SITI Company’s Ellen Lauren and J. Ed Araiza Bring Rigor and California’s Great Depression to A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Vanessa Cate
“What we’ve done at SITI Company,” reflected actor J. Ed Araiza on a recent afternoon in Westwood, “[is] we train. We train before every rehearsal, we train before every performance, and it gets harder as you get older, but we still do that. And that’s the crux of what we’re doing here now.”
The “here” is University of California Los Angeles, where Araiza is currently in his third year as the head of the MFA acting program at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT). The “what” is rehearsing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is being directed by Ellen Lauren, Araiza’s fellow company member and the co-artistic director of SITI Company, the renowned New York-based collective of theater artists.
With SITI, however, there is also always a “how” — namely an approach to acting that incorporates the Suzuki method, the system invented by Japanese theater director Tadashi Suzuki and his company SCOT, that blends traditional forms with that of modern theater to empower the actor’s body and voice, and Viewpoints, a way of thinking and acting upon movement and gesture developed in the 1970s by choreographer Mary Overlie.
Though perhaps best known as the home company of the acclaimed stage auteur Anne Bogart, Lauren and Araiza have been with SITI from the get-go, travelling the globe, performing works and teaching new generations SITI’s rigorous physical approach to training.
Now their paths converge again. Araiza has enlisted his longtime colleague to direct his graduate students in their final student performance — this weekend’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“Midsummer is so crazy,” Lauren said, explaining her choice. “You can throw anything at that play. You’re not going to break it; you’re not going to hurt it. It’s like this big play about opposites. … I always feel that Midsummer is relevant. And not because we all need to disappear into a fantasy for a couple of hours. But because it talks about all of these fractious things. Everyone’s all upset in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You know, I mean they’re really honestly upset and all the worlds are at war with one another.”
This version, she added, which will feature second- and third-year MFA graduate acting students from the UCLA TFT Department of Theater, is set in Depression Era California, a time when thousands migrated from the hardship of the Dust Bowl states to find a new life.
“I wanted to do something that was very specific to being an American,” she explained. “And because I was coming to L.A. — I mean, come on, it’s L.A. right? Half of it is built on an industry that deals in fantasy and human imagination. … But overall it’s just a decision where to set it, to give them an opportunity to have these distinct worlds. So I thought, well, the royals, which in Shakespeare’s play is Theseus and Hippolyta, I thought well good, those will be the studio heads. And the lovers are all these sort of contract players that run away. And the fairies sort of harken to a time prior to the talkies. There’s a little bit more strangeness about them. Titania and Oberon. And for me the fairies are like the artists, the tempestuous young Orson Welles, that young Gloria Swanson, where they were really inventing the form. And they were mad.”
On the look of the play, Araiza said that the production hews to the highest standards of contemporary stage design: “They’re student designers, but the MFA Design program is phenomenal. They have a portfolio showing at the beginning of the quarter, and I always take my students and I go, ‘Do you see the level of their artistry and their drawings and their research that they’re doing? Are we working at that level?’ Because they’re really terrific and the design program is extraordinary.”
“I wanted an opportunity for the design students to enjoy their process outside of an era of postmodernism,” Lauren offered. “Everybody knows what German chic looks like. You know, half my career has been performing on German chic. And I wanted something different, I wanted it to be a little rougher and I really wanted that signature of a very American sound in a sense that we’re a melting pot. And it’s a diverse cast.”
In a sense, Lauren’s production is merely the most recent — and the most public —artistic reverberation stemming from a fundamental shakeup to UCLA TFT’s approach to stage training that occurred three years ago. According to Araiza, the school decided to break with the old paradigm of the Americanized version of Stanislavskian naturalism — the so-called “Method” —that was pioneered by director Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre at the beginning of the 20th century and that continues to dominate university theater departments in the US.
“[TFT] wanted to go more towards an interdisciplinary, creative, ensemble-based form of making and teaching theater,” he recalled. “I think the difference between what we’re doing at UCLA now and most traditional American theater training programs — not all, but the majority — is a sense of real discipline and rigor, and something you can do every day.”
Rather than the century-old Stanislavski system, which was tailored to the work of Russian masters the likes of Anton Chekhov, Araiza and Lauren teach a methodology perfected at SITI that incorporates elements from both the Suzuki approach and Bogart’s own adaptation of Viewpoints, the movement vocabulary devised by Mary Overlie for dancers.
“They are very symbiotic, but they’re not mixed,” Lauren emphasized.“They are a very rigorous classical training wrapped up in a big postmodern bow. We have an acting system now in this country … where when an actor says words, the words explain the situation. It explains why the body is the way the body is, or the story. Actually, in life it’s the other way around. The body situation, the words are coming out of a body that’s already in a circumstance, already in a state.”
When asked about the challenge of fitting together so many different elements into the production, Lauren explains, “It’s a big piece. We’re throwing so much at them. … And so the training is critical to be able to even come close to getting a play the size of Midsummer staged and get it in their bodies and get their voices and their breathing in shape. You can’t even come close to that with the time that’s allotted unless you have training, I think, shared experience through training.”
Despite all the different aspects of the show, Lauren said she’s not so concerned about making them a seamless fit. “It’s a vehicle though for experience and as I said, if it helps — and it’s my intention to help — have a communal experience between the audience and the actors, ultimately. … It is a way for an audience to contact something otherworldly, and to contact the stage in a different way, so that the circle between the performers and the audience is intentionally meant to be completed.”
“It’s a collaborative sport, theater,” she mused. “It is a collaborative art form and field and depends on the health and wellbeing of how we treat one another in it. And it matters. It really, really matters. Particularly now because young artists more than ever need to make their own work. You just have to make it yourself now. You can’t wait. It isn’t out there anymore. So you have to do it yourself, you have to find your people, you have to find your space, and you know work laterally. This is necessary if you love the form and want to be part of it, because it’s hard, more so than ever before.”
Ultimately, Lauren added, “I hope it’s fun.”
A Midsummer Nights Dream plays at UCLA’s Little Theater, 245 Charles E. Young Drive East, Westwood; Fri.-Sat., March 4-5 and 8-12, 8 p.m.; Sat. March 12 at 2 pm. (310) 825-2101 or visit www.tft.ucla.edu/theatertickets