By Kristin Cato
As Berkeley Rep’s new Ground Floor initiative revs up its engines, it’s a good time to talk about what makes new theatre. Is it contemporary stories, contemporary forms, or both? At a company meeting this fall, Artistic Director Tony Taccone declared, “Artists are moving away from the three-act structure. Not because it is a trend, but because the three-act no longer reflects how people think and feel.”
This statement was one of the more interesting things I’ve heard all year and, evidently, I was not alone. When I posted this quote onto my Facebook wall, it attracted a whopping 82 comments, and an incredibly vibrant dialogue about the possibilities of new theatre. I thought I’d share a few of those thoughts here.
But first, what is a three-act structure? Very succinctly, a three-act play includes basic storytelling elements: character set-up, inciting incident (or catalyst), conflict development building to climax, and resolution. All these sound familiar. So could it be as Tony suggests? A centuries-old storytelling technique is now fading from the mainstream?
“The three-act structure is an unyielding orthodoxy for the vast majority of Hollywood films and a great many ‘independents’. And I would submit to Mr. Taccone that the staggering profits of the film industry suggest that the mass audience expects the three-act structure just as compulsively as the industry serves it up to them.” –Douglas Michael Massing, freelance writer
“I feel that there have long been many valid forms of narrative, and while a given approach may become more fashionable among certain types who fancy themselves taste-makers, the human need to convey stories will never die. I think it’s silly to say that one form of story telling has more of less validity than another. Different strokes for different folks.” - Lisa Lazar, scenic artist
“I believe we simply reshuffle things in storytelling, add or remove things here and there, usually out of a sense of wanting to invent or improve something, to make our own ‘modern’ mark on the craft. I truly doubt the three-act is going anywhere.” – Matt Turner, actor/writer
But at least one friend embraced the idea:
“And now stories might start in the center, go back, have the climax at the beginning, show the end and then delve into character exploration?” -Nathan Bogner, actor
Amy Potozkin, Berkeley Rep’s casting director, weighed in. “My impression of what Tony was saying is that there are an increasing number of theatrical works that are incorporating more varieties of art forms and that, as we have become an increasingly more visual culture (with the obvious being technology), we are creating theatre in new ways. That what we used to call ‘the well-made play’ is no longer the norm and that our imaginations are wired differently. I agree that we are seeing more theatrical works programmed that incorporate media tech, dance, etc.”
When I brought this discussion to Tony’s attention, he responded, “Eighty-two comments?! What’d they say?” I admitted a few people disagreed with his assertion. He replied, “Well, part of the reason why I like to say things like that, is to get people talking. It’s not that there’s no structure. It’s just that younger people these days are used to a more episodic format from growing up watching TV. But also I’d say that it’s not just about TV. It’s about seeing the world as a more fractured place, about not expecting ‘resolution’ of an easy kind. That easy resolution feels untrue to the size of the world’s problems right now. It’s about the fact that the planet is imperiled and is making its way into the worldview of everyone under the age of 40 in a different way than before.”
So I ask you, Berkeley Rep audience: Does the three-act structure satisfy? Does it frustrate? Is it time for something new? What do you think?
Kristin Cato is the director of the episodic audio drama The Lighted Bridge.
One of the loveliest aspects of our Harrison Street campus is the ability to comingle with other departments without straying too far from your own. This morning, for instance, I was chatting with Kitty Muntzel, our fabulous draper, about an upcoming program article and getting some insights from her. On my way out of the costume shop, tailor Kathy Kellner Griffith called me over to a different table. "And take this with you," she said.
I have to admit I was amused and, after a bit more thinking, curious. Where does one acquire such a treasure? (In case the picture doesn't do it justice, it's a very detailed diorama of a house in the Philippines.)
I asked where it came from, and the ladies who usually know it all -- they've been here a combined total of 47 years -- had met their match. They were stumped! "No idea," Kathy told me. As far as they know, it just appeared in the shop. They asked me to bring it upstairs so that everyone could see it and take their guess about its origin. Any ideas?
The mystery's afoot!
Dressers think a lot of stupid things are funny. Like the way a single hanger can travel from location to location throughout the show. Or naming ensemble characters with ridiculous names. (In Ghost Light, Peter Macon’s character in the film sequence is named Baboo, and Danforth Comin’s “Man 1” has become Keith-Bobby. Hell, we even think it's funny when George Moscone’s shirt magnetizes itself to the refrigerator backstage.)
One of our favorite things to bide our time thinking about is the realism of quick changes. Last season, fellow dresser Alex Zeek and I spent much of our time obsessing over the fact that, in Three Sisters, Natasha had a quick change that occurred in real time of the play, so there should not have been two dressers changing her — in the reality of their Chekovian world, poor Natasha would have had only the help of one little woman, Anfisa, and I’m guessing it wouldn’t all go down in a minute and a half.
But that, my friends, is the reality and magic, of living breathing theatre, which takes me to the root of our story, the rise in our action, and the quick change that rocks the world. Yes, folks, you guessed right: I am talking about the transformation of Mr. Bill Geisslinger from seedy prison guard to the honorable Mayor Moscone.
Quick changes such as this are choreographed with the grace and beauty of Olympic-level synchronized swimming. Alex and I arrive in the stage right quick-change room about six minutes before the Prison Guard exits his last scene. We prep the room: chair in the center, pants pooled on the floor, shoes out of the way, pre-tied necktie on my arm, and magnetic shirt in my hands — all awaiting the arrival of Bill and his arms.
After the gunshots and dreamworld transition music, the auditions begin with Reggie van Huuson. Our cue “It’s Van HOOOOOOOsen” is the moment Bill arrives, sliding his arms into his shirt like a snake darting at the neck of a small child. Standing behind him, I slide the tie over his head while the shirt magnetizes itself closed. Alex unzips his gnarly boots while Bill drops his pants and sits in the chair. Alex then puts his legs through the pant legs, and slides on his shoes, while Bill and I apply the Moscone wig to his head. I glue down the sideburns and hold them as Bill stands up, buckles his pants and belt, and turns toward the mirror. I continue to apply pressure while Alex helps him into his glasses and wedding band. I clip the toupee clips that hold the back of the wig to his own hair as Bill perfects the infamous Moscone curl at his forhead. Alex runs to page the curtain for his entrance, while I help Bill into his suit coat. And by the time the Puppeteers and Ghost puppet are done with their audition piece, Bill has left my sight, like a ghost, vanishing into the depths of backstage blackness.
I am left to clean up my brush and adhesive, and scram so that Barbara Blair can change Louise into her last show look.
I grab my wig block and walk the stairs back to the wig room, knowing that I will do nearly the same thing again tomorrow, in a job that is monotonous, but never mundane.
Sarita Ocon, the Moscone wig, and I wait in the green room for our next cues in act two.
It's hard to believe that a whole year has gone by since Mike Daisey performed The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs on our Thrust Stage. Even then it was clear: for Mike, this wasn't just about creating a successful theatre piece -- it was about changing the values of one of the largest, most popular American corporations.
Or, perhaps, "American and Chinese corporations."
Because, as the Twitterverse pointed out recently, for all its billions, Apple has $0 in American manufacturing. (Again, that's from Twitter. Debate at will.) (Also from the Twitterverse: "People, we're also responsible b/c of our lust for the products.")
The waves that started here in Berkeley have reached epic proportions in New York, where Agony enjoyed a terrific run at The Public -- and returns there on January 31.
In the meantime, the largest tidal wave came in the form of a special episode of This American Life featuring a portion of Daisey's monologue followed by a rigorous discussion and debate. It aired the weekend of January 6. Mike Daisey reports that it's the most downloaded episode in This American Life's history. Listen to it. I heard part of it in the car and was mesmerized -- thankfully, I wasn't the one driving.
And yesterday, the New York Times posted this article, which has since moved up the front page of its site and garnered over 1,000 comments.
Earlier this week, Mike emailed "Some Big News" to Berkeley Rep, among many others. I had seen a version of this email on his Facebook wall, and I'll excerpt it here. After all, Mike can say it so much better:
"That same week [as the TAL airing] news broke that hundreds of Foxconn workers had a stand-off that lasted two days, where they were all threatening mass suicide by throwing themselves off the roof of the plant over their working conditions.
"This is at Foxconn, a company which Apple's own 2011 Supplier Responsibility Report said was completely up to code, and which Apple applauded for their efforts. This is the company about which Steve Jobs said the employees enjoyed a virtual paradise of movie theaters, swimming pools, and luxury.
"A week after our show was broadcast, Apple made an abrupt announcement. After years of stonewalling and silence, they released the full list of their suppliers, and agreed to outside, independent monitoring of working conditions in the factories they use. It is not everything, but it is a small step down the right road.
"Many news outlets are crediting THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS for being a large factor in Apple's decision. I've received a number of emails from Apple employees who have told me they believe that hearing this story on THIS AMERICAN LIFE, a program many Apple employees listen to with their families and their children, created "a morale situation" that finally compelled Apple to begin to do the right thing.
"I would like to thank everyone who has heard this story and then told it on to the next person. In theater we sometimes doubt that we can effect change—I think we all doubt it, sometimes. The truth is that telling stories, person to person, is the best way we have ever had of connecting to the human—and whatever this show may or may not have achieved, it has come out of the conversations happening night after night after night."
And thank you, Mike, for telling the story first.
Berkeley Rep's shops are filled with pretty awesome, talented artisans who are always curious and ready to learn new things (and build some awesome things too). That tradition continued last Friday when the costume shop hosted an in-house fabric origami workshop taught by the amazing artist Chris Palmer, author of Shadowfolds. He taught members of the costume, prop, and scenic shops his method of folding fabric to make three-dimensional geometric designs.
Kitty Muntzel, the costume shop's draper, instigated this post -- and pointed me to a terrific blog post by our Scenic Charge Artist Lisa Lazar, who allowed me to repost it (with some slight changes) here.
I could a tale unfold...
On Friday I had the great fortune to participate in a workshop with artist Chris Palmer.
Or your laptop. Or even the newest search features on Google that save us all the hassle of pulling down the dusty Encyclopedia Brittanica from the shelf.* (Alright, so maybe not while #SOPA and #PIPA were in effect, but even still...)
Last week, Berkeley Rep played host to a lunchtime gathering of 30 of our city's brightest high-tech innovators. The monthly Infusion lunch series, hosted by Sylvia Paull, welcomed Seymour Rubinstein, a veteran computer programmer and tech guru, to talk about his newest endeavor. Most of the attendees also participate in the Berkeley Startup Cluster, a relatively new initiative that encourages local high-tech companies to create a home for themselves in Berkeley. Here's a photo from the event, captured by our very own Robert Sweibel:
Many of our lunchtime guests are also Berkeley Rep regulars. Perhaps you can start an interesting conversation with your fellow audience members the next time you're at the Theatre. (Tip: these folks go crazy when you ask them about their favorite programming language.**)
* Nothing against encyclopedias.
** That's where they lost me.
At the opening night reception for Ghost Light, actor Bill Geisslinger and I encountered two things: tiny cups of wine and audience disbelief. It went a little something like this:
Kyle from Marketing: Congrats!
Me (sipping tiny wine cup): Thanks Kyle, it’s so nice to finally be open!
Kyle: So I have to know, in real life, Bill Geisslinger has very light gray hair, but as the prison guard it's black…
Me: (Sip second tiny cup of wine in preparation for the following:)
Well Kyle, and other curious Berkeley Rep patrons, I am so glad I am here to demystify the quizzical hair situation of my good friend Billy G. (That is the rap name I bequeathed him, but don’t tell, he doesn’t know yet.)
By Negi Esfandiari, Berkeley High School
There are many different ways to confront death, whether it is leaning on someone’s shoulder or grieving alone. Seeing this idea played out on stage is one of my favorite aspects of Berkeley Rep’s new production of Ghost Light, which is based on Jonathan Moscone’s own confrontation with his father’s death. I never thought I would see art and death come together in such a beautiful marriage. Although Ghost Light has many admirable qualities, the most captivating was how Mr. Moscone took something so close to his heart and prepared it for hundreds of strangers to watch.
Negi interviews Ghost Light actor, Tyler James Myers, at Teen Night.
Last Friday evening, the many Teen Night participants, myself included, made their way to the Thrust Stage, chatting and wondering what they were about to experience. As I read an interview with director Jon Moscone and playwright Tony Taccone in the Ghost Light edition of Berkeley Rep Magazine, I suddenly noticed that they were both in the house. Then the lights went down, and the play began.
I have found myself tearing up during many plays, but until Ghost Light I had never experienced crying out of sympathy, or grief over the loss of a character before. How the actual Jon Moscone was able to watch this play without falling apart (especially when his father’s “ghost” makes an appearance), I have no idea.
The experience was exceptional. The way Ghost Light affected the audience was unlike any other audience reaction I’ve seen. The fact that it was so personal, to the point where it could potentially be painful or traumatic for its creator, was a feat indeed. It will definitely grab every audience, and perhaps inspire them to face their own experiences with loss. There was a barrier broken down in Ghost Light: the chasm between complete strangers, and the intimacy of one’s private life. Truly, it made all the difference.
Negi is a Junior at Berkeley High School. She is a Teen Council Events Chair and was an actor in last year’s Teen One-Acts Festival.
Tune in to KQED at 7:30 tonight for The Memory Be Green, a documentary by KQED and Dave Iverson that combines the creation of Ghost Light with "reflections on George Moscone and the times he lived in."
I’ve always enjoyed The Proclaimers "I’m Gonna Be" (aka "500 Miles") from the Benny & Joon soundtrack, but I’ve never really considered the commitment required to walk 500 miles just to be with someone. That is, until now.
On December 31, we had our first day of tech rehearsal for Ghost Light, and through a moment of divine inspiration, I threw on a pedometer just to see how many miles I would walk that day for director Jon Moscone. In less than eight hours, I logged 8.5 miles while finishing the shopping for the show — laundry detergent, magnets for the magical George Moscone quick change, and a trendy wallet for the character Jon. Eight and a half miles for one day seemed a little high, so on Sunday I tried again.
I realize most people have no clue what the fancy-shmancy term “tech rehearsal” means. So imagine this: you are locked in the theatre for 10 out of 12 hours, going from light cue to light cue, sound cue to sound cue, taking an hour to work though a 45-second transition, and crying when the corn-based snacks that production management provides run out. That, in a nutshell, is tech.
But, back to the mileage at hand. Sunday marked another 8.5 miles. At this point, my competitive instincts kicked in and I actually wanted to beat the previous days’ records. On day three, people began to ask how many miles I had logged. On day four, I lost my pedometer*, but not before I noted that I had logged 42 miles.
FORTY TWO FREAKIN’ MILES. And, that was only in four days of tech.
So, I suppose the point to my story is this: every day a group of folks dress up in black and walk well before the audience arrives. They set the ghostlight. They check the sound levels and video feeds. They preset the clothes and restyle the wigs. Together they walk 500 miles for Jon, and George, and most importantly, you.
So, next time you rewatch Benny & Joon, and "I’m Gonna Be" plays, enjoy the fact that a whole group of folks walked 500 miles, just for you.
*Today, I found my pedometer under my desk at Harrison St. I don’t think I need it anymore.