The current play, Gem of the Ocean, written by acclaimed playwright August Wilson, was nominated for a Tony Award in 2005. Set in the first decade of the 20th century, it examines the black experience in America. It is part of a series, with each play portraying the black experience in each decade of the 20th century. The main character in Gem of the Ocean, aptly named Citizen, leaves Alabama and heads up North in the hopes of bettering his life. He reaches the home of Aunt Ester, a mythological 287-year-old character. Interactions with the passionate and spirited Ester lead Citizen to explore what it really means to be free.
“In preparation for the play, we read dramaturgical research into what the culture in this country was like at that time,” says Gregory Wallace, core company actor of American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), who plays the role of a black constable who tries to maintain order within a town. “The black slaves had won freedom, but were faced with a lot of complex questions about the meaning of freedom. They had won physical freedom. But, had they won intellectual, spiritual, and economic freedom in the true sense? These questions don’t go away. They continue to haunt and challenge every generation.”
Gem of the Ocean is followed by a frothy comedy, The Rivals. For those who are interested in musicals, Happy End is an avant-garde offering.
The scheduling of plays in each season is a complex process that involves the artistic staff, management staff, and actors. “First, we make a match between the plays that we choose, and the directors that we would like to work with,” says associate artistic director Johanna Pfaelzer. “The director casts the play, and then we go into aspects related to production. We try to offer plays that have a good mix of historical periods and styles. Today, we have technical innovations like computerized lighting, and sets that move. At its simplest, when a performer tells a story in front of an audience, theater is being made, and this joins us in history all the way back to ancient theatrical traditions.”
A.C.T. is a nationally recognized theater company that produces live theater, trains young actors, and stays in touch with its audiences through publications. The company was founded in 1975, and through three decades of programming, it has produced 300 plays.
“The process of staging a play depends on the collaboration between the playwright and the director,” says Pfaelzer, “and there is no one recipe of how this interaction takes place. When they work together, the director takes great pains to ensure that the playwright’s original intentions are captured on stage. If the playwright is no longer alive, then the director has more freedom to interpret and stage the play based on his/her reading of it.”
Jeff Rowlings, A.C.T. production supervisor, says that set design planning starts a year ahead of the actual performance date. “The designer and the director come up with a preliminary design. The set designer provides a scaled ground plan, and the costume designer submits sketches to the director. Everyone has to work together to bring the overall vision that the director has in his/her mind alive. To create a stunning use of space, I always feel, ‘Less is more.’”
Unlike classical music or dance, where connoisseurs can enjoy subtle nuances, classical theater productions by A.C.T. are highly accessible and enjoyable. “When everything is going well on stage,” says Wallace, “there is a feeling of participating in something bigger, almost divine. For the audience, the act of coming together as a community to watch good theater can provide soul food, a kind of soul nurturing …”
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is an Indian classical dancer, choreographer, and teacher, who writes about the arts.
AT A THEATER NEAR YOU
Gem of the Ocean
February 10—March 12
March 23—April 23
April 28—May 28
June 8—July 9
Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Box office: (415) 749-2ACT. Visit the website in April for more details regarding the 2006-07 season. www.act-sf.org