Monday, November 21, 2011

Jessica Heidt in a Box

By, Caitlyn Tella

Today we zone in on Jessica Heidt, new play director extraordinaire, and the woman at the helm of Geetha's Girl in a Box Rough Reading. Jessica built a career on her passion for new and experimental theater, directing and producing countless readings, workshops, and theatrical events throughout the Bay.  I spoke with her briefly about the world of possibility--that is, the world of new plays--and here are the words from our conversation:

Can you talk a little about the story of Girl in a Box?
Yes. The story begins with an event that happens in childhood.  There are mysterious circumstances around the disappearance of Sally, Ava’s best friend, when they are about 10 years old.  The rest of the play follows a lifetime, as we try to return to this event from childhood and figure out what happened.  Ava, played by Lauren English, ages throughout the story, and the other two actresses play multiple characters that lead us from scene to scene as the years progress.

The Lily's Revenge by Taylor Mac at Magic Theatre

I love when actors play multiple characters in one play. Is there an element of fantasy in this story?
Yeah, I think in many ways there are, whether it’s fantasy or dream.  There are definitely moments of suspended reality.
Miriam Wolodarski in her show Lavinia at Climate Theatre

Your theater company, Climate Theater, creates a space for experimental performance, and as a director you often work on original plays.  Could you talk about what draws you to producing and directing new work?
It’s the sense of possibility, with all of these different types of work.  With new plays in general, I love working with writers, and I love being able to help someone realize their vision.  As a director and producer in these settings, I can add my own sense of theatricality and story and character, and be part of the burst of these new projects.  I find that incredibly exciting. It’s great to have a playwright in the room, like Lauren said, to be able to wrestle big questions.

Orestes 2.0 by Charles Mee at USF

As a producer at Climate, I was able to work with such a wide range of artists—I had composers, people from physical theater, at one point I had a filmmaker—who I loved and respected.  I was really excited by the work they were creating, but they didn’t necessarily have a space to do it, so that’s what I was able to give them.  And at the same time, because many of the artists I was nurturing were part of a residency program they all got to know each other and they inspired each other’s work. A lot of times they became collaborators, and that was so much fun to watch grow.

Danielle Levin, Patrick Alparone and Michelle Maxson
Man of Rock by Daniel Heath at Climate Theatre

Do you ever begin your process by gathering your favorite artists, say a video artist, choreographer, and actors, and basically start from scratch that way?  Or is it necessary to have an idea and then gather people?
As of now, in general, the projects have been one person’s idea and then other people enter as they bring their own collaborators.  But I’ve always wanted to do what you’re talking about.  Maybe the next one!

Could be interesting.  Could be a lot of work.
(Laughs) And so much fun.
Summer Shapiro (resident artist at Climate) in her show, In the Boudoir

All photos from Jessica or Jessica's website:

Don't miss out on Girl in a Box! It's going to be amazing.  If you prefer the Peninsula, you can catch it next Monday, November 28 at Stanford or if San Francisco is more convenient, come Tuesday, November 29 to the Thick House in Potrero Hill.  This reading, like all of our Rough Readings is FREE with a suggested $10 donation.  Bring a friend, your significant other, your OK Cupid date, or enjoy an evening of theater in solitude (paradox?).  More info here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lauren English in a Box: Digging into the new play process from the actor's perspective

By Caitlyn Tella, PF Volunteer
At PF we develop new plays.  So, what does that mean, anyway?  What's the difference between nurturing a new work and producing a full-on show?  Here, I will look into these questions by interviewing the artists behind our next Rough Reading, Girl in a Box, written by resident playwright Geetha Reddy and directed by Jessica Heidt. First up is a look into the actor's experience, through the eyes of Lauren English, who will be playing "Ava" in the reading. 

Lauren English

From her days at NYU Grad Acting to her recent performance in Claire Chafee’s Why We Have a Body at the Magic, local actress Lauren English has often worked directly with playwrights on their scripts.  As an actress myself, I’ve never had this opportunity, so I wanted to get some insight on what it's like to perform in a staged reading.  Here is some of the wisdom Lauren shared with me:
"Doing a staged reading requires you to extend a sensibility outside of yourself, because what you’re ultimately doing is giving the play the best reading possible so that the playwright and the producers and the director can hear it.  I always feel like it’s my job to do the best reading of the play that I can so that the playwright can continue to work on it."

"In rehearsal for a staged reading my role is to point out the things that aren’t actor-proof.  For example, a good actor can make a bad line work, but I don’t feel like that ultimately serves a reading or workshop of a play because what you want to do is make it actor-proof. The lines must be so clear and succinct that an inexperienced actor could encounter a line and know what to do with it. As an actor, you don’t want to try to save the play by interpretation."

"The last play I did where the playwright was in the room was Why We Have a Body and the most exciting thing is getting to hear the playwright’s voice in the room.  You have the chance to ask, “I’m not really understanding this section of the play—why does she make this decision?” Most of the time, and certainly with Claire Chafee—she would go into the storytelling mode and talk about these characters as if they were real people.  All of a sudden this mystery becomes a totally specific reality, and that’s thrilling.  There’s something super exciting about having the person who created this character tell you about her. It can really make your work more specific." 

"It’s important to spend as much time as possible with the script before rehearsals start. Read the script and identify any major questions that you have about the story, so that you can come to rehearsal and say, “Okay, I know we don’t have much time but I just want to make sure I’m clear—in the second act she does this, she makes these choices, is that what I’m feeling here?”  In that regard you’re at least being as clear as you possibly can, story-wise.

Lauren and Baby Eva in Reborning by, Zayd Dohrn at SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

It is a bit tricky because time is always so limited with these processes—you want to feel like you can stop to ask questions, but you also want to be aware of keeping your mouth shut because you can spend up to two hours talking about one scene.  You have to get through the play and ultimately it’s about the play and not about your individual part—you have to be aware of both.  It’s hard."

"Some actors are really best when they have time to process the play, time to go through all the emotions and everything that’s going on.  And other actors (like me!), usually find that the first instinct is the right choice. It’s important in these readings to go in and make decisions, but also be open to what the director’s going to say."

"Honestly, the best attitude to have in a staged reading or a workshop of a new play is the willingness to try anything, willingness to let go of your own ideas, willingness to let go of your ego.  It’s not just about the actor, and yet it is—you obviously can’t do a staged reading without actors. But it’s really important that you be willing to put your own ideas and feelings aside to honor the process of developing a script."

"It’s an insanely gratifying experience to be a part of something as it’s being formed."

You can catch Lauren's performance in Geetha Reddy's new play Girl in a Box on Monday, November 28 at Stanford or on Tuesday, November 29 at the Thick House in San Francisco.  Readings are FREE with a suggested $10 donation.  Bring a friend and join the fun!  More info here.

Look out for our next interview with director Jessica Heidt here on the PF blog!