Building Camelot Part 1: Starting Adaptation

•October 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

King Arthur, while one of the most rewarding projects I’ve had the privilege to work on, has also been one of the most difficult, and thereby the most adventurous. The entire creation process was fraught with challenges — in choreography, in adaptation, in casting, in design — and this was all before we hit the water stage.

Guenevere's Rescue

Lancelot rescues Guenevere (Vato Tsikurishvili and Brynn Tucker)

When adapting any story from one form to another, the mission is simple: to transcribe the essential elements of the original work into a narrative form that best suits the new form of storytelling. The closer the forms, often, the simpler the adaptation. To adapt a play from one dramatic form to another (such as a spoken Shakespeare to a silent one…) is a difficult task, but the essential form of the narrative, a drama, remains intact.

The great challenge is to find ways of expressing those essential pieces that previously have existed in spoken word. It’s great fun, and takes a lot of late nights. Adapting a novel is a different animal — in some ways easier because there is more room for interpretation, there is more to choose from, but often in some ways harder because more…happens. There are many more options, and picking the essential elements — or what is essential for YOUR interpretation — is terrifically hard. Talk about late nights.

So when confronted with something like the entirety of the Arthurian story, one has to ask…what story? If the job is to transcribe the essential elements of the original work, what in the world is the “original work”? Sitting next to me right now is the “New Arthurian Encyclopedia.” It is 613 big pages long, with several entries per page on characters, authors who have created their own version of the Arthur story, major themes, places, historical figures, and motifs. Do we take a Romantic view of Arthur and his knights, effortlessly noble, tragically heroic in their pursuit of the Good (a la The Boy’s King Arthur)? Do we draw a modern, self-aware picture like TH White’s Once and Future King, or do we emphasize the clash of pagan and Christian in M. Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon? Do we go with Sean Connery and Richard Gere’s First Knight and simply emphasize the love triangle or do we paint Boorman’s sweeping portrait in the vein of Excalibur? Or do we just go with the old Welsh-Celtic references from “The Mabinogion” and attribute Arthur’s heroism to the fact that he personally hacked up more people in battle than anybody, like, ever?

It was obvious that the task of this adaptation was not going to be challenged by a lot of faithfulness to the source material — the source material is so vast and varied that there is barely any such thing as faithfulness. What we decided to do was to work with the archetypes that have made their way deepest into our culture, while making the story our own. What people remember most are the images and characters. The Sword in the Stone, Excalibur rising from the hand of the Lady of the Lake, Lancelot and Guenevere, King Arthur and the Round Table, Merlin and his guidance, the dark magic of Morgan le Fay, the unity of the Knights. We wanted to do something both ferocious and beautiful, something that took the sweeping arc of the rise and fall of a kingdom juxtaposed with the intensely personal drama of Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot, and the other core characters.

Mordred, Morgan, and Merlin

Mordred, Morgan, and Merlin played by Sean Pedersen, Jodi Niehoff, and Alex Mills

It goes without saying that, with such a rich mythology, you’re going to leave something out in adaptation that will disappoint one fan or another — and what may have seemed essential to us may be missing the point entirely to someone else. But that is always the case in adaptation.

So to say that, to me, Arthur is about a man who attempts to bring unity about in a violent time, who sees a bright future in a dark age, , who loves those around him and tries to bring them with him in his attempt — and nearly succeeds in his task — must be enough. Sure, I’ll keep reading more versions and enjoying more interpretations, but to me, this is what has kept the legend alive so many centuries; the epic and the intimate flowing from one into the other and back again.

-B. Cunis

Process Interviews: Salma Shaw as Desdemona

•June 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

These interviews will examine different artist’s approaches to Synetic’s unique process of creating a show. We find that the Synetic rehearsal process is a fascinating blend of traditional approaches and out-of-the-box creativity. This week we’re asking Salma Qarnain, who plays Desdemona in the currently-running Othello at the Kennedy Center, to answer a few questions about creating a character with Synetic.

Salma Shaw and Roger Payano as Desdemona and Othello

Salma Shaw and Roger Payano as Desdemona and Othello

1. What are the biggest challenges that Synetic presents to an actor?

During my four years with the company, I have found that the most successful actors are the ones that are the most adaptable and willing to explore, improvise, and develop the piece as the rehearsals move along.  There is a lot of collaboration early in the process, and what is blocked one day may change the next.  Actors who cannot adapt or need to have everything set in stone on day one tend to get frustrated, but in order to develop a completely new piece from scratch, you truly need the discovery process.  This is challenging but also extremely rewarding when you see your work on stage.  It also allows Synetic to achieve the highest levels of quality and innovation, as we typically develop more material than we can use.

Another challenge is the acting method.  In traditional Western theater, we are taught to start with the text and develop a character and then drill down into the intent of each beat as well as moment.  Emotions will develop naturally from the objectives.  However, in Synetic, we start with the emotional content of the scene first: the mood and atmosphere dictate choreography and scene objectives.  In this way, it is starting with the inside and working your way out versus starting from the outside and working your way in.
Also, for me, Synetic’s acting style is a mixture of theater and film acting.  So, you really have to understand the flow of the piece and your character’s journey to figure out which style works for any given scene.  I really didn’t appreciate that until I stepped into this role.  Within this one role, I am allowed to show my acting range, as Desdemona starts from happiness and joy and ends with extreme tragedy.  Especially during the last two weeks of rehearsal, I was working on fitting style to scenes because I finally could feel the flow of the show once it was all put together.
2. What kind of physical training did you have before coming to Synetic?

I love sports – I played tennis and volleyball in high school and played as much intramural sports in college as I could manage (softball, kickball, even learned to skate and play hockey!).   I much prefer staying in shape through sports versus going to the gym, so Synetic training and rehearsals are perfect for me.  In terms of dance, I performed in a number of musicals and took a couple classes in ballroom, ballet, and jazz.  My parents were not supportive of my taking classes in acting, voice, dance or gymnastics when I was growing up, so I focused on sports.  But I have had a lot of experience dancing in clubs. 🙂

3. What makes Synetic characters different from characters in a straight play? What does this mean for playing Desdemona?

Interesting question – I would say the only difference is in the heightened nature of the pieces.  Choices must be interesting and extreme, but so are the choices you make in the most interesting straight plays.  In terms of wordless works versus plays with language, I focus on ensuring my objectives are crystal clear at every moment.  You always need to have clear subtext at all times, since your body and face are your tools for communication.  If your subtext is not always on and clear, you’ll be blank – and that’s no good, even for plays with text!

4. Do you have any dream roles?

Definitely Elphaba in Wicked.  I also love the classics, so almost anything Shakespearean or Shavian would be fun.  And honestly, I would love to be in the next Star Trek movie or do an action film like Wanted.  Having a successful and active career in both theater and film would be the dream.

Othello runs through the 3rd of July, with performances at 7:30 Wed-Sat, and matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 1:30. For tickets, visit or call the Kennedy Center at (800) 444-1324

Company Profiles: Roger Payano

•June 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

This is the eleventh in a series of posts profiling our company members — get to know the Synetic family of actors. I sent a few questions out to some company members, and their responses, as well as some info on the actor, can be found in this series. Enjoy!

Roger Payano

Roger Payano

Roger Payano has been acted with Synetic since the Spring of 2008, when he joined the ensemble of Carmen in the role of Garcia. Since then, he has appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Demetrius) and Dracula (Dr. Van Helsing).

1. Where are you from?

1st Generation American from Dominican Republic born in NY but raised Miami, FL …

2. What is your training?

BY TRADE: Master of Science in Industrial Engineering & Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Florida A&M University BY LIFE: Attenderd the Actor Repertory Theatre at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts

3. What was it like to start working with Synetic?

Unique & Exciting to say the least..

4. How was it different from your other experiences?

Unique because of the style & process of theatre; exciting because of the physical nature of the training. It mixed two of my favorite activities: acting & working out

5. Do you have a favorite Synetic role?

Sans my upcoming role as Othello… my favorite role was my first as Garcia (& ensemble) in Carmen. In that production I got to interact with every single character in the play.

6. Favorite show?

Carmen, I think it’s because it was my first & we all know how firsts can be.

7. Any crazy stories from rehearsals, performance, etc.?

My participation with Synetic is purely accidental. Every actor has “One Of Those Weeks” where he/she has about 12 auditions in a 3 day span. I had just graduated from the Conservatory & auditioned at Leagues of Washington so I had lined up a good number of auditions in addition to random submissions. Anyway I submitted myself for Synetic Theater thinking it was Scena Theatre where a good friend of mind had worked before and I liked their work. On the day of the “Scena” audition I walk into a room full of people stretching and getting ready for a dance recital. I sat there for a second then walked over to the greeter and made sure I was at the Scena Theatre auditions and not some Ballet Audition. She said so politely “this Synetic not Scena”. I smiled, started to walk out and then took off my shoes, rolled up my jeans to my knees and took off my button down shirt (Luckily I had a Wife Beater underneath). I did a couple Jane Fonda leg stretches and went into the audition with nothing to lose. Paata seem to like the possiblities of what I could bring to the theatre (Irina not so much).. That how I became a Synetic Actor, the rest is His or Her Story.

Company Profiles: Greg Anderson

•May 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

This is the tenth in a series of posts profiling our performers — get to know the Synetic family of actors.

Today’s profile covers someone new to Synetic: Greg Anderson. As a deaf performer, Greg was accepted into Synetic’s Company Training in the summer of 2009. Othello will be his first experience onstage with Synetic, and the show will run as a part of the 2010 International VSA Festival at the Kennedy Center in the month of June. We decided to interview him on his experiences!

1. Where are you from? What is your training?
I am the native of South Carolina, and I currently live in Columbia, MD. I got training in acting from Deaf West in Los Angeles.

2. What was it like to start working with Synetic? How was it different from your other experiences?

Crazy!! Just crazy! But it is a good crazy. At the beginning of rehearsal weeks, I was completely awkward and did not know what to expect of the Othello show. I was highly challenged and it was hard work. There are a lot of great actors in the show; I enjoy the whole experience.

This experience is very different because this show depends on the music, or should I say the music depends on the show. So I had to work harder to hear some cues from the music to go from A to B. Fortunately, when I was 7 years old I got good training on understanding the music’s rhythms and sounds from one of instructors, plus I have some hearing in my left ear.

3. What is unique about working with Synetic as a deaf actor? What have been the challenges? The rewards?

This isn’t the first time I’ve worked with hearing casts. Every experience is different, and this I can say that this is first show I’ve gone without an official script. The challenges I have were/are understanding the directions/instructions from people like Irina, Paata, and Ben as much as I can and trying to keep up with what’s going on during rehearsals. The rewards: new experience, getting my movements right, and being part of Synetic Theater.

4. Any crazy stories from rehearsals, performance, etc.?

It was a rainy night in the Fall last year that I will NEVER forget, because it was the very first gig that I HAD to miss. During the rush hour, I was driving on my way to Kennedy Center to do a performance for a charity event. As I was entering DC, there was some trouble with my car. I pulled over, and it died on me. At first, I thought it was a car battery, so I called Triple A. They came, charged it up, and left. As soon as my car was okay, I started driving out of parellel parking and passed one parked car, my car died on me again. I knew I had to be at Kennedy Center very soon. So I called Triple A again and had the battery replaced. My car worked again, so I drove, and a few miles away from Kennedy Center my car started dying on me again, and it really died on me, and I was right in the middle of a congested road. I had to push my car to the side, so I could let cars pass by. I had to text my director to tell her that I had to miss the performance. She begged me to come, and I couldn’t. It was impossible leaving my car parking illegally and whatnot. It was the first show I had to miss. It was miserably cold rainy night I will never forget ever.

Othello: Digging Deep

•May 18, 2010 • Leave a Comment

By Ben Cunis, Assistant Director/Fight Choreographer

The process of creating Othello is well underway, and throughout the process I’ve been continually reminded of the deeply psychological nature of our work. Othello is vastly different from working on Antony and Cleopatra — while both plays involved a great effort to bring the interior lives of the characters to life onstage physically, Othello is a story that travels more intimately into the interior of human consciousness. When we started on the adaptation, we talked a lot on how the approach would be more similar to Hamlet in the ensemble realization of the inner psyche of the characters. I was imagining a grueling rehearsal process with actors playing everything from crowds to the inner moods of Iago to the torches in the hands of a mob. Crazy stuff.

It’s all that and more. I’m always reminded, the hard way, that every one of these processes is unique, and they are similar only in the manner that they depend on the grind and determination of the artists. The diamonds don’t grow up from the ground, they have to be dug up with manual labor. Salma and Roger have to run that lovers dialogue a thousand times before they discover the key to it, we have to drill the fight between Roderigo and Cassio (Vato Tsikurishvili and Scott Brown) a thousand times before they look like who they are: men who were raised in a violent society, to whom violence weighs equally with whatever morality they may carry.

I think that’s one of the secrets of good art — inspiration never just strikes. You don’t just sit around drinking coffee until all of a sudden you know the answer to the narrative conundrum you’ve woven. You sweat on the floor, stay up late at a computer with images and music, run a scene a thousand times only to throw it away, and you somehow get up in the morning to do it again. Well, not “somehow” — as much as you complain about the work, you revel in it as well.

This is my second time being both regularly present in the room yet separate from the process. I’m choreographing the fights and assistant directing, which means I’m not always on the floor, but I’m almost always watching what’s going on. It’s a struggle to watch, because I am aware of the equally physical and mental struggle that the actors are going through trying to find the right movements, attitudes, and moods to tell the story and bring across the emotional journey.

But that struggle is the secret. I get the feeling that if you’re making art and there is no struggle, then your product won’t be as good. Maybe good, but you won’t have pushed any limits.

Speaking of secrets, there are a number of secrets about Othello that we intend to spill out on Until Something Moves over the next couple of weeks…so stay tuned. I’ll get back to you when we come up for air.

Building the Bug

•April 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Check out these images from the making of John Milosich’s Samsa costume for Metamorphosis! broke the mold when they made you broke the mold when they made you

The form was built, and the foam will fill in around our bug.

The foam expands

The foam expands

Walking Insect

Walking Insect

If you were ever wondering what it takes to make a giant cockroach…now you know!

NYC In Review!

•March 17, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Synetic Theater performed last week on Thursday, March 11th in New York City, presenting a one-time-only performance of Host and Guest at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, in an event held by Columbia’s Harriman Institute to raise money for the Georgian Studies program.

A wonderful time was had by all! From arriving in the city to performing in front of a spectacular crowd to the eye-popping view from the Terrace in the Sky at the reception afterwards, the week was full to the brim with excitement. Little touches like a boiler malfunction in the hotel (resulting in people thinking the place was on fire!), some great adventures on the town, and gorgeous weather upon our arrival completed the recipe for an amazing week in New York!

But enough chit chat, I asked some of our company members to give me a few details about the experience — here are some of my favorite quotes from them:

Who was the first person you called when we got to New York and why?

“My mom didn’t even give me a chance to call her– she called me when we were getting off the subway figuring I must have been there by the time she called. Way to ruin the magic, Mom.”

“I called my girlfriend to let her know we got there safely and that being in NYC was awesome!”

“Well, it was supposed to be my husband to let him know that I arrived safely, but I was too excited and simply forgot to call anyone!”

Name some striking images/memories from the trip

“The Synetic family on the bus.”

“The hugs backstage after the show.”

“Watching the cast walk together through the streets of NYC”

“Sitting on the red steps in Times Square, lying back and looking up at the buildings shooting away into the sky”

“Playing the song “Empire State of Mind”, everyone rocking out to it”

“Race. James Spader. ‘Nuff said”

“Scott and Vato running around with cameras the whole time”

“Peter Marks’ quote on the Next to Normal marquee, imagining the quote “Birth of an Empire” on it”

“Cheesecake (mmmm… no imagination needed there!)”
“Shopping for grapes with Iko at 4 am.”
“The cityscape off of the balcony of our ridiculous reception.”
“My jaw dropping when I looked at everyone dressed up together — we always see each other in sweats, and it’s such a knockout to see that they all look even better snazzed up!”
“Going to Cleopatra’s Needle for our afterparty…”
“Staying up and seeing the moment where the city fell asleep — and arriving back in DC and seeing the sky.”
What sticks out in your mind as a memorable moment from the trip?

“The whole thing: spending time with my Synetic family was truly special.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget finding myself on my back in the wings after the chaos scene and having to piece together how I got there. It involved Vato almost landing on top of me, tripping over blocks, trying to roll off stage but into the set, hitting my head, and finally diving off stage long after I was supposed to be gone. I just remember looking up into the lights and being SO dazed and mainly worrying about whether or not I had set Irina’s cloth (Joqola’s dead body) properly. (I hadn’t.)”
“The most memorable moment was when we all were in the “Terrace in the Sky” for the after party. Seeing the entire cast celebrating from performing a great show gave me such a great feeling inside. We had put together an entire show in one week and though it was exhausting, we did it. We were on the top of an extremely tall building, windows all the way around, seeing the beautiful view of New York City at night. At that moment we felt we were on top of the world, and we were.”
“This was my first Synetic performance back from injury, and it meant a lot to be able to perform again, especially debuting in New York City at the same moment.” (Go Salma!)
“When NYC fell asleep and I stayed awake.”
“Riding the bus home, thinking back on it all — then taking a three hour nap.”