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Solving A Problem

March 12, 2010

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I'm often impressed with the way artists work to solve problems in a creative way. At a preview performance of Mark Jackson's eight-actor adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at San Francisco State University last night, the ensemble's approach to overcoming a serious issue was gratifying both from an artistic and institutional perspective.

A few weeks into rehearsal, one of the cast members, all of whom play Juliet in Jackson's unusual interpretation of Shakespeare's play, suffered a pinched nerve in her back. The director didn't want to remove the actor - Arisa Bega - from the show as he felt she was talented and hardworking. So he and the actors devised a way to keep Bega involved.

Jackson was inspired to come up with a solution based on an experience he once had at an opera performance in Germany. A principle performer was out sick and the understudy was stuck in an airport in another city. So the opera drafted in the assistant director to perform the character's moves on stage. Meanwhile, a singer, standing to the side of the stage with the score on a music stand, sang the role. Jackson thought this enhanced his experience of the opera, so he decided to try something similar at SF State.

Bega sat or lay down to the side of the stage throughout the performance on a foam pad. She spoke her assigned lines and used her face and upper body. The production's assistant director, Allison Combs, performed the rest of Bega's physical movements on stage.

Besides feeling a twinge of sorrow for Bega, who clearly wanted to be moving around in the middle of the stage with her fellow cast members in this heavily movement-oriented production, I thought the solution worked very well and didn't detract from the action. Jackson's conception of the tragedy is very emotional -- we watch Juliet's emotions yo-yo from ecstasy to suicidal depression. The young cast really taps into the teenage spirit of the character. Bega's presence on stage adds a sobering, anchoring dimension to the highs and lows. She makes us see the solid core at the center of this highly-strung Juliet.

The way in which the rest of the actors interact with Bega is also interesting. There is constant communication between Bega and her fellow cast members. Combs pays special attention to Bega throughout as the physical component of her character. At one point, Combs removes Bega's boots and shoes for her. Bega leans on Combs when she walks on stage at the start of the show. It's touching to see the two actresses work together.

And from an institutional perspective, the approach to problem-solving and sense of camaraderie emanating from the stage is a powerful thing to watch. The actors and other production personnel must have learned many lessons about teamwork through this process that can only serve them well in the future.

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