Brave New World!

Hello, world!  I’m Hanna, the new Antaeus intern and your guide for the next fourteen weeks on a journey of playing Shakespeare!  How fun is that?  I am so excited about this class with the fantastic Elizabeth Swain and an inspiring group of professionals brought together by a love of learning and a love of the Bard.  I’m sure there are many of you out there who are just as passionate about Shakespeare and his works as I am. How did he manage to come up with so many engaging and brilliant plots?  How could he breathe life into characters hundreds of years ago who still fan our emotions to flame today?  How can any actor or director feel that they are really doing justice to works considered foundational to society for ages?  I am looking forward to learning the answers to these questions as much as you are and I thank you in advance for venturing off with me!

To set the stage for this tour on which I will be your eyes and ears here are a few details:  I am a senior undergraduate student at a school with a brand spanking new theatre program.  We are so very new in fact that I will be a part of the first graduating class ever!  While this is all well and good and we have many opportunities to do things other students don’t, this also means we have a very small class roster so far.  Although I have been in love with Shakespeare since I was very small, I have never had an actual class to learn about him and bring his works to life.  When it was suggested that I, as the Antaeus intern, should participate in the Shakespeare class and blog my way through it, I jumped at the opportunity!  I could not believe my good fortune!  And so here we are!

Our task for the first class is simply to memorize a sonnet. I have selected Sonnet 2.  I am memorizing it in the car on my way to and from Hollywood (this is something else you must know…”I am slow of study,” at least as far as memorizing goes) and I’m in love with the images in the piece and the feel of the words on my tongue.  I know that sounds strange, but try it sometime.  Read a sonnet out loud and tell me it isn’t a strange and wonderful feeling letting those rich old words flow over your tongue.  That is your assignment for this week.

As for me, I’m off to my first class session!  Bid me godspeed!

When forty winters shall beseige thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

–Hanna Mitchell

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. 

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

The Life Force of THE CRUCIBLE

Last year's CFest reading of The Crucible

Last year’s CFest reading of The Crucible.  Photo by K. Flaathen

by Lily Knight
Company Member

I have seen three productions of The Crucible through the years, and although none blew the top of my head off, each time I found myself absorbed by the play, and interestingly troubled by it. Unfortunately, I missed the ClassicsFest presentation last year. And I was out of town for the first read-through of the play, so I came to the second rehearsal in a curious state of ignorance.

What caught my attention during the table work was that already there was a palpable culture or life force of the play in the room. I had a cold, and to avoid sneezing on my fellows, I moved to a seat in the audience and when the other actors came back from their break and left off their banter, a distinctly different sensibility took over their faces and demeanor. I’m not used to seeing it so soon. A fully formed world seemed to be not created, but allowed, through them, to take hold.

There didn’t seem to be anything in the way. Usually, the process of finding the world of a play involves a certain period of manipulating and bargaining with the parts of yourself that aren’t useful. You tell them to sit down, shut up and let the necessary parts come forward, and sometimes, the ego doesn’t give way easily. Sometimes, actors are searching and some of their top forty choices come out; good, but not right. In this case, without exception, everyone’s faces were focused on the problems confronted by the character, not the actor. Nothing, but nothing, was in the way. I thought, this is going to be fun.

A. Shimerman and The Crucible cast.  Photo by A. Goodman

A. Shimerman and The Crucible cast. Photo by A. Goodman

At the next meeting, our first blocking rehearsal, our intrepid directors, Geoffrey Wade and Armin Shimmerman, outlined the presentation style they conceived during ClassicsFest, which they were engaged to develop in this production. It involves speaking almost every line out to the audience (and not seeing the face or behavior of the character to whom you are speaking). I thought, this is not going to be fun.

But it turns out this somewhat difficult technical requirement — (and I say difficult because it flies in the face of most of our training and almost a hundred years of camera-inspired hyperrealism in acting craft) — can actually further focus us and has the effect that other senses, hearing and kinesthetic, become more acute to fill the void of the visual. I notice the actors seem to be listening much more intently than usual — (which makes everyone very fascinating and good).

And it may be an amazing and brilliant way for us to experience a bit of the repressiveness of the Puritan worldview! (Am I just making lemonade?) Many of the actors who did the ClassicsFest reading are already sold on the idea and provide inspiration and side coaching for those of us who feel stark naked in the face of this bold choice. They tell us, it’s like a mirror, and our doubles spring up to be the living mirror for those onstage. Someone makes a joke about what an ensemble we are, but I think, yes, we are all engaged in a way that feels very alive. Good things will come from this.

Photo by A. Goodman

The “presentational” style. Photo by A. Goodman

It makes me think that asking actors to do something difficult right away, that takes a large percentage of their attention to do, is a GREAT way to move a rehearsal process along. Actors then don’t have any attention for vanity, for their authority issues, for their doubts. I must think about this more.

There are moments when I think this style may be tedious to watch (by the way, it doesn’t last throughout the play) or I won’t be able to communicate shifting allegiances if I can’t exchange glances or other shared non-verbal behaviors. I think about my body in the space and its relation to other bodies and the story that gets told without text. And I wonder if nuances of the story will be sacrificed. Meanwhile, the arguments of the play come across loud and clear, and there are other awarenesses, like the isolation you feel within this society, which seem just right for the material. And really, it is way too soon to know whether it works.

Shannon Clair studies her script.  Photo by A. Goodman.

Shannon Clair studies her script. Photo by A. Goodman.

Geoffrey said, in further clarifying this presentational style, that you are speaking to the other character through the audience, like a prism. And it struck me as being a beautiful idea, because, after all, the fourth wall is a pretense (or a dispensable convention), and to acknowledge the audience’s intrinsic function seems more holistic somehow, and could open the space to a larger, um, conversation? And if we’re speaking of invisible things, we need to open the floor metaphysically, don’t we? After all, the play asks real questions about our human predilection for invading private space. Where does private space end and public space begin?

Because the theatre space is itself a crucible, purifying and decoding the ideas of a culture, and on any night, it is the alchemical blending of those consciousnesses who sit together in the dark and those who play before them in the relative light, that creates any truth which emerges. I am curious to see where this takes us.

Lily_Knight_0018Antaeus member Lily Knight discusses the “fully formed world” of The Crucible, our next mainstage production opening May 16 & 17. Tickets now on sale at www.antaeus.org

Arts Ed: Watching Students Grow, as Young People and as Writers

Pacoima Middle School – Culmination Night. Michael Farmer Photography

Antaeus Arts Education Outreach had the privilege – and the fun –  of being part of Center Theater Group’s Middle School Playwriting Program (MSPP), which wrapped up in April. The program was launched in the 2009-10 school year, in ten diverse schools from the Los Angeles, Inglewood, Pacoima, Burbank and Santa Monica school districts.

Paula Solano with Rob Nagle & Pacoima student. Michael Farmer Photography.

At each school, a CTG teaching artist partnered with one English teacher each year to provide theater and playwriting instruction to one class of students in their 6th, then 7th, then 8th grade English class.. A local theater company was engaged in each residency, providing professional actor/teaching artists to perform the students’ work in a workshop setting. Antaeus participated with CTG teaching artist, Paula Solano, at Luther Burbank Middle School and Pacoima Middle School. We worked with Paula in all three years of the program.

The opportunity to watch students grow over three years – not just physically, but also emotionally, intellectually and creatively – was unique in my Arts Education Teaching Artist experience, and very rewarding. At our first session with our CTG Lead Teaching Artist it was clear that we were involved in a strong alliance in line with Antaeus’ artistic priority of focusing on Text, Process, and Collaboration.

Janellen Steininger, Ramon De Ocampo & Rob Nagle. Michael Farmer Photography

In the sixth grade, the students were guided through writing monologues rooted in personal experiences.  These pieces were largely either self-conscious, or self-centered, or reflective of fantasy interactive video games. The pieces were sometimes timid, sometimes dark, and sometimes hilarious.  The first sign of the actor visit impact in the process emerged with the very first monologues performed.  The students’ work became startling alive for them for the first time.  They were amazed to hear the words they wrote turned into characters.  They saw through the actor’s attention to and respect for the text, how pivotal their words were.

Joe Delafield, Linda Park & Rebecca Mozo. Michael Farmer Photography

The second year was devoted to scenes, and we demonstrated to the writers how characters act with each other, and how important those relationships are.  The writers also saw through the actors the variety of ways to articulate their plots and their characters through the actions the actors expressed. The students began to flesh out their characters with inner lives and outward physical traits, which sometimes included accents and physical peculiarities.

 Michael Farmer Photography

In the third year, the students collaborated with each other in various teams to co-write ten-minute plays. By this time, various students were writing roles specifically for some Antaeans, as they became more familiar with our work. The eighth graders tackled such topics as dyslexia, an abusive parent’s remorse, the friendship of an immigrant 7-11 manager and two homeless adults caught in tough times, pursuing post-high school studies, not to mention some quite sophisticated and modulated hilarious comedy. The students’ eyes had opened up to the world as well as to their own situations.  They added research to their own insight. We joined the process with improvisation on the texts, and with suggestions relating to the clarity and specifics that actors (and directors) need to really make the scripts come alive.  Trust and mutual respect had grown over the years of the program, and by the 8th grade the students were ready to take chances, to improvise with us, to dig deeper.

Paula Solano, our CTG Lead Teaching Artist, shared her talent and skill as a writer with the students twice a week for several weeks at each school year.  Many of the students started not having had any experience of theater.  By the end of the program all of the students had developed an interest in and appreciation for theater.  And a few budding dramatists were born!

Ramon De Ocampo, Joe Delafield, Linda Park, Rebecca Mozo & Rob Nagle. Michael Farmer Photography

We actors visited each school 3-4 times each year, as first drafts were written and then revised. I observed the primary consequences of the actor visits to be the illumination of the actor’s respect for the text, and the demonstration of the power of a playwright’s writing to create vivid characters and stories that can be realized on stage. It was a singularly stimulating and memorable experience to have participated in the first three pilot years of this remarkable program.  Our group of Antaeans included: Ramon De Ocampo, Rob Nagle, Rebecca Mozo, John Sloan, Joe Delafield, Linda Park, Gabe Diani and myself. We have grown as an ensemble, and we have all individually evolved as teaching artists.  We look forward to collaboration with CTG on future playwriting programs.

Antaean Janellen Steininger looks back on 3 years of the CTG Middle School Playwriting Program.  She is also Chair of the Arts Ed Committee.  Information coming to mailboxes soon on how you can support our Arts Ed Programming.

I Am a Seagull: v.V

The cast of The Seagull, Act I (photo by A. Goodman)

We had our first previews of The Seagull at The Antaeus Company last week – which means we had our very first audiences! For weeks we have been rehearsing for our fellow actors, director, designers and occasionally our artistic directors. Last Thursday night was the first night in front of an audience of fresh eyes. And these eyes were seriously fresh – aka young. The seats of the Deaf West Theatre were packed with students from Louis Fantasia’s class at the New York Film Academy.

The students appeared to be in their late teens to early 20s – the same age as Nina and Konstantin in our play. Many of these students were working on Nina/Kostya scenes in class and had a lot of questions for us. One of the young women in the audience asked me at the talk-back,

Jules Willcox, Act IV (photo by Alexandra Goodman)

“How do you prepare for Act 4?”

This is a tough question to answer in only a few minutes. Two years pass by between Acts 3 and 4. These aren’t easy-breezy years for any of the characters, least of all for the character I play – Nina. I won’t add any spoilers to this post, but I will let you know that Nina undergoes a major psychological and physical transformation in those 2 years. I let them in on some of the things I work on when prepping for that scene – dealing with the circumstances, sensory work and the moment before. I also explained that everybody’s process is so different and personal – that what works for me may not work for them. The biggest thing I’ve realized while working with 2 casts is that Chekhov gives us so many hints, obstacles and rich circumstances but the character isn’t real until it is inhabited by an actor. Each actor that takes on a role in “The Seagull” brings something different, so each performance becomes a whole new play.

I recommend playing this while reading the next bit:
Tchaikovsky – Op. 39 No. 15 Italian Song (Act II – Piano by John Allee)

Avery Clyde & Patrick Wenk-Wolff (photo by A. Goodman)

As the Samovar cast trickled into the theater on Thursday night, you could sense them all slipping into character. The effervescent Avery Clyde (Masha) puts on something black and broods to tunes on her iPhone. Patrick Wenk-Wolff (Medvedenko) rattles off random facts about the Death Star. Gigi Bermingham (Arkadina) gives me a compliment about my costume and follows it up with a quote from the play and a wink (“But we don’t want to spoil her”).

Adrian LaTourelle & Gigi Bermingham (photo by A. Goodman)

Adrian LaTourelle (Trigorin) in turn, compliments the lovely Gigi. John Achorn (Shamrayev) presides over the library. Joe Delafield (Treplev) messes up his hair and immediately looks like a petulant teenager. Gregory Itzin (Sorin) simply picks up a cane and his whole physicality changes. James Sutorius (Dorn) turns up the charm (he goes to 11). Reba Waters (Paulina) sigh deeply as she gazes on our prop flowers.

“The Seagull” opens tomorrow March 1 at 8pm.

Antaeus Member, Jules Willcox, shares her experiences working on our production of The Seagull. This is the fifth installment. Tickets now on sale at  www.antaeus.org

Tennessee Williams’ Birthday Party!

Impro's Williams Unscripted at the Odyssey Theatre (photo by William Adashek)

This ClassicsFest, Antaeus has been trying something new for its Saturday nights. Called Flights of Fancy, these events are more than just a performance. For the past two Saturdays, the evening performances have been paired with a related afternoon symposium and attendees enjoyed dinner at our neighborhood dining partner, The Federal, in between the two. This Saturday is a particularly special night out because we’re throwing our first birthday party at Antaeus. 2011 marks Tennessee Williams’ hundredth birthday and we’re throwing him a birthday party! Kick the evening off with a prix fixe dinner at The Federal, where you’ll get three courses for twenty dollars*. The Birthday Party is kicking off at 8pm with excerpts from Williams’ greatest hits, an appearance by The Scarlet Furies, a Southern Gothic band, and a performance of Williams Unscripted by The Impro, featuring Antaean, Michael McShane. After the performances end, the fun continues on with a party in our library. Birthday cake and booze, what more do you need?

Next week, our Flight of Fancy will be a performance of the rarely-seen Chekhov play, The Wood Demon. This is a particularly exciting event because The Wood Demon was Antaeus’ inaugural production twenty years ago and we’re thrilled to celebrate our anniversary with a repeat performance! The day will start with a symposium on Anton Chekhov, followed by dinner and the performance. We hope we’ll see you this Saturday and next!

* If you’d like to join us for dinner at The Federal, please make your reservation via the Antaeus box office (818-506-1983) by 6pm Friday.

Summer Intern and Columbia University MFA Candidate Jen Hoguet is keeping you up-to-date on all things ClassicsFest this summer at Antaeus. She can be reached via email at jen@antaeus.org or followed on twitter @JHoToGo …..

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