Arms and the Man (And the Webcam)

Posted June 24, 2020

Arms For Web

George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man joins the other classics that have already made their debut in APT's "Words from the Woods" play-reading series. Keeping with the spirit of the new virtual world, we remotely chatted with three of the actors that worked on this reading - Sarah Day (Catherine), Kelsey Brennan (Louka) and Tim Gittings (Nicola) - about their thoughts on the play, their characters and sharing Shaw's writing on Zoom. 

Sometimes a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play a great character becomes a twice-or-more-in-a-lifetime shot to play that same character in a new production. It’s an opportunity for that actor to look at the character in a different way; to find new angles and aspects, typically under the guidance of a new director. And in these strange days, it may even motivate them to investigate whether there’s room to work in their closet, or to rifle through the attic in search of a scarf that looks like it might be appropriate for the matriarch of the well-to-do Petkoff family to wear during the era of the Serbo-Bulgarian war. 

Core Company Actor Sarah Day played Catherine Petkoff in APT’s 2006 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. She’s playing that character again in the Out of the Woods reading – this time solo, in her Madison home. On a Zoom stage. It’s a little different. 

“It’s been fun for me to revisit this lovely piece. And so I'm happy we got to do it,” Sarah said. And while Catherine on the page hasn’t changed much, Catherine on Zoom has to adapt to the times. “It's so different,” she continued. “And the idea that we're recorded, and that this will be around for a while, that’s not how theater people usually operate. You know, we're very much of the mind that, well, maybe that didn't work but I can do it again next time. And then when a play closes, that play has had its life. The idea of doing work that is recorded, it's sort of daunting in some ways…I'm just trying to do the best I can right now, in the middle of whatever is happening in the world. Or whether there's a leaf blower, or the kids next door playing basketball. That's just my reality as I live in Bulgaria. It's very funny.”

Catherine is joined in Bulgaria-by-way-of-Madison by a number of trademark Shavian characters, who typically represent different points of view within Shaw’s polemic. Shaw prods social problems from every possible angle, using his characters as a mouthpiece. And though his disillusionment with war is evident, Arms and the Man isn’t as overtly political as many of his other plays, with the story focused on social class and the complexities that occur when love crosses those lines. 

One of those couples – Louka, played by Kelsey Brennan and Nicola, played by Tim Gittings – are servants for the Petkoff family. By way of circumstance, both are forced to look at the class structure, and their relationship with each other and with their employers, through a lens of practicality. But their ideas on what’s practical are very different. Kelsey enjoyed playing Louka (barefoot, which, Kelsey says, is how she does most of her Zoom acting). “I’ve always believed that Shaw writes dynamic women, and Louka is no exception,” Kelsey said. “While outwardly she is blunt, gruff and inelegant, on the inside she is protecting a heart full of broken dreams and unrequited love. She’s smart, witty and has the courage to speak her truth to those who have power over her.” 

Louka uses those traits to her advantage, attempting to elevate her social standing. Her fiancé, Nicola, on the other hand, sees his options differently. Tim says of the character “He recognizes all the problems with the system, but he does not have any illusions about what it is. He knows how to work it, and he's going to do what he has to do to get what he needs. Louka is younger, and she's not willing to accept some of the things that he's accepted as inevitable. So she's pushing for her own level of change.”

But acceptance doesn’t mean that Nicola is happy with the circumstances, or with his employers. Tim said, “I love the places where both Louka and Nicola get to kind of peel back the veil and show their contempt for the system, and be like ‘I'm a person.’ Nicola's got a couple of places where he gets to say ‘these people disgust me sometimes, but I'm going to do what I have to do to get what I need.’ And you know, and I love that Louka just says, ‘no. I'm worthwhile on my own,’ and I love the way that that butts up against all the expectations for the rest of the household. So that aspect is particularly satisfying for me.”

As this play-reading series has progressed, so have the ideas about design and technical work that goes into each performance. In large part, that’s due to each reading having a new director, with different aesthetic and style. Arms and the Man was directed by William Brown, who last worked at APT in 2018 on The Recruiting Officer

“Each director has seen what previous directors have done, and gone, ‘oh, if that's possible, I wonder about this?’” Tim said. “And you know, Bill's already a director who has a ton of ideas and kind of has this cinematic scope to the way he sees things. So when we got started, he already had all these ideas. Like, hey, if we're going to do this, can everyone have a plant in their shot? And can we get this kind of jewel-toned background? I think it's been really fun. And when the actors have certain freedom to involve their own creativity, I feel like we just bring extra energy and spark to it.”

Kelsey, who has worked with William Brown many times on stages in Chicago and at APT, said “Bill and I have a short hand of sorts we’ve developed over the years and it was more useful than ever given our medium and our truncated rehearsal time. He was interested in a dim, ‘black and white film’ feeling for Act One, so I ended up working in the only room with no windows—the bathroom! My lighting was my computer screen and a nightlight. On Zoom we are limited by what is in our homes…but at the same time, it allows us to rely even more on our imaginations and the imaginations of the APT audience.”

Creative people are happiest when they’re creating, even if they’re not able to do so on the boards at APT. Sarah says she’s grateful for this opportunity to work with her friends and colleagues of many years. But there’s something missing. 

“The great lure and the great lore and the great love of APT is that we have such a connection with our audience,” she said. “And to truly not have that sense at all during a performance, it kind of gets you off kilter. Because we're there without reaction and without the support of a bunch of people leaning in and wanting us to do our best. It's very much like faith – that we hope our people are there, supporting us. It's not tangible in the way that we're used to. But I do look at the numbers at the bottom of the screen, and I'll think, oh my god there are 223 people watching! And that's probably an average of 2 per screen. And I think oh, that's nice to know. Knowing somehow that they're out there, its like, oh, I want this to go well for them. I want it to be something that is of value.”

The Details
Arms and the Man
By Anton Chekhov
Directed by William Brown

Watch here beginning at 7:00 PM CDT on Friday June 26

Featuring: Kelsey Brennan (Louka), Nate Burger (Bluntschli), David Daniel (Russian Officer), Sarah Day (Catherine), Tim Gittings (Nicola), Melisa Pereyra (Raina), James Ridge (Petkoff), Marcus Truschinski (Sergius).

Jacqueline Singleton: Stage Manager. Eva Breneman: Voice and Text Coach.