BACKSTAGE AT THE REP: Current Show
Curious Clips: Excerpts from The Curious REPort
Monday, April 4th
Ron Campbell Leads with his Chin
The Bay Area actor brings intensity, vitality, and control to roles big and small, comic and otherwise.
To get a sense of the quirky and existential wit of Bay Area–based clown/actor Ron Campbell, consider his outgoing voicemail message: “Please listen to the entire menu, as some of your options may have dwindled. Some calls may be recorded so we can laugh at you later…For infinity press 8. You may dial or say the word ‘help’ at any time to be immediately
connected to the vacuum of space…Please stay on the line. Godot is coming.”
Forget Godot. Campbell is a viable substitute. He shows up punctually for an interview at a Berkeley café, beaming, a slender, natty figure in beige linen vest and white shirt, with matching slacks, shoes, and fedora. He’s currently sporting a silvery goatee and mustache to play Don Quixote at Marin Shakespeare Company (“We don’t own our faces,” he jokes). His glasses dangle on a string, and his blue eyes are particularly piercing.
“What I loved about his performance was that it wasn’t about the clowning, it was about the story and the characters—nothing gratuitous,” says his Quixote director, Lesley Schisgall Currier. “It was about making sense of the character moment by moment in the circumstances the character is going through. He is never into taking the cheap laugh; he connected everything to the heart of the character. I think he’s always thinking about making choices that are not obvious.”
As a kid growing up in a half-Jewish family in Southern California, Campbell had a particularly funny uncle (not that kind of funny) who’d do goofy things, like announce the NFL games backward. “I learned a lot about comedy at that really formative stage,” Campbell says. But he learned about drama early on, too. When he was 8 years old, his grandmother took him to Europe; in London they saw Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. “I went berserk when the character died and sang ‘The Impossible Dream,’” Campbell recalls. An usher took him and his grandmother backstage to prove that Kiley was alive and well. “That was resurrection to me,” he says. When he got home he started putting on plays with his brothers.
“I didn’t follow the academic path,” he continues. “I took to the streets.” In the late 1970s, after studying at UCLA and being “on the fringe of theatre,” he went to Europe. In Paris, a truck was unloading rags. “I saw these pants, much too big for me but with stirrups and zipper pockets that came way up to here, under my chest, and stretched to here,” he says, spreading his arms out. Suitably attired, he began performing mime and clown routines on the streets of Italy and France: in Piazza San Marco, the Piazza Navona, the Place Georges Pompidou. Okay, he thought, if I can do this, I can do anything.
Returning to Los Angeles in the 1980s, he reconnected with some of his old UCLA classmates and was a founding member of Tim Robbins’s Actors’ Gang. There and at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, San Diego Repertory Theatre, American Conservatory Theater, Se-attle Rep, and elsewhere, he would play assorted roles, starting with plays by Sam Shepard and
continuing on to Ionesco, Beckett, Shakespeare, and more, including a one-man version of A Tale of Two Cities in which he portrayed 28 characters. He has performed at the Royal Albert Hall, the Habima in Israel, and the Mark Taper Forum, to name just a few, and has won a raft of theatre awards.
It was taking on the challenging role of 20th-century theorist Buckminster Fuller in Jacobs’s two-hour monologue that eventually brought him to the Bay Area, where he wowed local critics and audiences with a complex character: brilliant mind, easygoing warmth, down-to-earth humor. “I’d always perceived the play as a movement/dance piece,” says Jacobs, who also directed it. “Ron has a very powerful animal vitality in his movement and acting, which I thought was a good parallel to Bucky’s own intensity. I also saw the [character] as based on Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd—erect posture and bird-like attitude, which Ron has, and he also has a whole vocabulary of movement.”
Those movement skills are an essential part of Campbell’s tool kit. He started studying karate when he was 7 or 8—with Chuck Norris. He wanted to be a stuntman. In his 20s he discovered aikido, but when he injured his toe he took a seminar in iaido (a martial art involving swords) instead and was hooked. “For me, it’s anti-acting,” he says. “It’s awareness without facial expressions.” In his iaido practice, he feels like he’s on a little vacation in feudal Japan. He works with a three-foot version of a sword, training to become proficient at drawing and cutting, and has the scars on his hands to prove it. “You have to be delicate and aware,” he says. “It’s all about the feet, and about maintaining certain postures and awareness. You get a sense of timing and space. There’s a wonderful quality of peace and a camaraderie that’s similar to what I get in the act-ing world.”
Some of his enchantment with martial arts spills over into the classes he teaches at his Soar Feat Studio. Commedia masks lie on a long table. At a Monday night “actors’ jam,” about 25 students show up. Campbell calls his classes “aerobics for the theatrical muscle” or “a jungle gym on the playground of your imagination.” “I try to be the cheerleader, the fan of people who are trying to do what we do,” he tells me later. “The other half of me is stern taskmaster—I bounce between those two extremes. Somewhere in the middle comes me: caring enough to put my heart into it.”
Strong words, but the classroom mood is entirely upbeat; Campbell’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious. In one exercise, he gives the students an impossible task: to make an entrance invisibly. As each one tries it, he says cheerfully, “Good, but that’s not it.”
“It’s not so much what they do but who they are between the attempts,” he explains. “Anger is a great motivator. Or they go inside, and depending on the actor, that can be very good or detrimental. The exercises are difficult on purpose. You don’t conquer them.”
Ron Campbell, Darren Bridgett, and Mi-chael Gene Sullivan in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at California’s TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. (Photo by Tracy Martin)
He recalls a key lesson he learned from Kooza. He’d sometimes arrive at the tent early to find master juggler Anthony Gatto juggling 10 pins. “Sweat would be pouring down from him. In the show, in his big moment, he’s juggling 7—but he practiced at 150 percent. Which means he can be doing that amazing thing and connecting with the audience at the same time. No juggler can do that; their connection is with pins or hats—but he could wink at somebody in the fourth row! He had that kind of relaxation. I want my rehearsals to be really intense so when I get into the show I can hear the audience breathe and relax.
That “ferocious commitment” to physical training has clearly paid off, declares Jacobs, who marvels that over the years, though he has aged, Campbell has learned more about how to use his body. “He’s less vulnerable to certain kinds of stresses and injuries than when he was younger,” avers Jacobs, who finds it odd to watch someone age 10 or 15 years and actually become a stronger physical specimen. “He went very deeply into iaido,” adds Jacobs, “and when he came back [to play Bucky again] he went through the material with very sword-like clarity.”
Campbell describes himself as largely an “outside-in” actor. “I often make two, just two, clean decisions, and then ride the character, not steer it,” he explains. He explains that the chin is one of his favorite body parts, so for the role of old Alfie in One Man, he chose the chin and the feet and allowed those two body parts to war with each other. “I made basic decisions about how I was going to move through space,” he elaborates. “I put my heels out, toes in [a classic pose], and let that infect the rest of me. It’s a better experience than just hunching over and playing old. For Don Quixote, I put my heels together and actually crossed them a little bit…and let my character develop from there.” (The spine is his second-favorite body part.)
Chins, spines, feet—and masks. Thanks to a fellowship, in 2009 he studied masks in Greece, Italy, and Japan, and now teaches acting with masks. The first time he worked with a mask, with Actors’ Gang, he hyperventilated; he couldn’t control his breathing and almost passed out. Since then he has learned about the power that a mask offers—it sculpts him, he says.
“You’re a servant to the mask just as you’re a servant to the text. You put on a mask and you follow it. It’s both deeply psychological and demandingly physical—if you get in the way of it, all of a sudden the mask doesn’t reveal. If you overplay under a mask, the mask goes dead.”
Musing on the relative marginality of theatre and stage artists, Campbell drily analogizes: “We’re dinosaurs wallowing around in the tarpit.” But he’s not planning to leave the stage any time soon: “We have these incredible advantages over film in that we’re breathing the same air as the audience.” Campbell loves to break the fourth wall—I’ve never seen an actor more comfortable with it—and says he likes to imagine breaking a fifth wall, too. To illustrate, he stares deeply into my eyes.
“Yes, I get stage fright,” he admits. “Always. Maybe it’s an addiction to adrenaline. That motor underneath, that do-or-die-ness—I want that.”
Jean Schiffman is a freelance theatre writer in San Francisco.
Curious Clips: Excerpts from The Curious REPort
Monday, March 28th
Ten Mind-Bending Physics Facts
For some of us, physics was something we dreaded at school, abandoning our studies of it at the earliest opportunity, all before reaching adulthood and realizing that this particular branch of science is arguably the coolest. Fortunately, there are graduates, postgrads and doctors who have made the study of physics their life’s work. Here are some of the unbelievably cool things about physics that we have learned because of people like them.
1. Relativity Makes Space Travellers Younger (Kinda)
Both velocity and gravity have an effect on the speed of time; the higher they are, the slower time passes. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) (who are in reduced gravity compared to people on Earth but travelling at increased speed around it) experience time more slowly, at a rate of roughly 1 second ‘lost’ every 747 days.
2. Without E=MC2 GPS Would Malfunction
The satellite navigation in your car or on your phone relies on a series of geostationary satellites to pinpoint your location, exchanging data using radio waves. Because of the theory of relativity, the speed at which the satellites’ onboard clocks tick is around 38,000 nanoseconds faster than clocks on the ground. Every time data is sent to the receiving device, a calculation must be applied to correct the timings to within the required 20-30 nanosecond accuracy.
3. ‘The Speed Of Light’ Isn’t Constant
Most people will have heard about the speed of light (c. 671 million miles per hour), which according to all accepted laws of Physics is the fastest that anything can travel. In actual fact, this figure refers only to the speed of light in a vacuum. Really, light is slowed whenever it passes through something, being measured travelling as slowly as just 38 miles per hour at absolute zero (-273.15C) through ultra-cooled rubidium.
4. Humanity Could Fit In A Sugar Cube
Remember when you learned all about the basic structure of the atom – protons, neutrons, electrons? You might recall there was a lot of empty space, and you’d be right. Most of an atom is just empty space, so much so that if you gathered the entire human race together and removed the empty space of all the atoms that make them up you would be left with something no larger than a sugar cube. Incidentally…
5. That Sugar Cube Would Weigh Five Billion Tons
Why? Because all that empty space doesn’t have any mass, so the sugar cube of humanity would be extremely dense. It’s the same principle behind why 1kg of bricks and 1kg of feathers weighs the same, but a box of bricks is denser and has more mass than an equally-sized box of feathers.
6. We Don’t Know What Most Of The Universe Is
Despite all the advances made in astrophysics in recent years, not least the discovery of various exoplanets beyond our solar system, we don’t know what makes up the majority of the universe. It is possible to make reasonable estimates of the mass of the universe, except that visible matter (stars, planets, stellar objects) only accounts for 2% of that; what exactly makes up the rest – so-called ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ – remains a mystery.
7. Go Fast, Gain Weight
Our old friend relativity explains this one as well – mass and energy are equivalent, meaning that as you add energy to a moving object (i.e. increase speed) then that object’s mass increases. At ‘normal’ speeds, this mass gain is pretty negligible, but as you approach the speed of light mass begins to increase dramatically. In case you’re wondering why sprinters and cars and aeroplanes don’t get heavier because of this, don’t worry – the increase in mass as a result of increased speed is only temporary.
8. You Could Be A Walking H-Bomb
The First Law of Thermodynamics holds that in any situation, the total amount of energy in will equal the exact same amount of energy out. As well as meaning that you can’t create energy out of nothing, this law means that you also cannot destroy energy. So what happened to all the energy that came from what you put in your own body? The short answer is that most of it remains stored within your body, an average of 7×1018 joules – this amount of energy, if released all at once, would have the same power as 30 hydrogen bombs.
9. You Might Already Have Read This
According to Big Bang cosmology, the universe is constantly expanding. One school of thought suggests that this expansion must eventually not only slow down, but also go into reverse and cause a ‘Big Crunch.’ What would happen then is a mystery, but if there is indeed a cycle of ‘bang, expansion, contraction, collapse, bang’, it may well be that the universe plays out in exactly the same way. You might have been born, lived, read this article, lived some more and died in exactly the same way over and over again and not even know it.
10. Another You Might Have Died Reading This
According to the multiverse theory (yes, it’s not just a Family Guy thing), there are an infinite number of universes existing parallel to one another, with each differing slightly and every possible scenario being played out in its own universe. This would mean that in at least one universe, a freak accident meant that you were hit by a meteor and killed before finishing this sentence. In another universe, you wouldn’t have even read this article in the first place, because I would have been hit by a meteor and killed before finishing writing it. For a classic 90s TV take on this theory, go look up Sliders on Youtube.
Brought to you by Kizaz: The Interesting and Unusual
A Review by Tom Markus, friend and mentor
If William Goldman built a buddy movie about the careers of Doug Jacobs and Sam Woodhouse, the emotionally crescendoing final reel would be the San Diego REP’s March 16th revival of R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe. And the film’s coda would be Sam’s deeply moving post-performance “welcome home” greeting to Doug who rose to his feet amidst the standing-o audience and the house lights backlit his flowing mane of silver hair into a halo effect while the camera pulls back and back and back to show us Spaceship Earth spinning sustainably onward into Time and Space.
The play is Jacobs’ retrieval for himself, and happily for his audiences, of the epiphany he experienced in 1968 when he first heard Fuller speak. The play takes the form of a lecture, but it expands from a recreation of remembered verismilitude into an energizing two hours of theatrical razzle-dazzle. Smoke and mirrors, song and dance, scenic projections and vaudeville turns, plus a sound design that underscores and comments with equal lightheartedness. And standing at the center of a blue swirl circle under an homage dome, is actor Ron Campbell, delivering an audacious and astounding performance that is as iconic as Yul Brynner’s King of Siam or Olivier’s Richard the Third. Within 90 seconds, and without speaking, Campbell owns the audience. His admirable skills as a clown and mime combine with his careful observation of archival footage of Fuller’s mannerisms to create a quirky, angular, joyful, contemplative. expansive fleshed-out physical characterization that he augments with an artfully shaped patrician voice and halting speech to create what is, simply and only, Bucky. As Fuller turns over ideas that expand our thinking, Campbell turns himself into the Bucky we all want to be, giving a transformational performance that is a lesson for young actors and a joy for audiences of all ages.
The play begins with an illustrated narrative of Bucky’s early years that propels the first half hour, and then it unfolds a sequence of ideas that Fuller explored over the decades. Each is fascinating – architecture, spirituality, political economics, environmental sustainability -- and the progression from one to the next is seamless in Jacobs’ script, though it is hard to know which Fuller thought most important, hard to locate which Jacobs values most. Jacobs is impressive as writer/director in the way the performance moves from bright entertainment to challenging thought to deep introspection. The audience interrupts with laughter and applause without ever ceasing to listen with intense focus. Jacobs achieves a theatrical structure that holds the audience through two long acts as Bucky raises question after question, though I found myself wondering if a dramatic structure under the theatrical skin might give his play more propulsion. Bucky tells us that he wants to search for the truth about … everything, yet I wondered if some ideas might be saved for a sequel. Can an audience absorb this much? Are we, like the Emperor in Amadeus, prone to say to this polymath, “Too many notes, Mr. Mozart.”
Jacobs is the auteur of this event. He wrote the script, guided his team of imaginative designers – David Lee Cuthbert (Scenery and Lighting), Darla Cash (Costumes), Luis Perez Ixonizetli (Sound), and Jim Findlay (Projections) – and directed his actor. Jacobs’ vision governs the evening in what German composer Richard Wagner called gesamtkunstwerk, the synthesizing of the visual, auditory, and literary arts into a single and universal experience. Such a work can only be achieved in an environment that nurtures adventurous creativity, and the REP, from its inception forty years ago to its current moment under the big-hearted producing hand of Sam Woodhouse, is just that. As its mission statement in the printed program reminds us, “the San Diego Repertory Theatre feeds the curious soul.” THE HISTORY (and Mystery) OF THE UNIVERSE is a nurturing feast for the soul and a gratifying evening in the theatre.
Curious Clips: Excerpts from The Curious REPort
Friday, March 11th
THE VISIONS OF R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER
Fuller’s schemes often had the hallucinatory quality associated with science fiction (or mental hospitals.) It concerned him not in the least that things had always been done a certain way in the past. In addition to flying cars, he imagined mass-produced bathrooms that could be installed like refrigerators; underwater settlements that would be restocked by submarines; and
floating communities that, along with all their inhabitants, would hover among the clouds. Most famously, he dreamed up the geodesic dome. “If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver,” Fuller once wrote. “But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings.” Fuller may have spent his life inventing things, but he claimed that he was not particularly interested in inventions. He called himself a “comprehensive, anticipatory design scientist”—a “comprehensivist,” for short—and believed that his task was to innovate in such a way as to benefit the greatest number of people using the least amount of resources. “My objective was humanity’s comprehensive success in the universe” is how he once put it.
Richard Buckminster Fuller, Jr.—Bucky, to his friends—was born on July 12, 1895, into one of New England’s most venerable and, at the same time, most freethinking families. Like all Fuller men, he was sent off to Harvard. Halfway through his freshman year, he withdrew his tuition money from the bank to entertain some chorus girls in Manhattan. He was expelled. The following fall, he was reinstated, only to be thrown out again. Fuller never did graduate from Harvard, or any other school. He took a job with a meatpacking firm, then joined the Navy, where he invented a winch-like device for rescuing pilots of the service’s primitive airplanes. (The pilots often ended up head down, under water.)
During the First World War, Fuller married Anne Hewlett, the daughter of a prominent architect, and when the war was over he started a business with his father-in-law,
manufacturing bricks out of wood shavings. Despite the general prosperity of the period, the company struggled and, in 1927, nearly bankrupt, it was bought out. At just about the same time, Anne gave birth to a daughter. With no job and a new baby to support, Fuller became depressed. One day, he was walking by Lake Michigan, thinking about, in his words, “Buckminster Fuller—life or death,” when he found himself suspended several feet above the ground, surrounded by sparkling light. Time seemed to stand still, and a voice spoke to him. “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself,” it said. “You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe.” (In Fuller’s idiosyncratic English, “universe” is capitalized and never preceded by the definite article.) It was at this point, according to Fuller, that he decided to embark on his “lifelong experiment.” The experiment’s aim was nothing less than determining “what, if anything,” an individual could do “on behalf of all humanity.” For this study, Fuller would serve both as the researcher and as the object of inquiry. (He referred to himself as Guinea Pig B, the “B” apparently being for Bucky.) Fuller moved his wife and daughter into a tiny studio in Chicago and, instead of finding a job, took to spending his days in the library, reading Gandhi and Leonardo. He began to record his own ideas, which soon filled 2,000 pages. In 1928, he edited the manuscript down to fifty pages, and had it published in a booklet called “4D Time Lock,” which he sent out to, among others, Vincent Astor, Bertrand Russell, and Henry Ford.
Fuller was fond of neologisms. He coined the word “livingry,” as the opposite of “weaponry”—which he called “killingry”—and popularized the term “Spaceship Earth.” (He claimed to have invented “debunk,” but probably did not.) Fuller’s favorite neologism, “dymaxion,” was concocted purely for public relations. When Marshall Field’s displayed his model house, it wanted a catchy label, so it hired a consultant, who fashioned “dymaxion” out of bits of “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “ion.” Fuller was so taken with the word, which had no known meaning, that he adopted it as a sort of brand name.
As the fame of his geodesic dome—and domes themselves—spread, Fuller was in near-constant demand as a speaker. Castro-like, Fuller could lecture for ten hours at a stretch. (A friend of mine who took an architecture course from Fuller at Yale recalls that classes lasted from nine o’clock in the morning until five in the evening, and that Fuller talked basically the entire time.) Audiences were enraptured and also, it seems, mystified. “It was great! What did he say?” became the standard joke. The first “Whole Earth Catalog,” which was dedicated to Fuller, noted that his language “makes demands on your head like suddenly discovering an extra engine in your car.”
On the one hand, Fuller insisted that all the world’s problems—from hunger and illiteracy to war—could be solved by technology. “You may want to ask me how we are going to resolve the ever-accelerating dangerous impasse of world-opposed politicians and ideological dogmas,” he observed at one point. “I answer, it will be resolved by the computer.” On the other hand, he rejected fundamental tenets of modern science, most notably evolution. “We arrived from elsewhere in Universe as complete human beings,” he maintained. He further insisted that humans had spread not from Africa but from Polynesia, and that dolphins were descended from these early, seafaring earthlings.
In the late seventies, Fuller took up with Werner Erhard, the controversial founder of the equally controversial est movement, and the pair set off on a speaking tour across America. Fuller championed, and for many years adhered to, a dietary regimen that consisted exclusively of prunes, tea, steak, and Jell-O.
The Dymaxion Vehicle, the Dymaxion House, “comprehensive, anticipatory design,” Synergetic Geometry, floating cities, Jell-O—what does it all add up to? K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller have put together a book of essays, articles, and photographs—“Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe.” In their introduction, Hays and Miller maintain that Fuller helped “us see the perils and possibilities” of the twentieth century. They stress his “continuing relevance as an aid to history,” though exactly what they mean by this seems purposefully unclear.
The fact that so few of Fuller’s ideas were ever realized certainly makes it hard to argue for his importance as an inventor. Even his most successful creation, the geodesic dome, proved to be a dud. Among the domes that leaked were Fuller’s own home in Carbondale and the structure atop the Ford Rotunda. (When workmen were sent to try to re-seal the Rotunda’s dome, they ended up burning down the entire building.)
Fuller’s impact as a social theorist is equally ambiguous. He insisted that the future could be radically different from the past, that humanity was capable of finding solutions to the most intractable-seeming problems, and that the only thing standing in the way was the tendency to cling to old “piano tops.” But Fuller was also deeply pessimistic about people’s capacity for change, which was why, he said, he had become an inventor in the first place. “I made up my mind that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult,” he told an interviewer for this magazine in 1966. “What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.” Fuller’s writings and speeches are filled with this sort of tension, or, if you prefer, contradiction. He was a material determinist who believed in radical autonomy, an individualist who extolled mass production, and an environmentalist who wanted to dome over the Arctic.
In the end, Fuller’s greatest accomplishment may consist not in any particular idea or artifact, but in the whole unlikely experiment that was Guinea Pig B. Instead of destroying himself, Fuller listened to Universe. He spent the next fifty years in a headlong, ceaseless act of self-assertion, one that took so many forms that, twenty-five years after his death, we are still trying to sort it all out.
Excerpts from The New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert, June 9, 2008
R. Buckminster Fuller: THE HISTORY (and Mystery) OF THE UNIVERSE
Out of Town Review Roundup
Check out what critics from previous productions have had to say about The REP's most globally acclaimed homegrown show!
The LA Times:
"a tour-de-force recreation of a Fuller talk"
Read the full review from the original 2000 production HERE.
San Francisco Examiner:
"Startlingly funny...intellectually stimulating...genuinely moving"
"Fervent, funny, heart-wrenchingly poignant and impeccably detailed performance."
"an unusual mixture of personal passion and intellectual rigor."
Read the full review of the 2001 production HERE
"A high voltage performance"
Read the full review of the Seattle production HERE
"Flawless delivery and startling vigor and panache...this remains an engaging and invigorating evening of theatrical mind candy."
Read the full review of the Chicago production HERE
"A roller coaster for the brain"
"Compelling and evocative performance"
WBBM Radio Chicago:
"A supernova of a hit, and its star, Ron Campbell a solar system of energy."