A Game Called Life: Aggeler Arts Education Program

by John Prosky, Company Member

Every day we play a game called life.
It’s a battle between Lucifer and Jesus
The messed up thing is we’re the pieces
And during war, there is no recess….

Antaean Kitty Swink coaches Aggeler student

Antaean Kitty Swink coaches Aggeler student

-Brandon, Aggeler Student

In their own words, the young men of Aggeler are from a place of “carrying a weapon to be safe,” yet they’re also from “video games and imagination.”  The same young man in a certain moment of the class will strike you as a boy and in the next moment strike you as a man.  In the span of two minutes one of these young men can go from making a remarkably insightful and intelligent observation about Shakespeare to fighting with another guy over a chair he claimed he was sitting in. They are not in a lockdown prison, yet by law they are considered “incarcerated.” In fact, almost everything about these young men is in a state of constant flux.  The only thing that is consistent about them…truly consistent… is their willingness to tell the truth about themselves (even though they are not always willing to tell the truth about why they are late or what happened to their notebook and I’m sure a bevy of other things).  That willingness to tell the truth about their addiction, their abuse, their crimes, or parental neglect is an act of searching.  Because the example of “character” in their lives is so inconsistent, it seems to me that must be what they are searching for.  By character, I do not mean the actor’s definition of the word, I mean “character” in the Dr. Martin Luther King definition of the word; as in “The content of…..”

Sample NotebookOur work and lesson plan with these young men has two focuses.  One focus is exposure to Shakespeare, and we do that with the best Antaeus has to offer – its actors. The Antaeus team picks a character’s subplot from one of Shakespeare’s plays – one that we think these young men can relate to – and then we come into the facility and two or three Antaeus actors perform that character’s soliloquies and scenes.  We then ask the young men to write in first person about what they just saw.  We do improvs and theater games based on the character’s experiences and struggles, and start a discussion about the moral lesson that Shakespeare was trying to explore with this given character.

Over the past four years of our program, subplots touched on include: the step brothers Edmund and Edgar from King Lear, Macbeth from Macbeth, and the character arc of Prince Hal from three of Shakespeare’s history plays: Henry 4 Part 1, Henry 4 Part 2 and Henry 5. Our Antaeus actors performed Prince Hal’s full character arc from party-boy drunk who hangs out with the wrong guys (the ones who convince Prince Hal to join them in a mugging) to the Hero-King who delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech.   In the pure pedagogy of studying Shakespeare, these young men get something that all teenagers sitting in an English classes studying Shakespeare don’t get.  They get to study Shakespeare through the component of performance.

I guess if you tell a kid he’s nothing but useless
He’s gonna grow up abused and useless
In art – me and Edmund are alike
I’d be called a bastard if lived then right
I’ll admit I’m a barn accident
But I was born of nature a strong creator
And Shakespeare I feel my Edmund’s pain
The only thing I got from my father was his last name
And my stepbrother gets more love it’s insane.
And to think today you love all your kids the same
So Bill since you’re sitting in the corner
If Edmund don’t get a happy ending you’re a goner

-2009 Response to Edmund in King Lear

Ramón de Ocampo explains Shakespeare

Ramón de Ocampo explains Shakespeare

Our other focus is an exercise we call “event that changed my life.” All of us have those defining moments when something significant happens, or we make a decision that changes our life.  Those events define us.  These young men have a lot of those events, MANY more than other young men their age.  For this exercise, we ask the students to write that life-changing event down in class using two sensory memories from that event. Then we pair them up, and they share the events with the group – the idea is that each guy tells tell his partner’s life-changing event as if it were his own.  In other words, they tell their partner’s story to the group in the first person.  This exercise teaches what an actor does: he embodies someone else’s story. The more fully the actor does that, the better an actor he is.  There is also a therapeutic side to this exercise; in these populations of at-risk young men, it builds a sense of empathy.

20130524174906In the ten years I have led this exercise, I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a young man discover something hugely significant.

Program cover for the final culmination, drawn by an Aggeler student

Program cover for the final culmination, drawn by an Aggeler student

They talk about a sudden recognition of the consequences of their actions, they comfort each other if one of them breaks down, and most importantly they realize that the guy who they previously considered the “other”(different race, rival gang member, just someone they hate, etc.) is someone who has the same problems, issues, dreams, and heartbreak as they have.

If part of the “content of character” for a young man includes the knowledge of self and empathy for others, then Shakespeare and the theater is a good tool for these brave young men to start their search.

Presume not,
that who I was is me,

‘Cause I can be, whatever it is,
I want to be.

-Chorus Hook for Culmination Performance

Prosky_JohnAntaeus Company Member John Prosky heads up our Arts Education programming at William Tell Aggeler Opportunity High School, an ongoing class that uses Shakespeare to reach at-risk youths. 

An Academy Interlude: One Foot at a Time

by Teresa Marie Doran,  Academy Student

Each Wednesday night in Archetypes class, we have the privilege of spending three hours getting out of our heads and into the bodies of some of the most iconic characters in Greco-Roman, Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Modern theater. No matter what the evening brings -be it Masks, Commedia, tension-focus exercises, textual analysis or scene work, John and Geoffrey create an atmosphere of trust in which we can let loose and play. 

AC (Antaeus Company): Why Archetypes?

Geoffrey Wade teaches Classics: Archetypes - photo by K. Canavan

Geoffrey Wade teaches Classics: Archetypes – photo by K. Canavan

TD (Teresa Doran): Last week in class Geoffrey said, “It is the actor’s job to serve the playwright.” John then added, “And it is the job of both the playwright and the actor to serve the audience.” The responsibility of the actor is to communicate a story to the audience in the clearest and most effective way. Archetypes are among every actor’s best tools for doing just that. They represent character patterns that have stood the test of time. Traits that people recognize and relate to almost immediately. Through archetypes, the audience sees familiar faces; the mean girl from high school, the snooty next-door neighbor, the mother, father, sister, brother.  

AC: Why Antaeus? 

TD: Being new to LA I was lucky to join Antaeus Academy. Not only has this class quenched my thirst for the classics but it’s also introduced me to a community of like-minded artists. John and Geoffrey are wonderful. It’s been a privilege having two teachers – with two distinct opinions – teaching at once. Their incredible experience as performers has made their lessons both extremely informative and a lot of fun.

AC: What was challenging about the class? 

Teresa in class - photo by K. Canavan

Teresa in class – photo by K. Canavan

TD: Working on the role of Medea. She seemed, at first, to be the most distant or iconic character I have yet to face. After approaching the text, memorizing, and deciding which archetypes I assimilated with her, I played under the guidance of John and Geoffrey to build her “from the feet up.”  -a phrase which has become almost a class mantra – and not surprisingly a useful tactic in helping me take on the feat of stepping into Medea’s archetypal shoes.

AC: What do you take away from this class?

TD: Consideration of Archetypes when I approach a text. I  recognize that there are incredible specific truths to be discovered within the broad brushstroke that is a character’s “type.”   Archetypes define initial truths about a character – a foundation or framework that when laid allows an actor to dig deeper and create a more specific image for the audience.  Investigating Archetypes doesn’t do all the work for you, you still have to paint your specific portrayal … but it gives a solid foundation beneath you and there are great advantages in building from there. (“From the feet up!”  )

DORAN_TeresaMarieAcademy member Teresa Marie Doran puts on her acting pants the same as everyone else.  She is currently enrolled in our Classics: Archetypes class, which meets Wednesday evenings this Spring.  Lead Moderators: John Achorn & Geoffrey Wade.  For more information on the Antaeus Academy, please visit our website: www.antaeus.org/theacademy.html

Quark & Hot Tooth direct THE CRUCIBLE

Co-Directors Geoffrey Wade & Armin Shimerman discuss their process and relationship in this very very silly video by Etta Devine & Gabe Diani

An Academy Interlude: I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

by Nick Healy, Academy Student

Let me begin by saying that I have no idea what I’m doing.

IMG_2783

Nick in class (wearing a very appropriate shirt) with J. Apicella moderating. Photo by K. Canavan

I’ve never written a blog. English essays, college applications, emails, yes, but never a blog—and certainly never anything for public consumption. Nevertheless, the Powers That Be thought that my perspective as the youngest student in the Archetypes Class would be at least not uninteresting, so I said I’d give it a shot. With that in mind, please bear with me as I try to make the next few paragraphs as fun and painless as possible for the both of us.

Basically, I’m an eighteen year-old high school student trying to keep up with twenty professional actors. My acting experience is limited, to say the least; and that’s to say nothing of my never having even heard of half of the playwrights from whose works we are choosing scenes. Take Beaumarchais—until Wikipedia told me otherwise, five years of French led me to believe his name was Bon Marché. I know (or think I know) Shakespeare, Chekhov, Mamet, Williams and some Sophocles, but give me a Shaw or a Plautian scene, or a character who embodies different Commedia archetypes at different times, and suddenly I devolve from the hot-shot high-schooler into the caveman rubbing two sticks together in hopes of a spark.

Nick NOT botching The Cherry Orchard

Nick NOT botching The Cherry Orchard

I decided to audition for the Academy after a like-minded friend emailed me the Spring Antaeus Academy audition bulletin with “Let’s consider this?” as the subject heading. We were finishing a production of The Cherry Orchard at school, and with the student-written/acted/directed Playwright’s Festival not long afterwards, I did not have an unlimited amount of free-time to spend walking around as Aphrodite; nevertheless, I immediately decided to audition. Having just botched my way through my first Chekhov, the notion that a character could be understood and crafted in terms of simple, established cultural constructs appealed to me enormously.

Fast-forward one month to the first class. At the requests of John and Geoff, our instructors, we each performed for the group the classical monologue that got us into the Academy. Watching these speeches was its own course on the art of the monologue. Everyone at once conveyed a sense of character, of continuity between the past, present and future and an in-the-moment vitality that seemed effortless. Meanwhile, in Nick Land, I struggled to maintain focus while vomiting out would-be poetry. Don’t think I am overly harsh—I am very proud of my work on that soliloquy (Hal’s “I know you all, but will awhile uphold”), and of having placed into the Academy in the first place, but, and sorry for mixing metaphors, there’s nothing that puts you on your toes quite like being thrown in over your head.

None of this—my lack of experience, the intimidating talent of my classmates, of my teachers, of the institution itself—none of it weakens my resolve to do the work, to, as they say, fight the good fight. On the contrary, studying at Antaeus is liberating because of my relative inexpertise. “Failure” means nothing in a room full of experts willing to instruct, so in class I should err freely on the side opposite caution. To do otherwise would be a waste of time and money.

Something happened after class this past Wednesday that speaks volumes about the supportive environment at Antaeus.  John stopped me as I was leaving the theater. I had struggled that evening with a scene from The Revenger’s Tragedy by Middleton (or Tourneur—nobody knows!).  To cure my stylistic ignorance, Geoff and John spent much time explaining in depth the nature of Jacobean drama.

John Achorn teaches Commedia.  Photo by G. Wade

John Achorn teaches Commedia. Photo by G. Wade

Of course, the scene then immediately made perfect sense.

“Did you understand all of that?” John kindly asked, obviously sincere. Before I could say yes and thank him for the earlier discussion, he continued, “’Cause we’re not giving you the A B C’s here. We’re just jumping in.” I agreed with a somewhat exaggerated, self-deprecating laugh.

A silence. Then, his eyes pointed straight at me, “But you are keeping up just fine. I’m proud of you, man.”

N HealyAcademy member Nick Healy admits to the fears that every actor faces on a daily basis.  He is currently enrolled in our Classics: Archetypes class, which meets Wednesday evenings this Spring.  Lead Moderators: John Achorn & Geoffrey Wade.  For more information on the Antaeus Academy, please visit our website: www.antaeus.org/theacademy.html

I Was a Teenage Whore

by Nicole Erb, A2 Ensemble Member

Nicole Erb in our Classical Styles class. Photo by G. Wade

Nicole Erb in our Classical Styles class. Photo by G. Wade

Now that the title of this post has your attention- I know what you’re thinking. Ugh. ANOTHER production of The Crucible. Are you kidding me? I’ve seen that play a billion times (not a hyperbole). So why, oh why, would Antaeus make it part of their season? The answer is pretty simple. It’s a story we still need to hear. Really.

You’re saying to yourself, “But Nicole, every time I see The Crucible I just start thinking about that Monty Python bit where they’re screaming about witches.

I know! I totally get it- it’s really hard not to equate ducks with witches. Or you say, “But I saw the ‘quintessential’ Crucible with blah blah blah and I don’t think I’ll ever see a good production again.”  I get it. I actually saw Liam Neeson (pre-his punching wolves in the face and destroying terrorists phase) and Laura Linney as John and Elizabeth. I cried the whole time. The back wall of the set was made of window panes and as the world of the play got crazier and crazier, the panes began to fall and shatter. At the end of the play, all the remaining panes crashed to the floor and shattered. This production is one of the reasons I decided I wanted to be an actor.

So why are we doing it? The Crucible remains a story that reverberates in our world. And it’s a great big giant ensemble story (for a great big giant ensemble company). For those of you who think The Crucible is stale, consider this; we, as a nation, have seen a whole lot of violence and pain in the last couple of weeks. As a response, this TED talk started floating around the social media sites. It’s a lecture by Philip Zimbardo on ‘The Nature of Evil’.

Zimbardo’s “The Nature of Evil”

The Poppet.  Photo by A. Goodman

The Poppet. Photo by A. Goodman

Mr. Zimbardo has found  that evil is born of the intersecting of three different things: 1) personality (Abigail Williams is a teenager in an incredibly violent world, who understands the value of power) 2) environmental (Salem is a town that still lives in both colonial and Puritanical levels of fear of Indians, God, the Devil, famine, plague, etc.) 3) institutional (the conventions of Puritan society, the management of the trials themselves- the Salem witch trials are the only trials of the time where spectral evidence is allowed). This isn’t just a philosophical rambling- it’s integral to understanding both how societies create evil like the witch trials and how we’ve managed to let it happen time and time again.

Is this all too general and highfalutin’ for you? Think these characters are unrealistic? Then let’s get specific. Go back a couple weeks ago- a letter was leaked to the internet from a crazed Delta Gamma sorority president to everyone in her chapter. If you haven’t read or seen a dramatic reading of it at this point, you probably need to watch Michael Shannon’s dramatic reading (I’d even call it the “quintessential” dramatic reading of the letter).

Sorority Letter by Michael Shannon

I find myself completely surprised by the letter. When I first saw Michael Shannon’s take on the whole thing I thought, “Wow. That girl is nuts. Straight up crazy.” But when I went back and actually read the letter, I realized that even though an insane tone is being used some of what she says is probably pretty on point.

Act One of The Crucible. Photo by P. Proctor

Act One of The Crucible. Photo by P. Proctor

To get back to The Crucible– I couldn’t get Abigail’s speech to the girls in Act One out of my head. Is bringing a pointy reckoning really that different from asking someone to “tie themselves down to a chair and punch themselves in the face”? In contemporary terms it’s fairly close. And this comforts me IMMENSELY. I’ve been fighting a real battle to not make Abigail a total monster- a portrait of evil. That’s what she becomes, not what she starts out to be.  You have to keep in mind, she’s a queen bee in Salem, she’s had a REALLY hard life (Indians, smashed heads), she thinks John Proctor is going to leave his wife for her, AND she’s a child (17 in the show and 11 in real life). All these things create a perfect storm of personal crap, opportunity, and pressure. As wrong as the girl who wrote the Delta Gamma letter was, you can hear the personal stress that she is under. There’s something there that (as nutty as it is) I can empathize with- that’s how I begin to see Abigail as something other than a complete monster.

Get to the point, Erb! What I’ve been attempting to get out is that Miller’s world and our own are not that different. I’d like to think that we’ve changed a lot since the Salem Witch trials and the McCarthy hearings, but I’m not sure that we’re that fundamentally different. Human psychology is tricky that way. And what The Crucible gets at, at the most basic level, is that mounting pressure and fear.

Ann Putnam puts it best: “There are wheels within wheels in this village, and fires within fires!” Everything is conspiring against this town and these people. And in spite of that we hope. John Proctor changes. Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey stand for their principles. It’s a level of heroism that we aspire to in modern day. But when we can’t get it in life, isn’t it great to see it in the theater? I hope that you find yourself thinking John Proctor will triumph. I hope for the sake of Salem that one night the heroes win.

ERB_Nicole 2012A2 Ensemble member Nicole Erb draws back the curtain on rehearsals for The Crucible, our next mainstage production opening May 16 & 17. Tickets now on sale at www.antaeus.org