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Up Down Up Down. String: The Puppet Masters of Passion Play

Posted on April 15, 2015 in Passion Play
Ben Cunis choreographed the movement in Passion Play, and plays John the Fisherman/Eric/J. He is an actor, director, writer and choreographer known for his work as an Artistic Associate with Synetic Theater. His work there and elsewhere earned him six Helen Hayes Award nominations in 2015 alone, two of which he took home (Outstanding Choreography in a Play for both the HELEN and HAYES categories). Patti Kalil is a Forum Season 11 Ensemble Member and the puppet and properties designer for Passion Play. When she's not designing puppets and props, she's designing sets and managing stages. She is the co-founder and co-artistic director for Pointless Theatre, which won the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company in 2014. I reached them both by email to talk about their passions for puppetry and movement, and how those passions play out on stage at Forum.
 

QN: Tell us about your previous puppetry experience - how have those experiences informed your work on Passion Play?

 
PK: I have been a puppet designer for the past 5 years, but had previously trained in props design. For my BA in Theatre, I concentrated in set design and stage management. Puppetry did not enter my life until my junior year at the University of Maryland. At the time, UMD had a Henson Grant [as in, Jim Henson] that brought in professional puppeteers to teach a winter course once a year. I took Steven Kaplan's class, where I was introduced to shadow puppetry and to my artistic partner in crime, Matt Reckeweg, who a year later co-founded Pointless Theatre with me. We realized in that class that puppetry was a brilliant combination of painting, sculpture, design, and engaging movement. It was a challenging, endless area of study that seemed to bring the most variety of options to explore storytelling. For the past five years, with Pointless, we have been able to find a group of people that can indulge in this study of form and style, and in the childish yet provocative imagination puppetry can offer. This collaborative mentality very much informed my work on Passion Play. I've work with Michael Dove many times and there is a sense of common vocabulary we establish to talk through ideas. He had a clear image of what those fish represented in the script, and it was my job to visualize and construct them accordingly. Puppetry is uniquely dependent on performers to bring them to life. The best puppetry has to take into account performance as much as it does aesthetics. 
 
BC: We've done a good bit of stylized puppet work at Synetic over the years, though it's not our main focus. I had the pleasure of working on Imagination's BFG a while last year [their remount is playing now] and got to witness some very effective puppet work, while having to engineer a lot of "human puppeteering" (actor manipulation of other actors). The most influential work has to have been my work with Synetic -- a lot of learning about how lines and shapes interact with symbols and bodies and minds onstage to create meaning. [Ben's work on BFG earned him one of his six 2015 HHA nominations, that one for Outstanding Choreography in a Play in the HAYES category.]
 
QN: The most prominent puppets in Passion Play appear first in the stage direction: "He closes his eyes, and big beautiful fish puppets walk toward him as if in a parade." What went through your mind the first time you read that? How did your impression of that moment change in rehearsal?
 
BC: It didn't change much, though the switch from a school of living fish to a parade of dead fish was a small switch for my mind. To me, it was always about not just the fish themselves but how their presence places us underwater, trying to get a sense of switching Pontius from a stage to a sea floor. 

PK: I imagined giant silver fish that flopped around the stage, morbidly gliding. What happened next is that we began to quickly embrace the DIY aesthetic written into Passion Play. There was a clear use of the "meta-theatre" experience that Ruhl incorporates into the script. The outer layer of the story revolves around a troupe of actors putting on a show, the Biblical passion play. Those actors play characters within their characters. The scenery is the visceral environment of a working theatre. Tools are out, and paint cans cover the scaffolding. Costumes and props are repurposed and materials like canvas, metal and wood are presented as exposed raw materials that progress the story and heighten relationships between characters. For these reasons the fish were made out of canvas - to mimic the materials on Gabriel's wings and the sails on boats. They have a large red slit on their bellies and are sometimes carried as carcasses, almost reminiscent of coffins. They have just enough movement in their satin fins to glisten and suggest a ghostly swim. This conceptual change came out of a need for compromise between the fantasy world of giant dead fish puppets and the other more grounded elements of the show.
 
QN: Why do you think Sarah Ruhl has included these puppets at all? How do you think the act of puppetry intersects with the many other themes in Passion Play?
 
BC: I think the obvious answer would lead us towards some discussion of religion and its potential to manipulate people, but I don't think this is it entirely. I think it has more to do with how we carry symbols and ideas within us, to the point where they take on a life of their own.  
 
PK: Relationships between the characters in Passion Play are strung together by a politically and socially induced hierarchy of power and manipulation, though. The introduction of monarchs and fascist leaders, or jealous bickering cousins are all examples of characters who crave control in the each other's lives and their own. There is something about religion, and the concept of faith in general that makes people feel powerless and vulnerable. You are taught to trust blindly, and that even suffering is all part of God's plan. 
 
I think there is a reason why the character who plays Pontius Pilate is the one who most wants and is (in his mind) able to manipulate things as erratic as the winds or sails on a boat. Within puppetry exists that theme of power and control, and I see the use of puppetry in Passion Play as a device to really elevate the emotional inner struggles for Pontius, specifically. In Act 1 he kills fish all day, and dreams of them haunting him. In Act 2, though we don't see it, they seem to follow him as he runs through the bloody trenches of WW2. In Act 3, as a traumatized veteran, he stretches to find something to grasp onto when his faith is gone. He finds comfort in the wind and dreams of sailboats surrounded by glistening fish because they symbolize, in a sense, him coming to terms with his trauma, and embracing his ghosts as comforting shadows he interacts with. The fish puppets in particular have always symbolized, to me, life and death. They are narratively intertwined with fantastical religious imagery like walking on water, imagery that often reminds us of our mortality and divine power. Translating these moments into puppetry makes sense, because with puppetry who can get away with anything. There are no physical or metaphorical limits on how to animate these sequences. Puppetry allows for the heightening of visual imagination, defying traditional sense of scale, proportion and movement. 
 
QN: Patti, you've built a lot of puppets since the birth of Pointless Theatre - what is your favorite puppet you've ever built, and why?
 
PK: Its hard to pick favorites with puppets I've built, because they are like children. If you pick one, the others get jealous. With that said, I have favorites for different reasons. Minnie, the protagonist from Pointless's production of an original jazz-puppet-spectacle Minnie the Moocher, was one of my favorites to watch in performance. Sometimes puppets can be beautifully sculpted, but if they don't do justice movement-wise to the story, in a way its a failed attempt as a designer. This show was one long musical number, an hour-long dance, where the puppets needed to run around and get a bit wild. Minnie was a half-puppet, half-human, in the sense that she had a head and upper body that was strapped onto the performer's neck hanging like a giant necklace. She had legs. The legs of the performer were the complimentary puppet legs. We had the puppeteer wear the same color purple leggings as the puppet's skin was painted, and they had matching 1920's bob haircuts, dresses and make-up. At times, during the show, you couldn't tell they were the performer's legs because they blended so perfectly in the blocking. And other times, there was a clear distinction between puppeteer and object. There was something fascinating that happened visually with this kind of range, and that style of puppetry became an optical illusion for audiences that heightened her character's emotional rollercoaster within the show. 
 
QN: Ben, your work with Synetic often involves highly physical, non-verbal storytelling and sometimes includes beautifully elaborate shadow puppetry. How did that kind of work inform your fish-ography in Passion Play?
 
BC: Oddly, it's more similar to using weapons and tools onstage. A weapon is an extension of the body, and delivers force for a specific purpose in a way the body can't alone. A good swordsman uses the blade as an extension of the self. The object becomes infused. When I've done work with puppets, it is this infusion, but to a greater degree. There are worlds of possibilities with this, but at the basic level I think it is about the infusion of personal energy into the object to the point that it takes on a life of its own. All stylized work has this transformative quality -- you can turn your body into a chair, or turn a chair into a person, it's all related. 
 
But an outside eye is necessary, whether it comes from a performer or a choreographer, especially as you're creating, because infusion isn't something you can just do or feel...if you want to share it with other people in an understandable way. This is where technique comes in (as well as sanity). 
 
Shadow puppetry is extremely technical, because the relations of the image to the screen and the light source and the audience must all be accounted for in order to make an understandable image. This puppetry is different -- there is nothing hidden about the puppeteers, so the image of puppeteers itself is a part of the performance. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
QN: Final question - who/what is your favorite puppet of all time, and why?
 
PK: Hmm, that's a very difficult question. I'm not sure I have one. The muppets will always be a childhood favorite, but recently I also have begun to appreciate the more experimental puppetry that has been flourishing the past few years. Not to sound cliche, I would even include Disney's Lion King in the latter category. I saw that show when I was ten and was blown away by the puppet engineering, the mask work and make-up. The most impressive to me were the giraffes on stilts and the way the performers had to walk and crouch to make the animal silhouette. Amazing. 
 
BC: Yoda. There's never been a wiser puppet. And no, the animated version doesn't count. 

Quill Nebeker is a Season 11 Directing & Production Intern with Forum Theatre, and an assistant director on Passion Play. Look out for his work as a director in the 2015 Source 10-Minute Play Festival.
 
 
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Passionate for Passion: Falling in Love with Sarah Ruhl’s PASSION PLAY

Posted on April 6, 2015 in Passion Play
 
 
It’s no secret to many of my friends and colleagues that I have very mixed feelings about how Sarah Ruhl's scripts are executed in production. Over the years, one of my great frustrations has been that the scrips read so beautifully, but it isn't always translated into interesting action on a stage. Ruhl’s style has always reminded me of the music of Claude Debussy: sensory, beautiful in an understated way, emotional, wistful, and pensive. Lovely to listen to and soak in, but after 2 + hours, can leave me feeling a bit restless unless it's handled properly.
 
When I first read Passion Play, it absolutely floored me. I wept, I laughed, and devoured the stories and characters. However, I couldn’t get rid of some nagging questions: This is almost 4 hours of Sarah Ruhl. How on earth is Michael going to stage this?  Will audiences be able to stay invested the whole time? Is it too poetic, too heady, too intricate? It reads well, but will it perform well? Does enough happen?
 
As an assistant director for Passion Play, I was in the fascinating position of being able to watch this production come together, bit by bit. Due to the complex nature of the script, Michael started the rehearsal process with several days of table work—sitting the cast around a table and working through the play, discussing and analyzing themes, big questions, characters, etc. I was very struck by something during the table work process.  Normally, by the end of a day or two, most of the big questions about the themes of the play or holes in the plot or characterizations are settled, and everyone feels like they are more or less on the same page. At the end of three days of table work on Passion Play, while many important things had been discussed and agreed upon, I think we all had more questions than we came in with. And everyone was fascinated by a different part of the show—everyone took something different away from the script.  Everyone had a different favorite scene or moment or a different “big question.” It’s rare for a show to simultaneously bring such a large group together, but still inspire such a diverse batch of questions and reactions.
 
Over the next few weeks, we worked through the play scene by scene, sketching out movement, delving into characters, and creating fluid transitions between the pieces. As we took apart this epic play and re-assembled it, I found myself forgetting all of the doubts I originally had about Ruhl’s style, and just becoming completely engrossed in the characters and their struggles.  I fell in love with this play in the same way some great romances happen: almost imperceptibly, slowly, in stages, until you suddenly find yourself telling anyone and everyone who listen about it. The first time we ran the show from beginning to end was a challenge for the actors and far from perfect—you try remembering almost 4 hours of lines and movement and see how well you do!—but had an undeniable magic and electricity that left me speechless.
 
Another round of magic happened during technical rehearsals.  For those readers who do not work in the theatre, “tech” is an experience loved by some and dreaded by some: long days of testing lighting cues, sound effects, costume changes, and transitions—frequently going back to fix problems or timing concerns.  I will readily confess that patience is not always one of my greatest virtues (although I’m working on it!).  I like to move, I like to be actively working through things, I tend to think through things kinesthetically, and when I’m directing my own projects, my favorite part of the process is in the rehearsal room with actors—my least favorite part is tech. During the technical rehearsals for Passion Play, however, I was absolutely transfixed. So many ideas and locations and effects had cropped up in production meetings and rehearsals—and to imagine them hypothetically in a rehearsal room was one thing.  To actually see them was entirely different.  The technical team had invested the same kind of scene-by-scene commitment to the play that Michael and the actors had, and the result was stunning—a journey through a dizzying number of scenes, all with lush imaginative looks.  (A special shout-out must be made to Andrew Cissna, whose lighting design is one of my favorite parts of this production.)
 
The cast of Passion Play is extraordinary—a true dream team of local talent. In all honesty, I would probably enjoy watching this cast read the phone book. As an assistant director and the fight director on this production, I watched all the dress rehearsals and previews. I was at opening, and watched an evening performance the week after we opened. I have always been delighted to watch this exceptional cast continue to grow and discover this epic cycle of stories.  However, my favorite thing about sitting in on performances of Passion Play has been watching the audience.  Night after night, I watch audiences experience this story for the very first time.  I watch them lean in, I watch them cry, I watch them gasp, I watch their wonder. I watch them fall in love, and take a journey.  
 
My own journey during this show was from one of skepticism to one of amazement and appreciation. In the end, this epic show was tackled deftly and skillfully by Michael and this kick-butt ensemble of actors and designers by focusing on the smaller, human moments that make up this play. It is not by focusing on the big picture, or the daunting scope of a timeline, or worrying about the runtime that you succeed in tackling a show like Passion Play—it is by devoting yourself utterly to a collection of smaller moments. As artists, I think it is easily for us to become overwhelmed by the big picture, the big questions, the seemingly unanswerable challenges that keep us up at night. Sometimes these questions can only be tackled head-on, but in the case of Passion Play, they were answered and developed by meticulously answering the smaller ones first.  And when we all stepped back, after weeks of rehearsal, the result was staggeringly beautiful. 

 

Megan Behm, Directing & Producting Intern (@mmbehm)
Megan is a director and actor who has worked at the Folger Theatre, GALA Hispanic Theatre, the Source Festival, Studio Theatre 2ndStage, Lean & Hungry Theater, the Washington Rogues, the Maryland Shakespeare Festival, The Inkwell, Encore Stage & Studio, the American Shakespeare Center, and the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, among others. Megan is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a proud native of the DC area.  
 
 
 
 
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Do You Have A Part In The Play?

Posted on April 3, 2015 in Passion Play
 
 
 
What do you say, dearie? Would you like to take part in the play?
 
 
As I write this, I’m coming down from a twelve-hour day spent at Forum Theatre. It’s the day before we open and the cast performed back-to-back previews of the 3 hour and 45 minute Passion Play.
 
It was intense and beautiful and I came out feeling more energized then when I arrived.
 
Tomorrow night the show opens—the culmination of six weeks of rehearsals. Long hours spent in windowless rooms hammering out inflection and movement and tracking the motivations of fictional people.
 
In Act 3 of the play, the question is asked: "Why would anyone want to do this for a living? Theatre?"
 
I can’t answer for our actors, but I can answer for myself.
 
I sometimes explain to friends that while most people have the same coworkers for years at a time, I cycle through new ones once every couple months. Each new show brings a new set of people to work with.
 
Except I don’t think of them as coworkers. I think of them as community. Sometimes I even think of them as family. There is something wonderful about being in that room with a group of people, all striving to make sense of the question that is a script, everyone trying to make the best art we can.
 
If nothing else in life seems clear, at least in that room we have a shared passion, a shared goal, and other people who will help us reach it. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
 
And that fact has helped me appreciate even more deeply the central conflict of this play—a conflict that is not limited by the confines of the stage, but echoes out far and deep.
 
 
I haven’t a part. A part in the play. I would so love to be in the play.
 
 
Throughout the course of Passion Play, characters struggle with it again and again: What it means to not have a part in the play. The characters are talking about the Passion—their community’s reenactment of the suffering of Christ. But our play is talking about something more.
 
They aren’t just looking for a part in the play. They’re looking for a part in the community, in their family, in their society, in a chaotic, cold, and harsh world. We see it again and again as the story unfolds: what it means to not have a part. To have thoughts and desires and needs that put you apart from everyone else.
 
That keep you from being a member of that tight-knit ensemble. Sometimes it means you’re forced to hide your true self. Sometimes that self can’t be hidden.
 
If an actor doesn’t get a part in a play, they can move on. Audition for something else. There are other parts in other plays.
 
But on this grander stage, that is rarely possible. Not having a part means never being comfortable, never fitting in, not having that community, that family. It means always being on the outside looking in.
 
There is safety in having a role, in having lines that you know to speak, in knowing that others will respond with familiar lines of their own. There is safety and comfort and joy in it. Why wouldn’t you want a part?
 
 
I don’t want to be in the play anymore.
 
 
The Passion is a story. Whether you take it as gospel or metaphor—as historical fact or pure fiction—it’s a story. It is shaped by what we decide to add, what we take away, what we emphasize, who we cast as the hero, and who we label the villain.
 
And as Sarah Ruhl’s play demonstrates, family is a story, too. So is community. So is religion. So is society.
 
They aren’t immutable. They are what we make them. We share in the creation of a narrative—a story that tells us what these things mean, who is included in the tale, and who isn’t.
 
We might recognize that these constructs—these shared stories—are flawed. We might want deeply in our hearts to revise them, to make them better, more equitable But when a story is told so many times by so many people, it can be very hard to change.
 
 
You can’t do that, it’s a sin against God.
You are not one of us, because you don’t have the same blood.
It is sweet and right to die for your country.
 
 
In order to change the story, it requires people to refuse to play the roles they’re given. They have to do this knowing that they’re forsaking the safety and comfort of that space—that rehearsal room, that stage, that family, that society, that church—filled with likeminded loved ones. They have to stand up and declare, “This story is wrong and I will not take part in it anymore.”
 
In our Passion Play, it takes four centuries to get to this point—where one man is brave enough and tormented enough to refuse to play his part. I honestly don’t know if this is an exaggeration or a simplification of how difficult that revolutionary act is.
 
Either way, I believe strongly in the play’s final wish for its audience—wide-eyed clarity. The clarity to see the world for the shared story it is, to see the role your playing and the costume you’ve been handed, to see how you taking a part in the play may be leaving others out in the cold.
 
The clarity to see what is wrong with the play and the energy to try and change it. 

Stephen Spotswood, dramaturg & Ensemble Member
Stephen Spotswood is a DC-based playwright, educator, and journalist. He received his MFA in Playwriting from Catholic University in 2009. Produced works include: In The Forest, She Grew Fangs (Washington Rogues); We Tiresias (Best Drama, Capital Fringe Festival 2012); When the Stars Go Out (Bright Alchemy Theatre); Sisters of Ellery Hollow (Capital Fringe 2011); The Resurrectionist King (Active Cultures Theatre); Off A Broken Road (Imagination Stage); and A Cre@tion Story for Naomi (Bright Alchemy). He is an artistic associate with Pinky Swear Productions, a frequent dramaturg at Theater J, and a member of Forum Theatre's artist ensemble. You can follow him and his ongoing work at www.playwrightsteve.com and on Twitter at @playwrightsteve.
 
 
 
 
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Meet the Ensemble: An Interview with Jess Jung

Posted on February 9, 2015 in Season 11
Forum Theatre is proud to have an amazing ensemble of playwrights, actors, directors, designers, and dramaturgs. This new series of interviews with members will give you a chance to get to know the artists whose work you see onstage and why they call Forum home. 

With 5 episodes down and 4 to go of Walking the City of Silence and Stone, allow us to introduce you to the director, Forum Ensemble member Jess Jung. She answered some questions for us about her background, her work, and her relationship with Forum Theatre. 
 
The Facts
 
Name: Jess Jung
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
 
The Low-Down 
 
Amanda: What was different about directing an audio play than a stage play?
 
Jess: Although it may be obvious, we found that we (the actors and I) had to be very clear regarding vocal choices. Moments that would be more easily articulated through movement/gesture in a "regular" play needed to be expressed through voice. I spent a lot of time with my eyes closed in rehearsal to make sure we were expressing these nuances. It was a great new challenge and a lot of fun.
 
Amanda: Tell me about an event from your past that has shaped you as an artist.
 
Jess: My mother took me and a group my friends to see Snow White ​when I was six or seven years old. I remember meeting the actor who played the witch after the show and was captivated by her stage makeup. I was so sucked in by the production that it never occurred to me she was a young actor that didn't look like a witch. At that moment I was hooked. A few years later I sat in front of my VCR with a pencil and wide-ruled notebook scribing every word of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I then cast (I played the witch of course) and directed a scrappy version of the play with the girls in my neighborhood.
 
Amanda: When did you know you wanted to work in theatre?
 
Jess: ​High school. I don't know the exact moment, but I had the most amazing high school drama teacher, Ertwin Jones-Hermerding. Herm (as we called him) helped me find my voice...and my confidence...in theatre. He started my journey and I am forever grateful.
 
Amanda: What kind of material or subject matter draws or inspires you the most?
 
Jess: Magic. Fairytales. Romance. I love worlds that push the boundaries of realism--worlds that are built for dreamers. Sarah Ruhl, Melissa James Gibson, Caryl Churchill, Charles Mee are just a few of my favorite writers.​
 
Amanda: What is your favorite type of work to experience as an audience member?
 
Jess: The same as above :)​
 
Amanda: What is the toughest (or your least favorite) part about your artistic process?
 
Jess: ​When directing you always hit a moment in which you just don't know if the production is going to come together. Everybody knows the goal, time is ticking down, and there is not much you can do except wait for the material to click into place. I dislike this moment simply because it is out of my control.
 
                            
Production photo of Happy Days by Samuel Beckett, directed by Jess Jung at CulturalDC’s Mead Theatre Lab.
 
Amanda: What engages or excites you the most about working at Forum Theatre?
 
​Jess: The people. The leadership, staff, and ensemble are people that care deeply about others and their community. ​It's a great group to be a part of.
 
Amanda: How has being an ensemble member of Forum Theatre affected your work?
 
Jess: I think more about accessibility. Does a work engage the community? Is it accessible in terms of casting, ticket price, space, etc.? I think Forum does a great job investigating these questions.
 
This Season 
Walking the City of Silence and Stone by Stephen Spotswood, Forum Theatre
The Women of Lockerbie by Deborah Brevoort, North Dakota State University
(a love story) by Kelly Lusk, CulturalDC's Source Festival 
Charlotte's Web, Rapunzel, & The Berenstain Bears, Boji Bantam Children's Theatre
 
 
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Announcing: It's All Relevant

Posted on January 30, 2015 in Season 11

Announcement: It’s All Relevant: The Forum Theatre Podcast has arrived!

 

It’s here! The new podcast from Forum Theatre and From Block2Block, a community audio storytelling project! We have partnered to produce a podcast bringing you real stories from the DC community as they relate to themes featured in Forum Theatre’s productions. The podcast will discuss not only questions raised by the plays, but also the ways the plays can relate to everyday lives of the people in our community.   

Forum and From Block2Block have partnered before for multiple events in the (Re)Acts series, including Stronghold and Chinatown, both examining the character of DC neighborhoods.

Episode 1 features cast members of our recent production, The T Party, talking about how they related their own experiences to the interviews of members of the local transgender community that provided the framework for the script. Episode 2 will feature stories of discovery and reflection from trans individuals in the metro area.
 

Upcoming episodes will feature interviews with Forum artists, original audio performances from the Forum (Re)Acts series, as well as content created specifically for the podcast.
 

It’s All Relevant: The Forum Theatre Podcast's first episode is available for download on iTunes for free! Use the hashtags #Forum11 #ItsAllRelevant on social media to continue the conversation and subscribe to be the first to get new episodes as they come out.
 

Amanda C. Herman, Artistic Development Intern

Amanda is thrilled to join the team at Forum Theatre as Artistic Development Intern and an Assistant Director. Amanda was an Associate Director/ Teaching Artist at Moonlit Wings Productions and recently completed a season-long Arts Administration apprenticeship at Asolo Repertory Theatre. She spent the summer as Assistant to the General Manager at Berkshire Theatre Group. Amanda grew up in Northern Virginia and holds a BA in Theatre and Dance from James Madison University, where she directed Awake and Sing!, Beyond the Horizon (KCACTF) and They're Playing Our Song. www.amandacherman.com.

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