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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]

By Meghan McKeown, Marketing Intern

It seems that many things are wrapping up for me lately.  It’s April, >capsule which means I’m finishing my final semester of college, and I have less than a month left of my internship at the Arden.  However, Friday, April 2, 2010 was also a day for new beginnings.  The weather was absolutely gorgeous, signaling the start of spring.  It was also the first of many First Friday celebrations in which the Arden will be taking part.

Since starting my internship with the marketing department in January, I’ve spent a good portion of my time working on projects to promote Romeo and Juliet.  Whether I was promoting student rush, painting the windows of the Arden’s lobby or distributing R+J pins, I was constantly learning more about theatre marketing.  A few weeks ago, I was asked to plan a First Friday event, and decided to incorporate an R+J theme.

On Friday, I managed to get to the Arden lobby just in time to get a free Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.  Thanks to the help of APAs, Alan, Kristyn and Mike, the evening was a success; people really enjoyed stopping into the theater to learn more about the Arden (and not just to use our convenient restrooms).

To qualify for the free PBR and a chance to win tickets to one of the final performances of Romeo and Juliet, guests were asked to answer one of the questions inspired by R+J that you may have seen chalked around Old City.  Here are some of my favorite answers:

When did you first fall in love?
“In second grade.  By fourth grade I got up the nerve to kiss her, by a dumpster.  It didn’t go so well.”

When did you disobey your parents?
“When I went to 7-11 that time and bought bazooka bubble gum- I was so BAD!”

“Hosted a party in the for-sale house…when the realtor was showing it to potential buyers.”

How long have you held a grudge?
“A few years, but I let it go and feel so much better!”

“I’ve held a grudge since a mouse stole my cookie!”

What is your passion?
“I have many passions.  This week it’s making crepes…and free beer.  Thanks!”

“I am passionate about finding new things to be passionate about, usually artistic pursuits of activities which challenge my perspective.”

What’s your biggest secret?
“I flushed my sister’s goldfish through the toilet when I was 10.  She still doesn’t know what happened to it.”

“The person I am here with tonight I would do anything for.  I met her over a year ago today and fell head over feet in love with her.  She makes me smile and no matter what, being with her makes me feel happy and worth living.”

Who would you die for?
“Santa.”

“I would die for my daughter; I would get hurt for my friends.”

Who would die for you?
“Boys-because they think I am pretty.” – little girl, Age 6.

By Brittany Howard, rx Arden Professional Apprentice

Romeo and Juliet is nearing its end (the real end, not the kind where you take a sleeping potion so that people think it’s the end even though it’s not).

We’ve had over 40 performances, countless hours of rehearsal, and several classes and workshops. I find myself continuously amazed with the stamina of this cast. They portray one of the most iconic tragedies every night on the Haas Stage, only to wake up, live the grief, endure the pain, and die all over again.

How do they do it and still maintain their sanity? Do they still maintain their sanity?

I can’t really speak for the actors, but I can tell you what I’ve observed sitting backstage watching them in the quiet seconds before they enter and the intense moments after they exit. In my opinion, it’s humor that keeps this cast afloat.

It starts with fight call—where fights done at half speed give them plenty of time to slip in jokes. Then before the performance begins, I listen to Scott Greer (Lord Capulet), Tony Lawton (Friar Lawrence) and others invent their own versions of my curtain speech. You don’t know it sitting out there in the audience, but the curtain speech actually happens many times every day before you see it—occasionally as Abraham Lincoln or Joan of Arc, maybe Scooby Doo, and sometimes Ghandi. Brian Anthony Wilson (the Prince) has a knack for ridiculous nicknames. During intermission, Shawn Fagan (Mercutio) resorts to carrying things around with his teeth since his hands are covered in fake blood. Speaking of covered, or lack of cover, actually—the dressing rooms have been officially deemed unsafe territory for showering after one cast member hid another cast members clothes. It’s always entertaining to watch James Ijames (Benvolio) and Krista Apple (Balthasar/ Lady Montague) dancing in the hallway before they have to enter and find Romeo’s body. And when the play ends and they return to the dressing rooms, they all have tears on their faces and laughter pouring from their mouths.

How else could they get through a show that has them using 4 to 5 boxes of tissues a week? I don’t want to be cruel and make y’all do math, but a six week run plus the rehearsal period makes that a lot of tissues.

Humor is how we all make it through the bad days- whether they are real or just something you play on stage nightly. It’s what gets me through the hectic apprentice schedule, and I’m positive the same goes for the rest of my apprentice class. There’s nothing to do at the end of a fourteen-hour-day, but laugh your cares away. And at least when my long day is over, I don’t have to live it again the next day, and the next, and even the next.

It reminds me of something I had on the wall of my room growing up. I was too smart for my own good, and when other kids were putting up posters of their favorite movies and playing with dolls—I was putting inspirational quotes up on my wall (blame my English-teaching mother). For instance, by the mirror it said, “When life gives you ruled paper, write the other way.” The closet door read, “One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.” But I’m reminded now of a slip of paper I tacked to the wall on the other side of the room, across from my bed. It was the paper I looked at when I woke up from a bad dream or when I couldn’t fall asleep at night.

It said, “Laughter sweeps away the cobwebs of the soul.”

Sometimes it takes a Shakespearean tragedy to remind you of what you knew to be true a long time ago.

By Matt Ocks, >decease Manager of Institutional Giving

The Arden’s production of Romeo and Juliet runs for just 2 more weeks, >medicine and I, medicine for one, will be a bit sadder than usual to see this one end.  In my spare time, you see, I’m a playwright (or, rather, I try to be), and one of the things that draws me to the Arden is the company’s commitment to actually producing new plays.  But I wasn’t inspired to become a writer by the work of my contemporaries, or even writers a bit older than me.  Or even really old guys like Edward Albee (who I hope doesn’t read this blog.)  I was inspired, first and foremost, by Shakespeare.  (Well actually Chekhov and then Shakespeare, but the Terry Nolen production of Uncle Vanya I’ve been waiting for since I got here is, sadly, still not on the horizon, so we’ll just keep this part in parentheses).

The first Shakespeare play I read was Merchant of Venice. By accident.  I found it in a shoebox filled with my mom’s dusty college paperbacks and opened it when I was around 10 without realizing that it wasn’t a novel.  It was so good I read it anyway.  Then I read Midsummer Night’s Dream, mainly because I had seen a cartoon version of it on TV with Mr. Magoo as Puck, and I wanted to experience the original text.  Then in high school came comedies (As You Like It, The Tempest), tragedies (Hamlet, the Scottish play), and histories (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2). In college I even played Jacques in As You Like It, one of my favorite Shakespearean roles (and in many ways the precursor to another one of my favorite characters from literature, Eyeore).  I managed to deliver one of the most famous lines ever written – “All the word’s a stage” – without any self-consciousness.  I played my objective.  I made it organic.  (I also sometimes forgot what came after it). 

Romeo and Juliet is actually not one of my personal favorite Shakespeare plays.  As a writer, I can appreciate that it has essentially a perfect structure.  The language is – of course – remarkable.  The nuances of the characters make them remain – after all this time – incredibly convincing.  And yet I still think the play is over-done to the point that so much of it has become too cliché to ever be exciting in performance.

Which is why the surprises in the Arden production are so exciting.  I don’t want to write about all of them.  If you haven’t seen this production yet, get over here and see for yourself – new interpretations of the supporting roles, the director’s smart use of cutting and splicing (And purists of the world remember: Shakespeare himself liked to revise his texts!)

One thing I can write about – or, rather, really, really want to write about – is our balcony scene.  Prior to watching our production, the lingering memory in my mind was all hokey romantic platitudes and tight tights.  Our Romeo’s style is a bit more hipster-chic (pretty sure I saw him shopping at Retrospect one day when he wasn’t too busy sulking), but that’s just scratching the surface of what surprised me in our production.

My pal Evan and his co-star Mahira help make clear the constant shifts in address Shakespeare has given them.  Sometimes Romeo and Juliet are talking to each other.  Sometimes they are talking to themselves.  Sometimes they are talking to the audience.  It’s the sort of thing that only works in theatre.  In film or TV, such constant shifting is jarring.  And it highlights, in my opinion, the intelligence of these two characters, who are, in essence, each involved in 3 separate, simultaneous conversations.  It also highlights theatrically the awkwardness of youthful courtship, where you often regret on the inside what you just said to the other person outside.  And I defy anyone to write in the comments section that they cannot relate to that.

In my own writing (of plays, not grants), I often explore the relationships characters can have simultaneously with each other, the audience, and with their own psyches.  It helps make my plays funnier (I hope) and, though not more realistic, in my mind, more real.  I was encouraged to see that Shakespeare was doing the same thing.  Experienced former English Lit major that I am, I had forgotten that he put so much of my kinda writing in there.

It’s kind of like going for a long time without listening to the Beatles, then playing a song or two like “Love Me Do” and immediately remembering:  “Oh, yeah.  Every musician that came after is essentially just kidding, right?”  Watching Evan and Mah play that great scene – so surprising, so fresh, and so timely – reminded me that for all us post-Shakespeare playwrights, no matter how good we may ever get, in many ways we’re kind of just kidding.

And kudos to Shakespeare, because even though I walk out of the Haas Stage still knowing that, his work remains truly inspiring.

By Evan Jonigkeit, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet

We are three weeks from the closing of “our little skit” as Mr. Fagan (Mercutio) has coined it. Though my heart is full from the people in this production and the audience response, my voice seems to have had its fill. Through the 9 show weeks and emotional roller coaster that has become Romeo’s 2+ hour life, my voice has started ever so slightly to fail me. I visited a wonderful ear, nose and throat specialist by the name of Vinu Divi (I hope I spelled his name right.) He has advised me to not talk unless I am getting paid for it, which is beginning to take a toll on my girlfriend, having a mute in the house. He also introduced me to turmeric root, which is a homeopathic wonder drug. If you were to Google it I think you would be astounded by all the reported health benefits. One of these benefits is serving as an anti-inflammatory, which is helping the surrounding muscles in the neck and the vocal chords themselves.

I have been reminded of the fragility of our bodies, as humans, and am forced to consider what I might be were I not an actor. Though I believe happiness is a state of mind and choice we have, I realize that I am most aware of the world and the people around me on stage. I breathe in every nuance that Tony Lawton sends my way and bask in every blown kiss Juliet bestows upon me. This is such a hard thing to know without being on stage, especially in a Shakespeare play. In Shakespeare’s world the highs are as high as stars and the lows are the center of the earth, and to be able to let yourself go there makes the choice of being happy and content with my station in life all the easier. I am confident my voice will return to normal as soon as the time to rest is granted, but the thought of not having the ability to tell stories like this is a dreadful one.

I have had an amazing experience with this show. I have explored, and am nightly, the depths of myself and this character. I am constantly pushing to find the truth of the love story we have all come to know as our own. Though some of us are tired, some homesick, some are working on other shows, at this very moment we all realize we have, together, done something special.

By Brittany Howard, Arden Professional Apprentice

I come from a family of teachers. Literally, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents—they are all teachers. So, growing up, I was determined that I would be something completely different. Even though I always had a knack for working with kids, I pushed that away, put on a stubborn face, and said, “I’ll never be a teacher.”

In the past months, the Arden has taught me many things (including how to remove fake blood from just about anything), but there is one lesson for which I have the most gratitude. I now know and respect why all my relatives have devoted themselves to education. There is a unique kind of gratification that comes when you get to be a part of bringing a great play to a theatre full of students (even if it is at 9:30 in the morning).

They live and die with these characters, experience every emotion, ponder every confusion, and deal with every anguish.  I get goose bumps when they gasp at Mercutio’s death, or when they cry out, “No!” as Romeo drinks the poison. I’ll never forget the day that a theatre full of children chanted, “Peter! Peter!” as Peter Pan fought Captain Hook.

These students all know how these stories end. They know that Romeo and Juliet don’t live happily ever after. And yet—they allow their imaginations to be captured, and they fall in love just as the characters do. And when every wall and foundation begins to crumble—they too try to hold the cracks together.

Children see hope where adults see inevitability. They see romance, where others see tragedy. They see boy meets girl, and despite the fact that many students have already experienced the harsh realities of this world, they still see the possibility of a happily ever after. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Why wouldn’t you want to remember a time before you’d heard “That’s Life” so many times that you started believing it?

Teachers do their best to show their students a world of possibilities, and the truly great ones open the gates even wider.

I was lucky this past week to be able to accompany Evan Jonigkeit (Romeo) to the Camden Creative Arts High School for a small class with their acting students.  The theatre classroom was a tiny space that was shared with a dance class (only separated by a dividing wall that did little to block out the music from the other room). And I at once felt jealous and pitied these students. I grew up in the middle of nowhere and went to a tiny school, but I at least had a full stage. However, these students were learning things about theatre and being challenged in ways that I didn’t experience until college. I was amazed that this tiny school still managed to create so many opportunities for their students.

So I’m thankful for teachers, my full family included. I’m grateful for every educator that works to give their students a better chance at success. And the Arden is indebted to all of you who donate to the Arden for All program, which allows us to go out and teach in Philadelphia and Camden and brings over 5, 000 students through our doors free of charge.

And I’m gratified that every time I start to stress about how I’m going to make ends meet—a student matinee arrives to remind me that just because you’re told a story goes a certain way, that doesn’t mean you have to sit in your seat and wait for the expected ending.

On Tuesday, March 9, members of the Arden’s board and Sylvan Society were invited to learn stage combat from members of the Romeo and Juliet cast. Watch this video to see how our supporters learned to slap, punch and choke just like professional actors. We finished the evening with a backstage tour to share secrets behind Romeo and Juliet. Thanks to all those that participated!

On Friday, March 5 we hosted a Young Friends of the Arden night at Romeo and Juliet. Our neighborhood dining partner QBBQ + Tequila brought over some tasty tacos, sliders, sickness and chips and salsa as well as margarita samplings for everyone to enjoy before the play. After watching the show, the Romeo and Juliet cast joined us over at QBBQ for a special happy hour and plenty of dancing!

Here are some photos from the pre-show party at the Arden.

Thanks to all those that attended!

Be sure to save the date for the final Young Friends event of the season: Sunday in the Park with George on Friday, June 4!

We opened Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on Wednesday, March 3. Our Sylvan Society members attended a pre-show party at GiGi Restaurant and Lounge in Old City. Following the performance, guests mingled with with the cast and creative team. Romeo and Juliet runs through April 11.

Here are some photos from the evening!

Who would you die for? (and other loaded questions)R+J

During the run of Romeo and Juliet, we’ll be posting a different provocative question on Facebook, Twitter, and all around town. We welcome your responses online and at the theatre.

If you see a question chalked on a sidewalk near you, take a picture and follow these simple steps to enter-to-win free tickets to Romeo and Juliet!

If you are on Facebook:
1. Become a fan of Arden Theatre Company: www.facebook.com/ardentheatreco
2. Post a picture of the “Question of the Week” to your own Facebook wall
3. Mention Arden Theatre Company by writing @ArdenTheatreCo in your status message of the picture (so your post shows up on the Arden’s page)
4. Check your Facebook messages in a week to see if you’ve won 2 free tickets to Romeo and Juliet!

If you are on Twitter:
1. Follow Arden Theatre Company www.twitter.com/ardentheatreco
2. Post an update with the “Question of the Week” and cross streets in Philly where you spotted it.
3. @reply ArdenTheatreCo so we know you saw the question
4. Check your Direct Messages in a week to see if you’ve won 2 free tickets to Romeo and Juliet!

See you online, on the streets, and at the theatre!

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