The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca

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The Ithaca Times - Sep 29, '10: The Next Stage

The Next Stage: With the regional premiere of 'Orange Flower Water,' the Actor's Workshop of Ithaca launches its new theater company

By Jim Catalano

Katie Spallone and Eliza Van Cort play the female leads in "Orange Flower Water," at Risley Theatre Oct. 1-2, 8-9. (Photo by Rachel Philipson)

The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca, which for several years has focused on teaching its students the famed Meisner Technique of "living truthfully under imaginary circumstance," is branching out. With the regional premiere of "Orange Flower Water" over the next two weekends at Risley Theatre, the Actor's Workshop is launching a full-fledged theater company that will present a full season of shows.

The show also marks the return to the stage of Eliza Van Cort, the Actor's Workshop of Ithaca's founder and leading instructor, as well as Katie Spallone, who also became one of the school's instructors after completing its curriculum of Meisner Technique courses.

A LOVE QUADRANGLE

Written by Craig Wright of "Six Feet Under" fame, "Orange Flower Water" features a cast of Van Cort, Spallone, Lance Milne and Jonathan Meyoroff under the direction of Amina Omari.

Van Cort chose the play because she wanted to kick off the new company's first season with a strong show.

"This play is really unique," she said. "It pulls no punches. The actors never leave the stage from the moment they step on the stage until curtain call and Wright never plays it safe with the material.  

"But maybe more importantly,  a lot of our students have said for years  they wanted to see me and Katie on stage together.  So Katie and I just decided to take the plunge and do this challenging play together.  And the touching thing is we have students traveling from literally all over the country to come see us in it."

Spallone added, "I actually thought it was a bit tame until I started to really dig into the text and realized that there was a whole heck of a lot going on. Eliza and I had been trying to find a play the two of us could work on for ages; I had always wanted to do a relationship drama, so I became a bit obsessed and starting reading the play over and over to glean what I could from the text.

"The language is a bit stilted in places, but in retrospect, Wright has written a very character-driven piece, so the text made sense to me after I looked at it from the character's point of view, not the reader's point of view."

Milne said he was "blown away" when he first read the play. "I had such a strong emotional response to it - and normally I read a script pretty objectively - I found myself fighting for/rooting against certain characters, and aspects of the characters," he said. "The voices and emotional lives of the characters are very real and appealing to me. I can really identify with the humanity in each of them."

The set for "Orange Flower Water" is simple, comprising just a bed and four chairs. "Only four people - two married couples - are involved in this world, and they stay on stage to see everything that happens," Omari explained. "The tension of their watching propels the play."

Omari, who had taken classes with Van Cort and Spallone at the Actor's Workshop, initially felt a bit apprehensive about the project. "I apprenticed with Eliza for two years, and she's always been a mentor to me," she said. "I was actually quite nervous when I started directing her - but it's been so rewarding, "Her teacher's mind makes her an really rewarding actor to work with, and she's amazing in this role."

Local banjo player Richie Stearns, a founding member of the Horse Flies, will be doing the music for the show. Stearns reached into his vast repertoire for a solo banjo piece that he uses a baseline for improvising transitions between scenes.

"I love these projects, it's exactly what I want to do these days: put music to movies or plays," he said after a recent rehearsal. "I've never done a play before. It wasn't I saw 'The Grapes of Wrath' a couple of years back when I realized I really like to do a play sometime."

Van Cort chose the play because she wanted to kick off the new company's first season with a strong show.

"This play is really unique," she said. "It pulls no punches. The actors never leave the stage from the moment they step on the stage until curtain call and Wright never plays it safe with the material.  

"But maybe more importantly,  a lot of our students have said for years  they wanted to see me and Katie onstage together.  So Katie and I just decided to take the plunge and do this challenging play together.  And the touching thing is we have students traveling from literally all over the country to come see us in it."

There will be four performances of "Orange Flower Water," at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Oct. 1-2 and 8-9, in the Risley Black Box Theatre at Cornell University. Due to mature themes, no one under 18 will be admitted to the play. Tickets are $15 ($10 for students and seniors) and are available at Ticket Center Ithaca (171 E. State St./The Commons), by calling (607) 273-4497 or online at www.tickets.com. Visit www.actorsworkshop.biz or call (607) 339-9999 for more information.

A NEW COMPANY

"Orange Flower Water" marks the official launch of the Actors's Workshop of Ithaca Theatre Company, which will produce six more shows in the coming year. Up next is "My Name is Rachel Corrie" (Jan. 13-15), followed by Caryl Churchill's "Far Away" (Jan. 21-22), Jeff Goode's "Poonah the F*ckdog" (and other Plays for Children)" (March 24-26), John Patrick Shanley's "Four Dogs and a Bone" (June 2-4), "Original and Contemporary Monologues" (July 29-30) and "The Jewish Wife (and Other One-Acts)" (Aug. 5-6).

Van Cort was encouraged by the success of the Actor's Workshop's production of "Dog Sees God" earlier this year. But she said her motivation for starting the new company was two-fold.

"Firstly, after teaching for ten years the Workshop has created a pool of a lot of great actors who are acting all over town," she said. "It struck us that we know these actors really well and it would be a blast to work with them and I know a lot of them are doing things all over town and always looking for more to do.  So now they can do some of there performing with us!  

"And for me personally, the second reason is that I worry people just aren't going to the theater that way they used to," she continued.  I'm talking most specifically about people who grew up on TV.  When I looked around 'Dog Sees God' I saw people of all ages and that was so incredibly inspiring.  I decided I really wanted to do theater that was accessible to non-theatergoers and theater goers alike.  It's a fantasy of mine to get people of all stripes turned on to theater.  

"Of course, this first show can't completely accomplish that goal b/c no one under 18 can attend.  But future shows will definitely draw a younger crowd.  'Poonah the F**ckdog (and other plays for children)' is known to be a huge crowd pleaser, particularly among people in their twenties. Drawing 20-year-olds into the theater who live and die by Blackberries and Facebook would be amazing."

Van Cort said the Company will complement the Actor's Workshop itself "The mission of the Workshop is and always will be to provide affordable, NYC-caliber acting training to people right here in Ithaca," she said. That won't change. Teaching is my passion and if for some horrible reason this season compromised our student's experience in any way, the theater company would go. But I really believe this will be a boon to our students because they will have a place to train and now a place to apply their training in a place they really like with directors they know.  

"It will also give them a chance to work with some really seasoned actors because many of our grads who are doing great things in New York City have said they would love to come up to Ithaca to do a show once in a while.  So our students will be able to work side by side with professional actors."

Van Cort lists two major goals for the theater company. "One, to have a few of our shows in future seasons have larger casts every season so we can take advantage of all the talent we have at our disposal.  The shows this year have smaller casts simply because we wanted to make sure the caliber is consistently excellent and the larger the cast, the more pre- and post production work, the more room for error.  So this years shows will be smaller than many of those in the future if all goes as planned.

"Secondly, we hope to pull people into the theater who might otherwise be home in front of their TV," she continued. "I love the communal experience of the theater and hope to have seasons people who aren't regular theatergoers are inspired to attend.  This, of course, means we'll have to continue to go off the standard theatrical grid a bit.  But as my friend said, I guess we're not your mama's theater company."

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