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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 Harry Watermeier

Arden Professional Apprentice

 My time at The Arden as a Professional Apprentice is hurtling to a close. My contract is up on June 19th, and, in these closing weeks, I’ve begun to reflect upon the lessons I’ve learned, the choices I’ve made, and any other pop song lyrics that come to mind. These “reflection sessions” morph into “uncontrollable wincing sessions” pretty quickly. Which isn’t to say that I’ve had an unpleasant time at The Arden, not at all—just that, well, this apprenticeship has been a real (and ultimately rewarding) challenge. Over the past nine months I’ve learned: I’m not particularly good with a copier, I’m kind of dangerous when driving in a city, basic Microsoft Office programs like Word and Excel are extremely challenging, I might have a dog allergy, sometimes I simultaneously “talk too fast” and “stammer”—which, I guess makes me hard to understand, find multitasking a touch difficult because I think each individual task will get jealous of the others, and, when I’m nervous, get the neck sweats. However, every so often a seemingly insurmountable problem was laid in front of me, and I was able to conquer it. Last week, such a problem was presented to me.

 Around lunch time, I was sitting in the green room (that’s showbiz talk for “break room”) eating my daily ration of Ramen when Bryan— fellow APA and Assistant Stage Manager for The Flea and the Professor—burst through the door.

 “Harry, welcome to the exciting world of theatre,” Bryan said as he quickly unwrapped the cords of a microphone headset.

 “What do you mean?” I asked as little bits of Ramen fell from my mouth onto the table.

 “Keighty’s sick, and you have to operate the follow spot right now.”

 “That’s really funny, Bryan.”

 “Nope. I mean it. You really have to go up to the catwalks and get on the follow spot. Let’s go,” he said sternly as he handed me the mic pack.  

 “That’s super funny?”

 This exchange went on for a while until Bryan got kind of upset. I then dashed up to the catwalks, high above the audience, sat down behind the light, and proceeded to get the neck sweats.

 The Flea and the Professor is the last show that will grace the Otto Haas stage this season. It’s a kinetic musical comedy, reminiscent of the most madcap and sophisticated Warner Brother’s cartoons. I really adore the show, and feel like it’s a joyous way to end the season. Technically, the show is extremely complicated, and requires a large crew of sound technicians, stage assistants, and spot light operators (or follow spots.) These professional stage crew members are essential to the show—so essential in fact, that during the run of the show, apprentices shadow them multiple times. Basically, we have a number of training sessions with crew members to learn what functions they perform so that we can fill in if they were to become unavailable. I was assigned to shadow both of the follow spot operators— far more capable and intelligent people than I named Keighty and Ashley. As a follow spot (I’m italicizing it so you know that it’s an important vocabulary word that will totally show up on the exam. Totally won’t be on the exam.), it’s their job to operate a spot light. Keighty and Ashley light and follow various actors throughout the show, and execute several complex movements to achieve special lighting effects. It’s a difficult job—hats off to Keighty and Ashley, guys. Before the aforementioned episode, I had a couple of training sessions with the two of them—they showed me some basic elements of the lighting instruments, and took me through their responsibilities, light cue by light cue.

 These preliminary training sessions were interesting, and certainly helpful. They did not, however, make me feel as though I were a skilled spot light operator. 

 Bryan asked me to jump on the follow spot a few days after my training sessions with Keighty and Ashley. Of course I didn’t feel ready or capable to operate a spot light—a crucial instrument in the creation of Flea and the Professor’s aesthetic.

 I perched behind Keighty’s spotlight (see scary photo–this was my P.O.V from Keighty’s spotlight. Isn’t it a strange angle?), desperately tried to read her cue list, and listen to commands given to me by the stage manager over headset—all in an effort to execute Keighty’s lighting effects. And I, much to my and I’m sure the entire crew’s surprise, was able to execute said effects pretty gracefully. Now Keighty, being the trooper that she is, was able to complete the bulk of her duties as follow spot that day. I only had to fill in for a terrifying moment or two. Still, I will remember my follow spot adventure as a critical moment that encapsulated my experience as an apprentice. After crouching in the darkness of the catwalks, behind a searing hot light encased in a metal cocoon, executing lighting effects (an act which was totally foreign to me a matter of days before), and staying relatively calm while doing so, I felt pretty proud. I don’t often have that feeling (I usually confuse it with nausea) so when I do, I know something exceptional has just happened. I saw operating the spot light as an insurmountable task; I saw the lighting instrument as a machine with which I would be wholly incompetent. And yet, (with the help of a fantastic team of very smart people) I was able to execute all necessary lighting cues. The light didn’t fall from the ceiling, I didn’t fall from the ceiling, and the show didn’t fall apart. Therein lies the heart of the APA Program’s potential: at its very best, the program has the ability to endow the apprentices with a confidence and skill set that they would never dream of having.

I ran a real live spot light during a real live show. Who’d of thought?

The Arden’s 2011 fundraising event, The Show Must Go On, took place on Sunday, May 22.  Guests enjoyed cocktails courtesy of Philadelphia Distilling, sumptuous small plates served by Frog Commissary and an interactive backstage tour, taking them places only actors and designers have gone before!  The tour included a trip through the F. Otto Haas backstage, green room and dressing rooms and a journey into the Haas booth and high above the stage onto the catwalks.  Guests also participated in a fun speed dating event where they had the opportunity to chat for two minutes with Arden favorite artists.  Over 30 actors, designers, playwrights and directors volunteered their time to participate in The Show Must Go On.  The event grossed over $48,000 in support of the Arden’s programming.

While working on Wanamaker’s Pursuit we heard about the importance of the Wanamaker’s store to many of you! We were fortunate to sit down with a department store historian, past employees and shoppers, >pharm and of course a few folks that attended the Christmas Light Show!

The video we compiled ran in the lobby during Wanamaker’s Pursuit, and is now posted here for you to watch!

View Part 1 of the video:

And Part 2 of the video:

Post YOUR Wanamaker’s memory in the comments!

By Rogelio Martinez, Playwright of Wanamaker’s Pursuit

People are always curious to learn how much I know ahead of time when I decide to write a play. To be honest, I know very little. For me a play is a mystery that doesn’t really get solved until an audience watches it.

Wanamaker’s Pursuit was chock-full of mysteries. Initially, the Wanamaker name attracted me. I learned it was the name of a store that had left a very strong imprint on the citizens of Philadelphia. Oddly enough, the name left an equally strong imprint on me. As a runner, I remember watching the Wanamaker Mile at the Garden in New York. In other words, I had a very personal connection to the family, but not the connection one would expect.

NOISE. NOISE. NOISE

The Gertrude Steins, the Paul Poirets and the Picassos of the play loved to hear themselves talk. They had something to say about everything and everyone (at one time the play was 145 pages long; it’s now 114). However with all these voices fighting to be heard, the young man who was at heart of the play was unusually reticent.

For anyone considering taking up playwriting, it’s a problem when your lead character refuses to take center stage. Nathan Wanamaker was an American abroad. Loosely inspired by Rodman Wanamaker (the real heir to the Wanamaker store who spent a great deal of time in Paris in the 1890s and beyond), the Nathan of my play is ostensibly in Paris to discover new fashions for the family. But, of course, there’s always another reason, isn’t there?

I spent the summer reading and rereading Henry James’s masterpiece, The Ambassadors. Not smart. In order to solve a problem for the stage, I turned to a brilliant novelist but failed playwright. However, James helped me understand the world of Paris at the turn of the century. He helped me explore the idea of the American abroad. Still, the mystery remained.

MYSTERY SOLVED AT THE LOUVRE

Halfway through the first act, Gertrude Stein and Nathan Wanamaker are standing in front of an empty frame that had till only a week earlier held the Mona Lisa. With one mystery before them (who stole the famous painting?), Nathan reveals to Gertrude that he is a man in mourning, a young widower who feels dead inside. The revelation happens in an instant. After fifteen months with this man, I realize that he’s really come to Paris because he is dying inside, and he must learn to live again before it’s too late.

ENTER AUDIENCE

I started by writing that a play is a mystery that doesn’t get solved till the audience walks in. The final mystery for me was whether an audience would accept — no, not accept, but welcome the point of view of one man who didn’t grow up going to Wanamaker’s and coming home with the iconic green bag, whose family did not work for the store, and whose memories of Christmas do not involve the famous organ. It was a fear I had till about two weeks into the run when I started to notice the audience response.

Playwright Rogelio Martinez (right) with John Wanamaker V, after the final performance of Wanamaker's Pursuit

It was a fear that was finally put to rest after the final performance when I had the opportunity to meet a member of the Wanamaker family. I shook John Wanamaker’s hand and in that moment he began to share with me personal memories about his family. He answered questions I could not find answers to. Mostly, he finished solving the mystery.

I felt I’d done right for the memory of the institution while maintaining my own integrity.

 

Mainstage favorite Scott Greer is currently tackling Arden Children’s Theatre in The Flea and the Professor. While playing a giant singing insect might seem like a stretch from roles like Sam Byck, Dr. Faustus, and Mr. Peachum, Scott tells us about the similarities of these roles and the excitement of performing for our children’s theatre audience.

Watch the video and then come see Scott in The Flea and the Professor, on stage thru June 12!

Inspired by the great buddy comedies before them, The Flea and The Professor spend an afternoon in Old City. Watch the video to see their adventure!

You can see these two unlikely best friends on stage at the Arden through June 12!

In our last visit to the donut shop, Craig Spidle sits down to talk about his experience coming to Philadelphia from Chicago. And hear the secret to his ping pong game that his fellow actors have been talking about.

Click play or watch the video on YouTube.

Thank you all for making the run of Superior Donuts such a success!

In this installment of the full story, actor Brian Anthony Wilson chats with us backstage during a performance. He talks about the Arden audience, what he likes about the writing of this show, >remedy and his backstage Ping Pong strategy.

Click play to watch the video!

We’ll be back with the full story from Wanamaker’s Pursuit!

In our latest installment of the full story, >and Pete Pryor who plays Luther in Superior Donuts talks about audience reaction and his favorite part of the show.

Make sure you watch until the end so you catch Pete’s challenge to a fellow Arden actor!

By Dan Plehal, Assistant Director, Wanamaker’s Pursuit

 Think back to grade school. Remember how much excitement there was surrounding those much-anticipated field trips? Or how fun it was to get out of the building and experience something so cool and different that you almost forgot you were learning? Well that isn’t just for kids – – sometimes actors get to take field trips too!

 By the way, I’m Dan, the Assistant Director of Wanamaker’s Pursuit.  Wanamaker’s (as we call it for short) is a wonderful fictitious story built around a lot of facts. It follows the journey of Nathan Wanamaker, a made-up heir of the Wanamaker’s Department Store, as he visits Paris in 1911. His goal is to bring back the latest fashions for the store and ends up befriending the likes of Gertrude and Leo Stein, Paul Poiret and his wife Denise and even Pablo Picasso.

 Art plays a major role in the play, which discusses several specific paintings by turn-of-the-century artists. Luckily for us, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has an impressive collection of similar paintings.  Naturally, in the name of research, a trip to the museum was in order!

 Last Thursday we had the pleasure of spending an entire rehearsal day at the museum! We started our tour in the north wing of the museum, which contained European art beginning in 1850. We were surrounded by timeless works by Monet, Manet and Cezanne.

 As we walked farther down the hall and closer to the twentieth century, we passed several Renoir and Matisse Portraits, both of which make appearances in the play.  We reached a large atrium, which housed a giant Cezanne called “The Large Bathers.” It was fascinating to see such a colossal work and be able to clearly identify techniques that are discussed in the Wanamaker’s script.  Catharine Slusar and David Bardeen (who plays Gertrude and Leo Stein) could occasionally be heard discussing which paintings their characters may have had in their collection.

 The hallway turned and so did the century, leading us into the 1900s and the reign of Picasso.  Suddenly we could see and feel a drastic change in the state of art. We saw first hand how artists moved away from the techniques and styles of the previous centuries, choosing instead to explore the abstract and create the modern.

 This shift to modernism in painting is representative of a larger evolution in art, fashion, and society that took place at the same time, and conveniently is a central theme in Wanamaker’s.

 Next we were in for a real treat: the museum staff had set up a small private display just for us! We donned researcher badges and entered the Hamilton Center for Costumes and Textiles.   Kristina Haughland, the supervising curator had brought out a few pieces that could not have been more relevant to our production.

 A central part of Nathan Wanamaker’s journey is his attempt to purchase the latest clothing from revolutionary fashion designer Paul Poiret.  As we sat at a long conference table, Kristina unveiled three dresses from the time period; one of them had been based off of Poiret’s style, while the other two were authentic dresses designed by Poiret himself!

 The cast poured over the dresses inspecting every ribbon-formed rose and beaded pattern. Particularly interested were Wilbur Henry who plays Poiret and Genevieve Perrier who plays Poiret’s wife and model, Denise.

 Saturated with first-hand experiences and a new appreciation for the art (both paintings and fashion) that is so integral to our play, we retired to the house of actress Catharine Slusar who plays Gertrude Stein. In true style of the salons Stein was famous for hosting, we sipped wine, ate French cheese, and discussed the amazing art we had witnessed that day. It had been a full day of research and fun – a field trip that has already brought new appreciation and life to our rehearsal process!

If you’re interested in art, fashion or Paris, you are sure to love Wanamaker’s Pursuit!  You could even make a field trip out of it!  Wanamaker’s is on stage at the Arden from March 31 through May 22.

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