Friday, September 18, 2009

Behind the Scenes Video -- One Week Until Tech

In addition to our Actor's Diary with Bryce Pinkham, Dramaturg's Diary with Literary Associate Kirsten Bowen, and photos from the rehearsal room, we'd like to give you even more of a glimpse of what goes into putting together a mammoth production like The Orphans' Home Cycle! We gave actor Bryce Pinkham a flipcam, and the result is the video you see below, shot the week before tech rehearsals began at Hartford Stage. Enjoy!

Keep checking back for more ways to find out what's happening with The Orphans' Home Cycle!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dramaturg's Diary: Catching Up With Orphans'

Kirsten Bowen is Signature Theatre Company's Literary Associate, and the Signature dramaturg for The Orphans' Home Cycle

Well, when I last posted a “diary entry,” the crack dramaturgy teams of Signature and Hartford were hard at work researching the world of The Orphans’ Home Cycle. Since then, we table-worked and work-shopped all nine plays over the course of three weeks, leading up to a “marathon” reading of all nine plays that brought the entire staffs of Hartford and Signature together (a day which Orphans’ actor Bryce Pinkham reported on in his diary and which was also photographed). Following the marathon reading, which marked the official start date of rehearsals, director Michael Wilson began the complicated process of staging the plays, working sequentially from the first play, Roots in a Parched to Ground, to the last, The Death of Papa.

Meanwhile, back at Signature we’ve been supporting the process by researching questions from the rehearsal room (if Claire is sending a wire at four o’clock in the morning, would she send it from home or would she have to leave the house?) as well as preparing for when we take over hosting the cycle. For me, this includes assembling material for Signature’s elaborate dramaturgical lobby displays, writing and editing our quarterly newsletter, Signature Edition, and for the interns, crafting the three-part video that will honor Horton Foote and run on the television in the Peter Norton Space’s lobby throughout the season.

Periodically throughout the summer various members of the Signature staff and I have been leaving New York very early in the morning, either via train or ZipCar, to attend rehearsals in Hartford. I was most often in rehearsal during the first three weeks when the company was still reading the plays around the table and making initial investigations into the world and their characters. In addition to asking practical questions such as which neighborhood of Houston do Horace’s mother and sister live in, and how were lawyers educated in the late nineteenth century, Michael impressed into the actors the key themes Horton explored in all of his work, and which re-surface throughout The Orphans’ Home Cycle: the search for home and identity, how some people actively choose to remember while others choose to forget, and what makes some of us survivors and thrivers and others doomed to failure and disappointment?

Many of these characters are based on Horton Foote’s family – not only do his father and mother have alter-egos, but so do his grandparents, great-grandparents, and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins, some of whom have morphed into a character representing a combination of several people (for example, Brother Vaughn, one of Bryce Pinkham’s characters, is a composite of three of Horton’s uncles). Although many events within the cycle did not happen in real life, and these characters were created to stand on their own, separate from their real-life counterparts, we do a lot of digging into Horton’s family history in order to find a model for these people’s histories. His memoir, Farewell, is an invaluable resource, but even more helpful is Horton’s daughter, actor Hallie Foote. Hallie has appeared in the majority of her father’s plays over the past thirty years and is known as the premiere interpreter of his work. Of everyone in the room Hallie’s involvement in The Orphans’ Home Cycle goes back the furthest – not only did she witness her father write them when she was a teenager (and help type the scripts), she created the key role of Elizabeth Vaughn when the plays were first produced on stage at New York’s HB Playwrights’ Foundation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in their film adaptations in the 1980s. Now Hallie will play Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Vaughn, among other roles. In addition, since Horton’s passing Hallie has taken on the stewardship of his work and continues to collaborate closely with Michael on bringing the cycle to life.

Another challenge we faced during those early weeks was working on the plays out of sequence. We began with Lily Dale, the third play of the cycle, and for the most part jumped around, working our way towards the larger cast plays as more actors joined us throughout the three-week workshop period. While it was incredibly beneficial to be able to focus in-depth on one play at a time, it was tricky exploring these characters whose journeys had begun several plays ago. We couldn’t help but reference plays that we had not discussed yet, with characters (and actors) whom we hadn’t met.

What’s interesting however, is that although Horton wrote the basis for the first play, Roots in a Parched Ground, in the early 1960s, a decade later when he set out to write The Orphans’ Home Cycle as a whole he also wrote them out of sequence, beginning with 1918 (which is the seventh play and will begin Part Three of our cycle) and ending with The Widow Claire, the fourth play in the sequence (which is the first play of our Part Two: The Story of a Marriage). But despite the fact that Horton didn’t write them in order, all nine plays still follow a very lucid and consistent journey as events and themes of one play reverberate in another, sometimes three plays later. Recently, on a trip to Hartford to watch a run-through of Parts One and Two, I interviewed Michael for Signature Edition, and he commented on the cycle’s seemingly seamless ebb and flow, “Now that we’re at the point in the process when we’re beginning to put the plays together, we’re seeing characters an hour later in another act referring to an event that happened a couple of years ago. Those echoes, both thematically and emotionally, are very, very moving. It’s mind boggling how he created that, especially the way he wrote them out of order. It’s almost like he was a vessel, like he was channeling some kind of divine epic story that was coming though him onto the page.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Actor's Diary: Passion and Patience

Bryce Pinkham will be playing the roles of Brother Vaughn, Pete Davenport and Felix Barclay in The Orphans' Home Cycle

Constantly abandoning his chair to cavort around the rehearsal hall and joke with the company, Michael Wilson has an infectious energy that helps to drain any inherent tension out of the room. With seemingly unending patience he fields all questions and conducts rehearsal with a balance of tender admiration and boyish irreverence. Throughout each day, Michael somehow manages a ‘hey darlin’ or ‘hello sweetheart’ for everyone and succeeds in making every last one of us feel important to this project. In an effort to further understand Michael’s skillful métier as a director, I stir up a discussion among my peers about the inherently delicate relationship between actors and directors. In turn I am treated to several horror stories about directors who failed to win the admiration of their respective casts: “I had this one director tell me I was speaking like a movie extra, and then he asked me if I wouldn’t mind talking like a human being... ”


At our best, we actors are empathetic, generous and emotionally sensitive; at our worst we are temperamental, irascible and, well, emotionally sensitive. Direction like that provided in the above anecdote is sure to affect even the steeliest of our kind.


“…I took the note and walked away because you never questioned this guy. Your goal was just to get onstage and off without getting caught.” It seems to me that a successful director’s efficacy is closely related to his ability to set his or her actors at ease to fearlessly explore ideas and choices. To be sure, a certain amount of actors’ creative forays in our rehearsal room turn out to be dead ends, but an equal number of interpretive risks reward our director, and in turn our company, with a greater illumination of character and story. Recently, one actor is searching for a definitive sound for his character. By his own admission, his first attempt in rehearsal comes off as a bad Colonel Sanders imitation. But Michael is patient. He allows everyone to laugh about it, but then rather than immediately place the kibosh on this actor’s bold interpretation, he encourages further exploration of the idea about the character that lead to this particular vocal choice. Sure enough, within a few rehearsals this actor has honed and specified his vocal proposal and in doing so has opened up a whole new interpretation of his character that is delightfully revelatory. This instance is just one example of Michael’s ability to disarm the tentative actor in all of us for the benefit of our entire endeavor.

Fast Forward.

It is two days before we enter the theater to begin technical rehearsals for our first three acts and we are about to begin our final run-through of Part One in the rehearsal room. Naturally, we are all a bit anxious about moving to the theater in two days; the previously distant specter of a paying audience is suddenly beginning to take shape and loom on the horizon. Anticipating this swell of nerves that inevitably runs through any company at this point in the rehearsal process, Michael gathers us together.


A good director knows when to give a good speech.


“I love marathons. I think they are thrilling events in our theater that remind us what the theater does differently than television and film. They represent the pinnacle of the communal experience between artist and audience. I am deeply proud, honored and thrilled to make this distinctly American marathon happen with you all.” Michael’s rehearsal room valedictory is the perfect example of emotional and practical leadership. He reminds us that we are literally building our strength and endurance for a marathon and that individually we must remain focused, determined and supportive of each other. He also succeeds in unifying us as a company: “We are a family now, and there is not one day I regret being in this room or regret sharing this journey with you all.”


I believe we are all extremely excited to get into the theater, though we know not what challenges lie in wait. Regardless, we are comforted in knowing that our leader could not be more committed to us and our endeavor and at the very least, there is one thing he will always allow…


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"Angels in America" Coming to Signature in 2010-2011!




Signature Theatre Company (James Houghton, Founding Artistic Director; Erika Mallin, Executive Director) is pleased to announce that the theatre’s 20th Anniversary season in 2010-2011, celebrating author Tony Kushner, will feature the first New York revival of Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning epic work, ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES. The production will be directed by Michael Greif with Part One: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES and Part Two: PERESTROIKA presented in repertory. Signature’s Tony Kushner season will also include two more works to be announced.

The production of ANGELS IN AMERICA is made possible by a $750,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, as part of a $1.25 Million grant to Signature Theatre Company.

“I'm very excited about my Signature season and of course I'm very honored to have been chosen,” Tony Kushner said. “I've spent some of my best nights watching the work Jim Houghton and Signature Theatre Company has produced. It seemed to Jim and me that this is a good moment to bring ANGELS back to New York, and I'm delighted that Michael Greif has agreed to direct it. Michael and I have worked together and known each other for most of our careers. He's a serious, generous, incredibly smart and superbly talented artist; I love his passionate commitment to actors, to plays, to the theater. I think the Signature's the perfect space for the demands of ANGELS, which is both epic and intimate. I can't wait to see how it all turns out!”

Michael Greif commented, “Mounting Tony’s exquisite play in the intimate Signature Theatre will be an extraordinary challenge but will offer even more extraordinary rewards. I know I’ll be aided by an astonishing group of actors and designers anxious to wrestle with this masterpiece. I cherish my continued collaboration with Tony and the Signature.”

“I still remember the thrill of encountering Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA for the first time nearly 20 years ago and being astounded by the sweep and theatricality of this brave and impassioned piece,” said Jim Houghton. “We are privileged to be celebrating Tony’s work in our milestone 20th Anniversary Season and we’re exceedingly grateful to The Mellon Foundation for its unparalleled support and for making this first New York revival of ANGELS IN AMERICA possible.”

ANGELS IN AMERICA was one of the most critically acclaimed and heralded plays of the 1990s and established Tony Kushner as a major new voice in world theatre. Frank Rich, The New York Times, praised it as “the most thrilling American play in years”. The plays were developed in productions in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, before opening on Broadway in 1993. Part One, Millennium Approaches, opened May 4, 1993 at the Walter Kerr Theatre and Part Two, Perestroika, opened November 23, 1993, also at the Walter Kerr, with the two parts playing in repertory. Both parts of ANGELS IN AMERICA won Tony Awards in 1993 and 1994 for Best Play and Millennium Approaches won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Kushner adapted the plays for an HBO mini-series, directed by Mike Nichols, which premiered in 2003 and won Golden Globe and Emmy Awards for Best Miniseries.

ANGELS IN AMERICA, A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES is set in late 1985 and early 1986, as the first wave of the AIDS epidemic in America is escalating and Ronald Reagan has been elected to a second term in the White House. The play’s two parts, MILLENNIUM APROACHES and PERESTROIKA, bring together a young gay man with AIDS and his frightened, unfaithful lover; a closeted Mormon lawyer and his valium-addicted wife; the infamous New York lawyer Roy Cohn; an African-American male nurse; a Mormon housewife from Utah; and a steel-winged, prophecy-bearing angel; as well as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, an ancient rabbi, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik and a Reagan administration functionary, among many others – all played by a company of eight actors. The lives of these disparate characters intersect, intertwine, collide and are blown apart during a time of heartbreak, reaction and transformation. Ranging from earth to heaven, from the political to the intimate to the visionary and supernatural, ANGELS IN AMERICA is an epic exploration of love, justice, identity and theology, of the difficulty, terror and necessity of change.

Through The Signature Ticket Initiative, which seeks to make great theatre accessible to the broadest possible audience, all regularly-priced single tickets ($65) during the initial announced run are underwritten and will be available for $20. The Signature Ticket Initiative continues through Signature’s 20th Anniversary Season (2010-2011).

The Signature Ticket Initiative is made possible by the lead sponsorship of Time Warner Inc. Generous support for The Signature Ticket Initiative is provided by Margot Adams, in memory of Mason Adams.