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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!

Our summer intern Natalia had the chance to ask playwright Michael Hollinger some questions about Ghost-Writer. Here’s part one of a two-part interview.

What made you to decide to start writing plays? Had you always wanted to do so, >nurse or did the inclination come after your prowess as a musician?

I identified myself as a writer from a rather young age, writing poetry primarily at first.  (“Fewer words,” as Mrs. Woolsey says in the play.)  But I was attracted to the play form early on, as my family was heavily involved in a community theatre in my home town — acting, building sets, etc.  I “ran lines” with my mother as she learned roles (something my own son is doing with my wife Megan downstairs as I write this), which acquainted me with the conventions of dramatic writing so that it was a very familiar form by the time I started writing short plays as a teenager.

How does being a musician inform your writing?

I think my sense of plays as an interplay of voices is enhanced by my experiences playing chamber music; I believe plays should be aurally satisfying even if you don’t understand the language.  Musicians also study form more rigorously than theatre artists do: What’s a concerto?  What’s a symphony?  What’s a tone poem?  What’s a sonata?  What’s a cantata?  What’s a song cycle?  There are models for all of these forms across the centuries, and, in my experience, musicians — composers in particular — tend to be more aware of the constraints and possibilities inherent in each.  Consequently, I’m very interested in the form of each play, its structure, sequence of “movements,” how the various characters, like instruments in an ensemble, are brought in or out to produce a certain effect.  Studying viola seriously also helped me acquire greater detachment in the revision process.  When you practice a difficult passage over and over, you can’t waste time beating yourself up about a clumsy shift or flat note.  You just have to observe carefully and do it again and again, striving to get closer each time.  This taught me a certain discipline with regard to revision — a combination of rigor and patience.

What was the inspiration for Ghost-Writer?

A few years ago I ran across an anecdote about Henry James and his secretary, who typed as he dictated his novels and stories over the course of years.   According to the anecdote, when James died the secretary claimed to continue receiving dictation from her late employer.  My mother had died shortly before I encountered this story, and, through conversations with my father, I began thinking about “the presence of absence” — that is, the power that a departed loved one holds over us, and how we negotiate the space left by that person.  As the play continued to develop, I also found myself looking at the nature of creative process itself, that mysterious combination of craft and what most people would call inspiration.

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?

Arden Drama School hosted the first week of Summer Camp for our Kids’ Crew in June. We had 44 campers ranging from Kindergarten through 5th grade who had classes each day in acting, improvisation, playwriting, set and costume design, dance and music. The week culminated with a show on Friday afternoon for parents!

Here’s a video with highlights from the camp show and photos from throughout the week.

There are three more weeks of summer camp for both Kids’ Crew and Teen Company, and spaces are filling fast! Check back for more photos, blogs and videos from these upcoming sessions!

The Arden was proud to host our city’s first ever Bike to Theatre Night on Friday, >ambulance July 2.  On this sunny summer night, we had a nice turnout of cyclists from all parts of Philadelphia. They received discounted tickets to Sunday in the Park with George, complimentary valet bike parking from Neighborhood Bike Works, and a free bike bell from Pabst Blue Ribbon!

Here are some photos of our fabulous bikers!

We hope to schedule Bike to Theatre Nights for future productions, so stay tuned for more information!

On Friday, July 2 we had beautiful weather for a First Friday in Old City!

We invited anyone to come into the Arden’s lobby to “Create Your Own Sunday, ” inspired by Georges Seurats’ Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Using paint, chalk and pencils, over 200 visitors drew depictions of their own Sunday afternoons.

Guests also enjoyed complimentary desserts from Sugar Philly, a scrumptious dessert truck who parked on Filbert Street to sell their treats, and beer from Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Here are some pictures from the evening!

We hope you’ll visit us for a future First Friday!

On Tuesday,   June 29, recipe we hosted a special Arts Administrators Night at a performance of Sunday in the Park with George. Inspired by the subject matter of the play (and in particular, the characters in Act 2), we thought this was the perfect play to get together with our fellow colleagues that are “Putting it Together” in all facets of the Arts in the Philadelphia area. We were thrilled to have over 50 Arts Administrators join us for a casual dinner and then to watch the play.

Here are some pictures from the pre-show reception.

Be on the lookout for future Arts Administrator nights in the 2010/11 Season!

By Matt Ocks, discount Manager of Institutional Giving

June 30th is the end of the fiscal year here at Arden Theatre Company, and the development department is in the midst of a mini-phone campaign to encourage former supporters to renew their contributions in time for us to make goal for the season.  As an added incentive, any increase they make over last year’s gift counts towards the Hamilton Family Foundation Challenge (audiences who have seen Sunday in the Park are already familiar with this challenge, as it’s mentioned nightly in a post-show speech by Jeff Coon).  If we raise $50,000 in new or increased gifts by June 30th, the Foundation will match that with an additional $50,000 for Children’s Theatre and our outreach program, Arden for All.

One of the questions I get asked the most by audience members when I talk about donations is why, after they already spent money on tickets, they need to contribute to the theatre as well?  And of course, the answer is – they don’t.  But if they can, by gum, they should!  Right?  As a theatre-maker reared mainly on Broadway shows, I struggle with this issue a lot.  After all, on Broadway, when a show doesn’t sell, it closes.  And if we think of the theatre as a business, than the idea that we should have to buy tickets and be asked to make donations does seem silly.

But perhaps the theatre is something else.  True.  It has many of the same qualities as a business – it employs a variety of highly trained craftsmen; those craftsmen create a product; that product is sold to the community.  And yet, by virtue of the transformative potential of what we produce – transformative for us and our audiences – we theatre-makers are by and large not in it for the profits.  But if theatre’s not just a business, what else is it?

When William Penn wrote his plan for the layout of Philadelphia, he insisted upon five public squares that would be open to everyone.   As far as he was concerned, we all had a right to spend time in these “havens of respite in a busy world.”  And if we’re all allowed to sit on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, throw pennies in the fountain at Logan Circle, or cut through the City Hall courtyard on our way to Market or Broad – shouldn’t we all be able to see Sunday in the Park at the Arden?  Is that show not also a haven of respite in our busy world – a world even busier, I might add, than the one Billy Penn was talking about?

Theatre is a commodity, but it is also every citizen’s right.  And until more people in our field start to position it that way, the argument that those who can afford to ought to both buy their tickets and contribute will not hold very much water.  At least, that’s what I think.

We did boffo business this season at the Arden.  We’re humbled by the thought that 100,000 ticket-holders passed through our doors.   If one third of those people contributed $10 on top of admission, we would already be above our individual giving goal for the season.

I put this argument forth not to be contrary or to make anyone who might have bought but not contributed feel guilty.  I’m merely a professional fundraiser who constantly calls in to question the need for my services.   Because, you see, a part of me still thinks theatre is just a business.  Even when I know it’s as essential to my life as relaxing in a park on…er…Sunday.

This is a complicated issue.  And I’m only talking about individuals.  I could write a whole treatise on whether or not the country’s government ought to be supporting the work of its artists.  But if summer is a time for reflection, I can’t think of a better topic theatre-wise to reflect upon.  So by all means, tell us what you think.  I’m sure there is more to be said here.

Arden Theatre Company presents Philly’s First Bike to Theatre Night!

On July 2, ride your bike to the Arden, enjoy valet bike parking, and see Sunday in the Park with George at a discount!

For bicyclers only, we’re offering a Tandem Discount! Tickets are 2 for 1! And if your bicycle is just for one, tickets are ½ priced!

Please call 215.922.1122 to reserve tickets! Valet parking stub must be shown at the Arden box office to redeem tickets on the night of the performance. Performance begins at 8pm.

And remember, July 2 is First Friday in Old City so there will be fun festivities at the Arden and throughout the neighborhood.

Arden Theatre Company is located in Old City at 40 North 2nd Street

About the play: Inspired by Georges Seurat’s impressionist masterpiece, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Sunday in the Park with George celebrates the power of artistic creation and the journey through a changing landscape. It’s also about:  bumbling adulterers, demanding bosses, competitive colleagues, nagging mothers, and catty shop girls all enjoying a pleasant Sunday in the park. And that’s just the first act! As for the second, there are 9 video projectors creating stunning visual effects.

About our Event Sponsor: Valet bike parking is provided by event sponsor Neighborhood Bike Works. Neighborhood Bike Works is a nonprofit educational organization in Philadelphia that seeks to increase opportunities for urban youth through bicycling, and promotes cycling as an environmentally-friendly means of transportation. In 1996, the organization began as Youth Cycle & Recycle, a program of The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. They organized as a separate non-profit in July 1999. Today, they hold classes at three permanent shops, satellite locations in Chester and Norristown, PA, and in several public schools and community centers.

Neighborhood Bike Works

By Sarah Ollove, Dramaturg for Sunday in the Park with George

Here are five illuminating facts about Sunday in the Park with George and the painting that inspired it.

1)      George Seurat hated the term ‘pointillism.’ He felt it was reductionist and missed the point of what he was trying to accomplish. He referred to his technique of using tiny dots of color to create a picture in the eye as chromoluminarism. Chromo meaning color, > lumen meaning light. Color and light. Lapine and Sondheim adopted the term for George’s Act II artwork.

2)      Since its acquisition by the Chicago Art Institute, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte has only been loaned out once: in 1958 to the MOMA. While there, a fire broke out. Hundreds of masterpieces were in peril, not only from the fire, but from smoke which is just as perilous to paintings as flames.  Fortunately, Sunday made it out of the building without damage, but, unsurprisingly, has not left Chicago since. So if you’re interest in the painting has been piqued, you’ll have to plan a trip to Chicago.

3)      For someone so obsessed with technique, Seurat left in a number of ‘mistakes’ in Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte. Several characters are completely out of proportion: people whose legs would be ¾ of their bodies if they stood up, or who have torsos that somewhat resemble an alien’s. One tree casts two shadows. And there is an unusual brown triangle sticking into the painting on the right side. The best guess is that it is a tree trunk root, but doesn’t look like any of the other trees in the painting and casts no shadow. No one has positively identified the square shape that Marie claims is a waffle stove, though the conventional guess is that it is a baby carriage.

4)      When writing the book for Sunday, James Lapine tried to simulate the speech patterns of late 19th century France by avoiding contractions and Latin root words.

5)      Initially, Sondheim was interested in structuring the musical as ‘theme and variation.’ The first act would focus on the creation of the painting (as it does now).  The second act would be a series of scenes written almost like a revue that would comment on the painting or art in general. Eventually, Lapine convinced Sondheim to winnow the themes and variations down to two: one an imaginative look at what it is like for the figures to be trapped in the painting and the other a satiric look at the contemporary art world. However, the idea of theme and variation was not let go so easily—countless themes, characters, music, and even words are repeated and re-invented throughout the musical.

By Mark Cristofaro, Drummer-Percussionist-Noisemaker, orchestra member for Sunday in the Park with George

Preparing for a new show is always challenging.  I get the score, look over the music, see what instruments I will need to bring, etc.   Any Sondheim show though always makes this process harder.  For the percussionist, it usually involves a lot of instruments, which you just don’t have sitting around in your living room.  When I received the score for Sunday In The Park with George, I expected the worst.  The usual Sondheim stuff which includes a multitude of tuned percussion, like timpani, vibraphone, orchestra bells and even tuned concert toms, tuned wood blocks called Temple blocks, and tuned cymbals called Crotales.  Then just for fun, he usually throws the percussionist a curve ball by writing in an unconventional sound.  When I played Sweeney Todd here, it was the “metal bucket”.  Pacific Overtures had the “bell plate”.  Even Caroline, or Change had me trying to make music by playing on a cardboard box…

So I had heard from some other players in the business that Sunday would require more of the same insanity: pots and pans.  OK, no problem.  I can handle this.  Just another day at the office.  From what the score reads, looks like 4 different pots…or pans…or both.  However, when I started to listen to the original soundtrack, the pots…or pans…sounded like they were specific pitches. (long pause………)

What do I have to do now?  Go into my kitchen, take out our cookware, and listen for pitches?  This was never going to happen(mostly because if I EVER took cookware out of my kitchen to use as a drum or something, the front door locks would be changed by my wife Suzanne when I returned home that night). So with a little help from another percussionist colleague, we brainstormed and came up with a great idea to find the specific pitches needed for this show:  Thrift shops.  So, we start going into second hand stores…with a pitch pipe and a mallet… You can only imagine the looks we would get.

I learned a lot about cookware construction during this quest.  The thinner the pot/pan, the lower the pitch.  If I found as cast iron pan, it usually had a very high pitch.  These were the easier ones to find: the higher pitches.  I determined the pitches I need were(form low to high), C#, F#, A natural, and C natural.  These were the distinct pitches I hear on the recording that doubled the bass line for the song “The Day Off”.  So we found the highest pitch, C natural rather quickly.  A small skillet (iron) pan.  Also the A natural initially, but I decided to replace that one because it was a thinner metal, and sounded too “clangy”(is that a word?).  So then I found a real nice replacement A natural…another skillet(iron pan).  Real defined “A”.  AAAHHHH….. Sounded like a bell of some sort.  I was getting hopeful, but then hit a dry spell.  Couldn’t find the 2 lowest pitches.  After a few attempts at various places, I did come across this sauce pan, thin metal though, that produced a fairly convincing low F#.  Chances of finding that last pitch, the lowest C# was looking almost impossible.  I came up short so many times.  Then I just got lucky and found this beautiful larger iron skillet pan(looks like something form the 70’s w/ a red paint bottom) that produced a very convincing low C#.  OK…had them all.

Now that I had the “instruments” (aka..the skillet pans), now I had to figure out how to set these things up so I could some how make music with them.  There are no stands, mounts, or gizmos you can find to hold pots and pans in place so that a drummer can play them with sticks or mallets.  My idea was to find some kind of suspended contraption to hang the pans from…but where was I gonna find something like that?  Lucky for me, technical director Glenn at the Arden had some ideas, and he designed and fabricated an aluminum structure that we fastened the pans to.  It is a great piece of hardware, and I don’t believe I could have played the show smoothly without Glenn’s help and input.  It even looks cool…makes me look like I know what I’m doing too.

I’ve done 14 musicals at the Arden, and the production people and artists know I go to all extremes to make the music and percussion 100% accurate.  Sometimes it’s not easy to do.  But when you “get it right” and never compromise the integrity of the music, it feels so good…

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