Acting in the Tenderloin

It has always been a truism that people who play Little League are more likely to watch baseball later in life, and those who have studied an instrument are more likely to listen to classical music. As we in the world of live theater wrestle with how to engage new audiences in an art form that seems increasingly remote from many people's lives, it has become clear that allowing people to experience the actual process of making theater is a huge incentive. Audiences at the American Conservatory Theater love to come sit in the balcony and watch technical rehearsals, for instance; the more disastrously wrong something goes, the better. The challenge for a company as large as A.C.T., however, is that by the time people buy a ticket to our gorgeous 1,000-seat playhouse, they rightly expect a finished product. So how can we invite members of the general public to deepen their understanding of the chaotic process that goes into making a piece of theater in the first place? How do we awaken interest in, and respect for, the craft of acting, in a culture that lionizes instantaneous celebrity and has long ago lost the notion of lifelong commitment to the craft? Here is one attempt. In response to the burgeoning interest in revitalizing the Mid-Market section of San Francisco, and out of a desire to showcase the process of developing young artists and new work, A.C.T. has decided to create a funky new performance venue in the front room of our costume shop at 7th and Market streets, where we will offer free performances by young actors in our M.F.A. Program and their professional colleagues.

This may seem like madness; the Tenderloin is a notoriously difficult area to attract audiences to and is not always the safest place to do business. But the energy on the streets in that neighborhood is palpable, and the appetite on the part of the City to put the open spaces and interesting architecture of the 'loin to better use is exciting. Most of all, the idea responds to a real sea change happening in acting programs in this country about the nature of actor training and the role that actors should or could play in the lives of their communities. It used to be the case that if you went to a good graduate school in acting and developed a skill set that included clear speech, a strong voice, a supple body, an active imagination, and a vivid sense of character; you could graduate and expect to work in the profession. Times have changed. Despite the huge proliferation of graduate acting programs across the country, unemployment amongst members of Actors' Equity Association (the national union for professional actors and stage managers) hovers at 85%. It's no wonder that young artists are beginning to reconsider what it means to be "trained" as an actor, and whether school is preparing them in any way for a life in the field. Artists who have spent three years of graduate study exploring the classics find themselves in a workplace where they are usually beaten out for roles by British actors, reality television stars, or -- worst of all -- electronic avatars!

At the same time, perhaps in response to the current climate, the notion of the actor as primarily an interpreter of a writer's words is starting to chafe: many actors long to play a central, creative role in the making of the work itself. And so slowly, throughout curricula in graduate acting programs across America, acting students are learning to devise their own work and to produce it in alternative spaces, wherever they can find an audience. What is the nature of this work? At its simplest, "devised work" can entail a single actor transforming onstage. At its grandest, it can look like the magical movement-oriented storytelling of the Kneehigh theater company, who brought their Brief Encounter to the U.S. last season, or like Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling's silent movie take on The Overcoat, a huge success across Canada (and at A.C.T.) several seasons back. It can start with an idea, with a collection of texts, with a piece of music, or with a space, and it tends to be built over time by a fluid ensemble of artists, each of whom plays a central role in the creative decision-making. (A.C.T.'s recent dance-theater piece The Tosca Project evolved in this way.) It takes a willingness on the part of theater artists to do what dancers and choreographers routinely do: enter an empty studio with no script in hand, and make things up as they go along.

This is not to say that there is no "craft" or rigor to devising work. Several years ago, A.C.T. hired a remarkable young movement teacher named Stephen Buescher, whose talent is creating original movement-based work. On the first day of the school year, he gathered all of us in a huge studio (students, teachers, artistic administrators, company members, even me!) and launched "The Leap," a two-day experiment in devised work. We were divided into small groups and given a paragraph of a Borges short story and a deck of playing cards. We were asked to pick any corner of our large, messy administrative building to use as our stage, and to find a way to theatricalize our paragraph. The process was fascinating and difficult. One group chose an outdoor balcony as their space, and created a kind of terrifying dumbshow observed by those standing inside on the other side of the glass; another used the sound of the card deck shuffling as an ominous counterpoint to a mysterious scene of confrontation and discovery. No one led the rehearsals and there was no hierarchy -- everyone put ideas on the table and somehow the group decided what would stick.

A year later, we followed The Leap with a three-week experiment called The Sky Festival. This time, students were asked to select work they would like to explore and actors whom they would like to collaborate with. Fifteen projects rehearsed from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily for three weeks, and on the final day we performed all of the pieces back to back, in every corner of the building, in a wild eruption of anarchic energy. There were one-act plays, poetry slams, rock riffs on Shakespeare, one-person shows, and upended classics, all created and produced by the students. At the end of the day, all of us who witnessed the work felt hugely exhilarated by the invention we had just witnessed, and sad that we were the only ones who had seen it. We began to ponder how we could both infect our mainstage with the creative buzz of The Sky Festival, and at the same time share the Sky work with a wider audience.

So this season, The Sky (along with a variety of other work) is coming to the Tenderloin. Starting in early October, A.C.T.'s M.F.A. Program is going to perform free of charge in The Costume Shop -- a new space carved out of the building where we in fact make the costumes that appear in our productions. The big glass windows fronting the building face directly onto Civic Center; the space reminded me immediately of my favorite theater company in New York in the eighties, a Hungarian troupe called The Squat Theater, whose performances happened both inside and outside of a storefront in Chelsea such that it was impossible to separate the anarchic street life outside from the actual performance being created within.

In a similar vein, we want people to wander by The Costume Shop, look in, see something strange or magical or quiet or beautiful going on, and decide to come in and partake. We want our M.F.A. students to take ownership of their own work and to realize that being an actor is not just performing beautifully in someone else's creative project, but actually taking responsibility for the creation of the work itself. We're curious about whether it is easier for young actors to find a peer audience if the work happens in a non-traditional space, and whether making work in the heart of a neighborhood where people work and live is more appealing than asking people to travel to a more formal theater to experience a play. On any given night, an audience member walking by might see a movement piece or a section of a new play or a hip-hop poetry project through the window. It might be sublime and it might be a mess. It all came out of the idea of The Sky Festival, and maybe it will invite all of us to look up, find our own blue patch of sky, and dare to try something new.