I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.
Friday night, February 11 at 8 p.m., Actor’s Theatre of San Francisco will continue its tradition of communicating what it means to be alive in a tough, gutsy and existentially dangerous drama, William Blake Sings the Blues. This is the story of two academics competing for the position of chairman of the English department of a small liberal arts college and it is also a play about what makes us who we are. There are issues of morality and class conflicts, violence and tension with real people fighting the same blue devils we all face. “It boils down to the fact that, in reality we are all basically the same,” said the author and director, Keith Phillips, who is also the theater’s founder with his brother Christian, now the Artistic Director of the theater.
Indeed, we are all imperfect beings doing our best to make a decent imprint on our world and every one of us want to think of ourselves as “nice guys”. “Our culture has taught us that audiences cannot be moved unless they are involved in something they believe is real, “said Christian, who plays the role of Sam in this production.
Actors Theatre selects plays that audiences relate to on a very human level. Perhaps that is why they have such a loyal following: people who seek solid theater that explores the issues they face in their own lives. “Our productions reflect the human condition,” said Christian Phillips. “We want to change the way the audience thinks.”
The classic works this group presents prove his point. “Delivering the lines is only half of it,” said Keith Phillips. “The play is driven by its dialogue.”
Christian and Keith adhere to the basic philosophy of the Group Theater. “We have kept our focus on what it means to be human,” said Christian. “It is our heritage. Our father was responsible for changing the state of the arts by creating situational believability in theater. We do plays that are about something…not simply entertainment.”
Their father was Wendell K. Phillips, member of the legendary Group Theater and a teacher at The Actor’s Studio in New York. Their mother is Jean Shelton, founder of the Jean Shelton Actor’s Lab inspired by Stanislavsky approach: If the actor and the role connect, the role comes to life. Both men were taught that the theatrical experience must be strong enough to change the way the audience sees the world. They accomplish this with an ensemble approach to acting. At Actor’s Theatre, we see many of the same actors playing a variety of challenging roles, always dedicated to the social impact of what they are saying. “Good actors take years to build,” observed Christian. “It takes tremendous dedication. You have to function as an artist and your own personal needs need to take a back seat to the ideas of the play. Our goal is to reveal something about life itself.”
You have only to have seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Who’s Afraid of Virginias Woolf to see this theory take shape. These plays though written for another time and another place are as strong today as they were in 1958 ad 1966 because they are about the relationships all of us form and the fragile underpinnings that make them dysfunctional. Many of the plays the Phillips’ select are products of the gay community and for a very good reason “Gay writers are some of the best playwrights in American Theater,” said Christian. “And the largest identifiable group of theatergoers is from that community.
William Blake Sings the Blues is a lesson in morality that illustrates how little we differ from one another. “Our productions reflect the human condition,” said Christian.
Indeed, when you attend a production at Actor’s Theater, you know you are going to see memorable theater done well. Treat yourself to something wonderful and new at the opening of William Blake Sings the Blues, theater that redefines who you are and shows you what you can become. Lafayette, played by Duane Lawrence ends the play by saying “I ain’t never forgot what it felt like being on the outside and having that boy open the door for me and let me in.”
Who among us have not felt isolated and alone in our quest for meaning, aching to be “let in” to we know not where?
William Blake Sings the Blues opens Friday February 11 and plays through Saturday March 5, 2011, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm.
Actors Theater of San Francisco, 855 Bush Street. Tickets $38, students and seniors $26. Box Office: 415 345 1287 or www.dramalist.com
More information: www.actorstheatresf.org