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MEETINGS 2009


INTG 308th Meeting - Tuesday, January 13th 2009

"Treading the boards" a talk by Stephan Turner

Present: Anne Dawson, Peter Dawson, Celeste Tolibas-Holland, Mike & Rose Dean, Carol Beauclerk, Carol & Bob Stratton, Barbara Tyrell, Dianne & Mark Barber-Riley, June Hulley, Ralph Kramer, David James and Thai friend, Thomas Ohlson, Alain Mounier, Jintana Mounier, John Davies. An audience of 19.   

Stephan's summary of his talk:

(Your convenor writes: Without any preamble or introduction, Stephan placed a table in front of the audience, sat on it, took a few moments to get into character and then launched into this monologue. You had to be there to fully appreciate the effect of his performance.)

"I told you!................. A man lives alone in a room by himself he gets sick in the head……I promised my daughter, my Marie. I promised her. She put her head on my shoulder…Papa, I love you but I'm not going to let you hurt me like you did to mama. Madelyn, my wife…. So beautiful, so happy when we got married…she cried. And I cried….She fixed the rooms do beautiful….Paint, paper, curtains on every window, covers on the bed, beautiful embroidery….Everything herself! She makes her own clothes…dishware dowry, beautiful, fancy with flowers. She paid every week, and every morning, she'd give me breakfast on the fancy dishes and kiss me good by….I'd go to my machine…I don't walk, I fly! But she warns me….You, don't you drink. You know how it is with you! One is two, two is three, three is four, and four is drunk…. She's right… She's right…..I come straight home from work. I don't even stop to cash my check, 'cause I know how it is with me.

"Then come lay-offs at the foundry. No work scares her…I should stay home…Be nice. But when I get up in the morning and I don't go to my machine the whole day is not right. I'm like a tub in the middle of the ocean with no rudder…I'm the only man in that whole foundry who knows that machine….I can cut to within two thousandth of an inch. The foreman says he don't know how I do it….Without my machine I'm nobody….So I go to the tavern….One is two, two is three…three is four…and four is drunk.

"I crawl back to the house like an animal… I look up. On my windows…there are no curtains. She tore 'em up!....Then the foundry goes on strike….Madelyn don't know about strikes….Company sends letters, foreman calls on the telephone….news papers raise hell…She was scared…."You lose your job, no money, how we going to live?"…. I should stay home, talk with her, be nice….But I'm on the picket line,…I got a thermos bottle in my pocket….only…it ain't coffee…. The fellas carry me back to the tavern to sleep it off…..I promise, on the wagon. Cross my heart! I promise Madelyn, I promise the priest….I promise the doctor… Watch out he tells me. You got a nervous woman there! You're gonna have serious trouble!..…I promise him! I promise everybody….And I know she needs me at home……but…I can't talk to her….I got to talk to somebody!...I don't have the machine,….I don't have the vibration…. My hands need to feel the vibration and then I'm alright….I know what I am!.......Sooo, one is two, two is three, three is four, and four is drunk!

"Then they shut the foundry down for good. No more machine for me! ….Not today…or tomorrow….or tomorrow! Never!...... Never again….finished….Nice tables and chairs repossessed. Bills, credit company, court, welfare….And I see she's getting very sick. Crying all the time…..crying!  Now, I got a sick woman on my hands,…crying all the time!......First, I'm a janitor temporary…..Then I drive a truck nights, Saturday, Sunday, eighty, ninety hours a week…..Scrape boats in dry dock down by the river, lay cement….wash cars….tell everybody, hey….you got a machine job for me?.....Not today, not tomorrow….never,….never again….Give up back to the tavern….Every day drunk!

I go home, and Madelyn is standing by the door….She's got a bread knife in her hand…She says she's the Virgin Mary….Never let me touch her.  Police come and take her to the loony house. They come for Marie in a taxi A.S.P.C. Foster home…….

All alone...I know it's my fault…my fault. I didn't keep my promise so the hell with it!....Work long hours no union, small pay….every night in tavern…drunk.

"Then…my old foreman got me a job in the foundry across the street...only I got to climb up high….and I'm all shaky inside. I put my thermos bottle in my coveralls and I'm okay….I am with machines again, good….feels good.

"But in the empty rooms I'm lonesome….I try to see Madelyn over to the loony house…  "Go home get out! She don't want to see you." …..She gets violent. ….I try to see Marie over at the foster home "Get out, she don't want to see you! I'll take you before the judge!" All alone….Four wall…empty rooms…..ALL ALONE!......  I've got to have somebody…Somebody to talk to. …to come home to….somebody to give me back my self respect…..

"Then the sun shines…..Marie, my baby is seventeen years old. ……I send her a nice birthday card……….And……….she called me…….on the telephone……….She says she's so happy to hear from me….made me cry….. She says she's driving in every week to see her mama……..I told her "You come to see your mama…you come to see me too. Okay?"....."Okay papa. But remember, I love you but I'm not going to let you hurt me the way you did momma."  I won't, I promise…..I promise!.... I sinned against Madelyn….I put her in the state loony house….My own fault! I promise….as god is my judge! Not one drink when she comes to see me……..or she never comes again……That's why,…

I want to see her….I've got to see her……. Got to have somebody…..or…. what's….. the use?....Or what? ………Or what?.........Or what?........."

Good evening.

My name is Stephan Turner. I'm a stage actor, director, scenic artist, lighting designer, and producer. I was born in Gary Indiana in May of 1956, and like my father before me, I've been working in the theater for many years. I'm the former Artistic Director of Stage Actor's Ensemble of Chicago and Founder of The Performance Loft Theater, also in Chicago and now, the Artistic Director of The Gate Theater here in Chiang Mai.  I'm also an English teacher at a well known academy here in Chiang Mai.

I left the U.S. in search of a quieter lifestyle, to get away from the cliquish rat race of the theater industry in New York and Chicago and to settle down in a more peaceful environment. Chiang Mai had everything I was looking for. However, after two years of living in Chiang Mai it became apparent to me that the only thing missing from this great old city was an outlet for live stage drama. I very much wanted to be part of an artistic endeavor that would allow me to use my theater background. But there was nothing available for me to join. For that reason I enlisted the help of four other English teachers, and started a theater group in Chiang Mai called The Gate. We've taken up the challenge of bringing English Language Theater to a city where there was none.

In the beginning people said it couldn't be done, that I was wasting my time, I'd be arrested for working illegally, that there weren't enough people who would support English Language Theater in Chiang Mai. As it turned out, finding a suitable venue was the most difficult problem we faced starting out and after that finding the actors. But when I got the opportunity to meet Mr. John Gunther, Director of the AUA Language Center, things started to fall into place. John is very interested in the arts and even has experience as a theater technician, so he was very sympathetic to our cause and agreed to let us rent the AUA auditorium for our first production, The Dodo Bird, which was an outstanding success.

I've sort of gotten into talking about more recent activities so let me backup a bit and talk about my father who is most responsible for me standing before here this evening.

My father was my first reference point for acting and the theater. At the age of 82, he's still a prolific playwright, producer, and performer. I grew up seeing him on television in walk-on roles on shows like The Lucy Show, The Odd Couple, Mission Impossible, and Sanford and Son. He also had roles in a few well known feature films like M.A.S.H, The Long Goodbye, Watermelon Man, and Party Animal, to name but a few. Even though he never quite gained Hollywood star status, he planted a seed within me which convinced me that I could do something out of the ordinary with my life.

After spending a few years as a laborer, a mason's helper and a crane operator in one of the biggest steel mills in the country I decided that I needed to improve my station in life so I went back to school. Not really knowing what I wanted to study, I went to the local extension of Indiana University. This was the mid 70s and one of the first people I met there was Thomas C. Mazur who was, at that time, the head of the technical theater department. After talking with him and taking part in a scene painting project back stage, I knew that I'd found something that I could do. I remained at I.U. for three years before dropping out and heading back to the steel mills for lack of money. But Tom Mazur had great influence in shaping the way I view and approach my work in the theater, especially working behind the scenes.

In the late 70s, while working the swing shift at Inland Steel Co. I co-founded a community theater company in Gary, Indiana with my former high school drama teacher, Al Boswell, a larger than life personality who has also had a great deal of influence on the way I deal with the subject of directing for the stage.
In 1983, still not satisfied with what I'd been able to accomplish without a degree, I decided to follow in my father's footsteps and auditioned for the acting program at the world famous Goodman School of Drama in Chicago. Founded in 1925, it is now known as The Theater School of DePaul University, and is ranked as one of the top theatrical training programs in the country. Being accepted into the acting program at The Goodman and then making it through the four year program was quite a challenge for me. Not only did I have to audition to get in, but I had to perform to a certain standard in order to be asked back each year. Being asked back wasn't based specifically on grades but more so on talent and the ability to perform to the highest standard year after year.

 After earning my BFA in acting in 1987, I formed Stage Actors Ensemble of Chicago. Starting with practically nothing, I took my acting company on the road and was able to raise enough money to build my own theater, The Performance Loft, and successfully produce major works by some of the world's best known writers, while winning a good deal of acclaim for my efforts. Four years later we built the Performance Loft Theater on the North Side of Chicago, where I produced and directed plays of all kinds until 1991, when I decided to start traveling the world.

So, I'm a bit out of things to say at this point. I guess I should have stuck to the outline that Brian published.

I can take a few questions

What important lessons did you learn from your theater education?

Well some of the lessons that come to mind are…Discipline. I learned a way of working. A process which helps me find within myself that which connects me to my work…. And that acting is a taking off process, not a process of putting on.  ….I learned the importance of commitment to the words I speak and the actions I'm a part of on stage….And I learned how important it is to be on time. I learned an appreciation for Shakespeare and understood the importance of his work to the contemporary theater and television of today.

Why did you choose the plays that you've staged so far, and do you think they interest the local Thai population?

Though I am constantly trying to think of ways to get the Thai community into the theater to take part in our productions and see our work, I never expected a large Thai turnout. The numbers of English speaking Thais, who are interested in English Language Theater, and who know that we are here, is just not great enough at this time to expect support in large numbers. Our target audiences are the expat community, tourists, and Thais who are fluent enough in English to follow the story as it develops.

I've tried to choose plays with small casts and uncomplicated sets. The Dodo Bird was such a play. However, being our first production, it was extremely hard to mount. It took one year to finally bring it to the stage. There were plenty of doubts being cast our way by some in the expat community centering on the fact that as foreigners, we are not supposed to engage in any endeavor that could be mistaken for work. There were starts and stops and parts were cast and recast. At times, I thought it might not happen.

It's set in a bar, there are four characters. The only props are the bar, bottles, tables and chairs. It's an intense one act drama which explores what it means to live on the fringe of society, to be a man who failed to achieve the universal dream of being able to sustain himself and his family and ceased to live by the culture's standards. The Dodo Bird represents those we often choose not to see: the guy with glazed eyes walking down the street talking to himself, carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag, maybe asking for change. All these Dodo Birds came from someplace, had parents once, maybe their own family, maybe a job. The story of how this particular human being reached this point of desperation is the essence of human drama and interests me a lot.

I chose The Gin Game as our second production because it's an excellent play. It won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama in 1978 with over 500 performances on Broadway. It's garnered four Tony Awards and has had productions in numerous countries around the world including France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Japan, South Africa, as well as Australia, and China. This says to me that the play has mass appeal and should also be a success here in Chiang Mai. 
The play is set in one location, a shabby retirement home, and there are only two characters. This eliminates a lot of logistical problems that come with trying to produce theater on a shoestring budget.
The script touches on loneliness, family members who never visit, the way a lifetime looks to someone approaching the end of it, and on the bitter fact that old people often have to spend everything they have, even selling their houses, in order to pay for the care they need - care that's deeply resented, even when indispensable. Again, it's human drama which moves me. It's very interesting to act and to watch stories that are so closely connected to real life situations. I can see something of myself in every character I ever portrayed or directed on stage and that is what makes the work personal for me.

I chose Strange Snow and The Eight Reindeer Monologues for basically the same reasons. They are relatively easy to produce, have small casts, little or no scenery and in my opinion, have something important to say about the human condition, which in itself, is drama. 

Why have you chosen a different venue for your production?

The AUA Language School auditorium is a great venue and we appreciate the support we got from John Gunther, and the rest of the staff. It is unfortunate for us that AUA has a very busy schedule during just about every month of the year. So, it's extremely difficult to schedule a five to six weekend run of a play.
I think the studio theater at Central Kad Suan Kaew shopping mall will be better suited to our needs and will allow us to increase the scope and vary our style of productions in many ways which are not possible in the auditorium at AUA.

We've sort of set up home at the Kad Studio. The set from Strange Snow is still standing and we closed over a month ago. That would not have been possible at AUA or any other venue that I'm aware of in this city. This makes it possible for us to walk back into the theater and pick up where we left off. That is a wonderful situation to be in.

What other plays are you planning to stage this year's season?

We will start with a re-staging of Strange Snow by Stephen Metcalfe the first week in April. It was such a wonderful show and many people who missed it are asking for the opportunity to see it. In addition, we have plans to produce three new plays per year. I'm still in the process of planning the season,  but on my desk at home are A View From The Bridge by Arthur Miller, The Odd Couple by Neal Simon, The Homecoming by Harold Pinter, Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, Ladies in Waiting, Peter DeAnda and The Amen Corner by James Baldwin.. The Eight Reindeer Monologues, by Jeff Goode will probably be back for Christmas.

Have you had trouble finding actors for your productions?

Since the success of The Dodo Bird, we've been fortunate enough to have people email us or come up after a performance and ask if they can be part of the group or want to help out in some way. I knew this would be the case because that's the power of theater. It has the ability to bring people together around a common interest.

What do you think makes a good or great actor? Can a person be trained to be a great actor?

Great acting is difficult to define but when you see it you know it immediately. Yes. I think certain people can be trained to be great actors, but not just anyone. Some people have greater access to their feelings than others and are more courageous in that they are not afraid to access those feeling in front of a room full of people. As a good friend once told me, "Bearing your soul to people is not an easy thing to do, especially in front of strangers."

What do you think makes an actor great?

In my opinion it is empathy and discipline that makes a great actor great. The ability to put one's self in another person's place in time. To be able to honestly interpret life in that moment, in all of its humor or pain or anything in between, without loosing self control. It is also life experience. If you have not lived for a certain amount of years there's not much honesty to draw characters from. In this case actors need to rely on research, personal attention from the director, and a good amount of sense memory. The monologue I began this evening with is a slice of life experience from a play called "The Dodo Bird" by Emanuel Fried. Having worked in the steel mills of Northwest Indiana for a number of years, I have seen first hand the effect heavy labor, hazardous working conditions, and mechanization can have on an individual's health and spirit.

How does a great actor become a star?

All other things being equal, the two key factors that make the difference between a great actor and a Broadway/Hollywood star are luck and charisma.

Is there a role that you haven't yet played that would be the ultimate one in your career?

Othello.    

At the end of an informative and entertaining evening that had included moments of pathos, humour, and much in between, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Stephan in even more informal conversation over drinks and snacks.

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