn’t lay it out for us, but he guides us through subtle means, and it has made blocking an unusually satisfying experience.

Though it’s still grueling. Three days in, and we’re on page 34.

Of 109.

End of Act 1 where are you?!!

At a recent reading of The History Boys, >prescription we asked friends of the Arden to tell us about a memorable teacher from high school. Check out the stories they shared!

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