Friday, July 18, 2014

There’s More to Acting Than Memorizing Lines; Go Behind the Scenes with "Peter Pan"

When they're not onstage, Christopher Huntley (Peter Pan) and Shane Iverson (Wendy) can be found in the hall outside the CoLab, rehearsing a scene

Monday, July 7.  It’s the first day of rehearsal for Peter Pan, and all 37 (yes, 37—the largest cast ever!) young actors are assembled in the Nicholas Studio.

Getting into the music rehearsal
Although they auditioned together in the spring, most of them haven’t seen each other since and—except for their own roles—don’t necessarily know who else is in the show. It’s a time for greeting old friends, meeting new ones and extending congratulations.

Afterwards, they gather in a circle onstage for the read-through/sing-through of the script.  Now it’s official.  Rehearsals are underway…

Was that strains of Peter singing “Never Never Land” coming from the Nicholas Studio?  Or Captain Hook’s “Pirate Song” bursting out of the chorus dressing room and into the hall?  Or, could that be the entire cast joining in “I’ve Gotta Crow,” their voices wafting throughout the building?

No time is wasted.  When not onstage, Nick Slimmer (Captain Hook) and cast members watch the action or make notes
Yes! In the early days of rehearsal, the songs from Peter Pan are in the air.  Even during breaks, cast members can be heard singing on the terrace, in the lobby and along the hallways.  Music Director Erin McNally encourages them to use down time for anything they feel needs work or can be improved—and their compliance is both serious and enthusiastic.    

After three intense days of singing, the cast meets with Director Hisa Takakuwa in the Nicholas Studio for a full rehearsal, combining the words and music (or “score”) with the script (or “book”) of the play.  Under Takakuwa’s direction, the next four weeks will about the process and working as an ensemble.

But first, each cast member must “discover” his or her character.  Writing in a play book—that will fill quickly with notes—they begin with physical traits.  This can be specifically physical (“I bounce on my toes when I walk”) or more emotional (“I’m really scared but try not to show it”).

Grace Tomblin-Marca (Canary Rob) and Sydney Pardo (Robert Mullins) working on a song in the chorus dressing room
Then comes a deceptively simple exercise called “three words.”  Taking turns, each actor speaks the words that best describe the character he or she is portraying.  Happy, energetic, aware.  Serious, strong, conflicted.  Stubborn, intrigued, observant.  Excitable, social, quick.  Alert, lovable, optimistic.  These words—which can be ever-changing—also go in the play books, along with questions they have or discoveries they’ve made about their character.  It’s day one, and those books are filling up quickly!

Finally, the cast gathers around the perimeter of the stage, sitting in groups (Darling family, Pirates, Lost Boys, Indians) and standing as their scenes are played out—for the second read through/sing through of the script.  This time, it’s different.  They’ve made specific choices and become familiar with their characters.  Now they’re a real ensemble, and whether performing or just watching and waiting, the concentration is intense and the joy is palatable.

As the last line is read, the last note sounded, a collective sigh goes out.  They’ve made it through the first week!

Learn more and buy tickets

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Write Stuff: Karen Cruise Kirby’s Playgoer Journaling

Karen Cruise Kirby and husband, Dan.
Among SCR subscriber Karen Cruise Kirby’s favorite SCR productions are:

Noises Off by Michael Frayn: “It’s just hilarious! It’s so funny and slapstick and one of my favorite plays of all time. was thrilled when we saw that.”

Golden Child by David Henry Hwang: “It showed me something I was not aware of—these women living in China and what was done with them. The whole production was something brand new to me and it was kind of risky; but I appreciated something new.”

Chinglish by David Henry Hwang: “I thought that was hilarious! My husband said it was like Willy Loman goes to China. Another reason why we loved the play is that when we travel in Europe, we take pictures of funny sign translations.”

Wit by Margaret Edson: “Her play really hit me and evoked a personal response because I have friends who have had cancer.”
Karen Cruise Kirby has a routine following each play she sees: she writes down her impressions on the playbill page from SCR’s program. She keeps all of the playbills in a binder.

“Sometimes I write a little, sometimes I write a lot,” she says. “It’s for my entertainment and I do go back and look at what I’ve written.” For South Coast Repertory performances, Kirby has been writing her impressions about plays for three decades.

Following her evening with Tartuffe, she came home and started writing and kept writing.

“This was one of my favorite productions over several seasons,” she shared with Artistic Director Marc Masterson.  “Never have I seen Tartuffe done with such dark humor.”

Growing Up With A Love For The Arts
Kirby says theatre “makes you aware of where your life is in relationship to what’s going on onstage. It makes us look at humanity, and it’s uplifting. It’s so rewarding personally and fulfilling to be involved in that onstage world for two hours, where you are taken in and drawn into the story. I was a teacher for 38 years, so I know that storytelling is important.”

For Kirby, arts also are “in our family’s blood.”

“I was an emoting child,” she laughs. As a child, she and her friends would put on play productions and she was involved in dance. It came naturally to her, since her father was a singer and her mother a pianist. At the University of California, Irvine, Kirby earned a degree in drama (now theatre), with a minor in dance.

As a parent, Kirby instilled a love for theatre in her daughter (who now teaches theatre at Sunny Hills High School). In sixth grade, her daughter came home to report that her class had read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

“She told me she hated the play!” Kirby recalls. So for the next eight years, Kirby took her daughter to Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., to see five plays in three days.

“So, yes—theatre has been a big part of my life for a long time,” she says. “And we have been with SCR for a long time as well.”

Karen's notes on her Tartuffe program.
Tartuffe—“I Could Do Nothing Less Than Express My Appreciation”
She wrote about Tartuffe extensively and sent a copy to Artistic Director Marc Masterson. Among her observations, she loved how:
  • “Tartuffe slithered on the ground like a serpent, a devil in disguise”
  • “Elmire melted within that voluminous dress until she was flat on her back”
  • “the two ‘twin’ maids were like bookends, and their running from place to place kept the play in constant motion”
  • “Cleante and Laurent were the yin to maids’ yang … Their affectations were the perfect foil as they portrayed acolytes to the false zealot, Tartuffe. Disrespectful, fawning, arrogant, they commanded the audience’s attention.” Read more from Kirby’s impressions here.

Theatre for Kirby and her husband, Daniel, is a shared experience, a tradition that goes back to when they married. At that time, they struck a friendly deal: he would teach her about NASCAR and she would teach him about theatre. They have been SCR subscribers for three decades now.

“Being a subscriber simply sets us up on a schedule to go see the plays,” she says. “It gives us an evening out together and it gives us something to talk about before and after the play. If we didn’t have a subscription, I’m afraid we would miss some of these great plays!”

She encourages others to “just give theatre a try—find something you can identify with. That first performance will give you a connection to what’s going on onstage and will be something that you appreciate, be it comedy, drama, suspense or a musical.”

Impressions of Tartuffe From the Playbill Journal of Karen Cruise Kirby

Suzanne Warmanen and Steven Epp in Tartuffe.
A South Coast Repertory subscriber for three decades, Karen Cruise Kirby writes her impressions about each production on the program’s playbill. Read more about Kirby to learn about her love affair with theatre.

Here are excerpts from her thoughts about Tartuffe.

“[Tartuffe] was one of my favorite productions over several seasons, with the exception of Midsummer. Never have I seen this done with such dark humor.

“The Tartuffe character as played tonight reminded me of Iago: sinister, deceiving, without moral character. Religious symbolism was everywhere, some so subtle and some not so much. It bared the religious zealots as charlatans with the delicacy of a hammer.

“Loved how Tartuffe slithered on the ground like a serpent, a devil in disguise, and how Elmire melted within that voluminous dress until she was flat on her back, symbolic of how she was succumbing to him. The staging was like watching a series of Chagall paintings set to a ballet.

“Each scene segment led to another, which led to another, as all participants in each scene posed for not only a visual but a balanced composition effect.

“The characters, as they posed onstage, became part of the scenery. This was especially true of Dorine, whose grey costume blended in with the set when she was moved to the background. However, the lighting design created a stark contrast when she was center stage and center of the action. The other two “twin” maids were like bookends, and their running from place to place kept the play in constant motion.

“Cleante and Laurent were the ying to the maids’ yang. The two women fluttered about; the two men moved in measured, precise motions that ended in affected poses. The men’s shoes were characters themselves and paid homage to the French shoes of the period when men posed to “show a leg.” These two men flowed from one show-a-leg pose to another. Their affectations were the perfect foil as they portrayed acolytes to the false zealot Tartuffe. Disrespectful, fawning, arrogant, they commanded the audience’s attention. I kept wondering what obnoxious, offensive action was coming up next from them. They did not disappoint.

Steven Epp and Luverne Seifert in Tartuffe.
“I found the movement of the chairs fascinating. They were different sizes, different styles, and only one of a kind. One was used as a prayer rail. The chairs, like the maids, were in constant motion and provided movement to the play. There was a sweet choreography going on with those chairs, especially when the one was pulled out from under Elmira as she tried to sit down. The chairs were on, then off, then moved to alcoves. They were dragged stage left, dragged stage right, and dragged right off the stage. At the end of the play, it is a chair that is the final step to reach the lock to the doors. Was that a stairway, a chairway, to heaven?

“The set … provided an exquisite backdrop for the costumes. Orgon, always in black, stood out in stark contrast to the grey. The vibrant reds and blues of Marianne and Elmire stood out against the grey, their colors intensified by the contrast. Elmira’s blue gown, like the men’s black shoes, gave homage to the era of the play. The gown’s volume gave movement and depth. It gave her power because it commanded so much of the stage. She controlled the space as she controlled the movement of the gown. That made her melting into the floor a powerful, visual impact. She went from a woman in control to a woman flat and intimidated.

“Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen) commanded that stage. The interaction between Orgon and her, when she refused to shut up, was not only hilarious, the comic timing was impeccable. When she spoke, we listened because she was the voice of reason. I wanted her to keep talking!

“Damis (Brian Hostenske) seemed to be doing an OAA (Over Acting Anonymous) but on reflection, I realized his contortions and gyrations were in direct contrast to the measured movements of Tartuffe’s sycophants.

“Tartuffe (Steven Epp) had an impeccable command of his character. I had a visceral reaction to this guy. I hated him. He oozed false piety. His underlying evil was evident as he professed his faith. It is a testament to an actor when the audience can buy into the multi-facets of a character. This was a three-dimensional portrayal. Thank you, Mr. Epp.

“I am 30-year subscriber. Rarely do I give a standing O. I did so tonight as soon as Ms.Warmanen took her bow. She, along with Mr. Seifert and Mr. Epp, gave outstanding performances. I could do nothing less than express my appreciation.”

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Down and Dirty with Brendan Hunt and "Absolutely Filthy"

Awards for Absolutely Filthy:
  • LA Weekly Theatre Award: Best Comedy Ensemble, Best Female Comedy Performance (Anna Douglas) and Best Male Performance (Brendan Hunt)
  • 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival: Best of the Fringe, Best Comedy and Best Actor (Brendan Hunt)
  • 2014 New York International Fringe Festival: Official Selection
Absolutely Filthy cast, creative team and crewat the Hollywood Fringe Festival awards.
Absolutely Filthy is a Los Angeles theatre favorite and award-winning play presented by Sacred Fools Theatre Company. This unauthorized parody about a grownup Pigpen from the "Peanuts,"Absolutely Filthy is a dark, dirty comedy that follows a character named The Mess as he reconnects with his childhood pals at the funeral of his estranged best friend.

We sat down with playwright Brendan Hunt—who also portrays The Mess—to talk more about Absolutely Filthy:

What inspired the use of these well-known characters to tell the story?
One day I was mentally loitering on the topic of the things that parents say to their kids, and the unexpected effects those things can have, and it struck me that "Pigpen" is a pretty rough nickname to endure. I totally understand that nothing ill was meant by any parent who may have actually applied that name to a messy child, but nonetheless, calling a kid "Pigpen" could be seen as saying "you are so dirty you remind of the location pigs utilize for both eating and shitting."

At what point does a label like that become inescapable? If a toddler who gets dubbed "Pigpen" grows into a teenager—who still has serious hygiene problems—is he still named Pigpen because he's messy? Or is he still messy because he was named Pigpen?

What has been your creative process of this work—both as a playwright and performer?
It has been a very unique experience and one that is hard to quantify; along with director Jeremy Aldridge we sort of had to figure it out as we went along.

I studied theatre at Illinois State University, and one of the main things I learned always to serve the piece. Whatever choice you make—be it as an actor, director, designer—let it always be something drawn from the script that serves the piece as a whole, not just any amusing whim you may have. That's been a valuable rule of thumb and very good way to find the best option when many different options present themselves.

How has this work evolved—from your original concept to what we’ll see at SCR?
It started as one solitary 10-minute episode, with absolutely no guarantee that there would ever be a second.

Photo by Shaela Cook
Sacred Fools Theatre Company has a semi-regular late-night show called "Serial Killers," wherein 10-minute episodes of five different stories are presented, like a sketch night, but sketches with a long narrative. The audience then votes which three stories they want to see return the following week, while the other two "serials" are "killed."

The show that would become Absolutely Filthywas fortunate enough to be voted back 13 times, which meant that I got the chance complete the arc of a story. At that point, the theatre was pitting together its next MainStage season, and it was suggested that I submit what was at that time called Pigpen at 30for consideration.

What I gave them was literally just the first 10 episodes, cut-and-pasted together. It was by no means a finished article, especially rhythmically and, due to the serial structure, there was a cliffhanger exactly every 10 minutes.

The powers that be at Sacred Fools eventually decided to include it in the season, with the assumption that I would continue to flesh out the script. That worked out pretty well.

What do you want people to come away with having experienced it?
A desire to go home and take a bath.

Praise for Absolutely Filthy

  • "The play is labeled as a parody... this does the play an injustice... It's the most unique play I've seen this year."—Kevin Taft, Edge Los Angeles
  • "Intense and compelling... An ambitious play... grandly served by the consistently pitch-perfect ensemble and inspired, imaginative direction."—Myron Meisel, The Hollywood Reporter
  • "Absolutely stupendous... The ensemble performances are stellar."—James Scarborough, The Huffington Post
  • "Darkly hilarious... comedy gold."—Mayank Keshaviah, LA Weekly

Absolutely Filthy comes to South Coast Repertory as part of Studio SCR, June 5-8.Learn more and buy tickets

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Perfect Match: John Glore, Jessica Kubzansky and "The Stinky Cheese Man"

Playwright John Glore and director Jessica Kubzansky are the perfect pair to helm a production of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. Many of SCR’s younger audiences might know Glore, who is also the theatre’s associate artistic director, for his other Theatre for Young Audiences adaptations, including Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (2010) and Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Night Fairy (2013). Kubzansky, co-artistic director of Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court, has directed productions of both new and classic plays across the country—and SCR audiences may remember her 2008 TYA production of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Glore and Kubzansky took some time out of their busy rehearsal schedule to answer a few questions about why they love The Stinky Cheese Man and how they’re bringing it to life.

John Glore
Playwright John Glore on The Stinky Cheese Man

Why did you want to adapt The Stinky Cheese Man for the stage? 

When I was a kid (back in the Stone Age, when there were only four TV channels) I always loved the fractured fairy tales that were part of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon show. So when my young niece (who is now a grown woman with a child of her own) introduced me to The Stinky Cheese Man book, I thought it was hilarious and would make a fun, crazy play.

The illustrations and text in Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s book come together to create a total experience for the reader. How did you adapt it for the stage?  

One of the things that’s so clever about the book is the way it makes fun of how books work. For instance, the title page just says “TITLE PAGE” in great big letters, and then in parentheses, “(for The Stinky Cheese Man & Other Fairly Stupid Tales).” And in his introduction Jack, the narrator, tells you to quit reading and turn the page because “if you read this last sentence it won’t tell you anything,” which of course you find out is true as soon as you finish reading the sentence. So I decided if I was going to turn this book into a play, then it should be a play that makes fun of being a play. So I wrote an opening number called “Opening Number” and a love song called “Love Song” in which almost all the words are “love.” Also, in the book, Jack isn’t a very good storyteller and he doesn’t do a very good job of laying out his book, so in the play I turned Jack into a kind of stage manager-narrator who keeps getting confounded by the other actors and characters in the play, until his play turns into a complete disaster zone.

SCR first produced this adaptation in 2005. Why revive it now? Has the play changed?
Everyone who saw it as a kid in 2005 is now really old—I mean they’re, like, teenagers.  And there’s a whole new bunch of kids who didn’t see it when we first did it, because they were a bunch of babies back then. So it seemed like a good idea to bring it back. And yes, the script has changed in small ways, and the production will be very different because it’s being put together by a new director and new designers and most of the actors are different. Everyone who’s working on the show is so good that I think it will be even better than it was the first time. 

If you could add one more fairly stupid tale to The Stinky Cheese Man, what would it be?
It would either be “Hansel and Some Girl” (in which Hansel and some girl get lost in the woods, and happen upon a house made out of straw, so just for the heck of it they huff and puff and blow the house down and then the witch who lives there with three pigs turns Hansel and some girl into nutcrackers) or “Beauty and the Bees” (in which a girl named Belle decides to become a beekeeper only little does she know that her hive is full of killer bees who go crazy when they see the color yellow).  Or maybe “Snow White and the Seven Seas,” which would involve pirates.

I might have to write a whole new play to fit all these stupid tales into it.

Jessica Kubzansky
Director Jessica Kubzansky on The Stinky Cheese Man

Why did you want to direct The Stinky Cheese Man?
It’s such delicious good fun. I love stories that subvert or riff on other stories. I also love The Stinky Cheese Man’s torqued, lost-in-the-fun-house sense of playfulness. At the center, there is this storyteller who is desperately trying to tell a good story and keeps failing—but keeps trying again. And I feel like that, in some ways, is the story of my life as a director. I am a storyteller constantly trying to tell a great story, and it’s always about juggling the challenges, chaos, and other things that happen in the theatre in the attempt to tell a story.

What are some of the elements from the book that you’re excited to see come alive on stage?
The illustrations in the book are so deliciously weird, and trying to bring them to the stage is such an exciting challenge for the theatrical imagination. I love all the opportunities to lift things out of naturalism and turn them into something beautiful, weird and wondrous—that’s an exciting directorial challenge. 

How does directing a play for young audiences differ from directing a play for adults?

I’m not sure it’s all that different. I think the process is the same for me, mostly because I do a lot of plays that I call “style plays,” which involve size plus truth. They have “size,” meaning we have lifted the performance out of naturalism, but they must still retain “truth,” meaning the performance has to be genuine.

If there’s any difference between working on a play for a young audience and working on a play for an adult audience, it’s that a young audience is not polite or restrained—they’re entirely truthful. If you look in at an audience made up of children, you will instantly know if you have their attention. It’s the greatest compliment when you do, and it teaches you important things when you don’t.

What do you enjoy most about directing for young audiences?

I love directing plays for young audiences because I think we have to educate the next generation of theatergoers that the theatre is a crucial and important art form. I feel like it’s my job to shape the next generation of people who think that this is a viable thing to do with their time.

What do you do during the rehearsal process to help the actors discover and distinguish their many characters?

I’ll usually do a physical exercise, in which I ask actors to walk across the stage as themselves. Then I ask them to change one element of their walk—like an arm, a leg, a hand position, a neck position. We also look at what center the character leads from (there’s something called Laban Movement Analysis, which is about movement paradigms—light, heavy, legato, staccato, etc.). Then we’ll also ask ourselves about the character’s voice, too.

I have to say that most of the time the actors bring in many ideas, so I only have to help them find inspiration when they’re lost. And we have such rich, inventive actors in The Stinky Cheese Man that it’s almost never the case.

Learn more and buy tickets.