Friday, November 20, 2015

How a Phantom (Tollbooth) and Spirits Led to Acting Success

Alex Knox in Euyrdice.
Molly Gutman and Knox in the 1995 Theatre Conservatory Players production of Mother Goose on Trial.
For Alex Knox, a stopover at a tollbooth started his path to an acting career, and it began at South Coast Repertory. He was nine years old when bounded onto the stage as Tock the Watchdog in SCR’s Young Conservatory Players’* production of The Phantom Tollbooth. He took his acting lessons to heart and now enjoys a lively career in theatre, film and television.

Knox initially sought out theatre as an opportunity to be part of an ensemble, something he readily found through acting classes in SCR’s Theatre Conservatory.

“We were a team, but without having to compete against other students,” he recalls. “We focused on listening to each other. That was very useful as I started my career and, I have to admit, I loved the group warm up games. That’s where we could jump around, make noise and not get into trouble!”

In 1995, he auditioned for SCR and was cast as Peter Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, a seminal experience for him because he workedworking with founding company members like Hal Landon Jr. as Scrooge, Richard Doyle as the Spirit of Christmas Past and others.

“I remember watching the ‘grownup’ performers waiting backstage quietly for their cues and seeing how sacred each performance was for them,” he remembers. “That taught me what a privilege it was to perform onstage. I still feel that way.”

In 2013, he played Orpheus in SCR’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice—a performance that earned raves from StageSceneLA, which called him and co-star Carmela Corbett, “two talented, charismatic young actors we are sure to be hearing much more from.”

The 1995 production of A Christmas Carol with Knox, third from left, Hal Landon Jr., John Ellington and Laurie Woolery.
Knox is a member of Antaeus Theatre Company, where he has performed in shows from Macbeth to the hit radio play, “The Thin Man.” He received kudos on both coasts for his one-man show, No Static at All, and he played Freddy in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion at the Pasadena Playhouse. He earned a BFA in acting from the University of California Santa Barbara and his graduate degree from the Yale School of Drama. 

In 2013, he returned to A Christmas Carol as a ‘grownup’—Ebenezer as a Young Man—a role he has again in 2015.

“It’s amazing now to be an example for the young actors. I try to set the tone with a reverence for the theatre, the play and my fellow performers. I also love bonding with the kids. When there’s a sense of fun and trust backstage, that shows up in the play onstage. Being with them all is a great reminder that working in the theatre is fun. There’s a reason it’s called a ‘play.’”

Check out current acting classes at SCR.

*Now called Summer Players

Monday, November 16, 2015

An "A Christmas Carol" Kid All Grown Up

Sanaz Toossi first came to South Coast Repertory as a curious teen in the Theatre Conservatory. There she found her love for theatre—and a home. As a conservatory student, Toossi performed in many Players' productions and twice in A Christmas Carol.

Toossi (far right) in a Teen Players production.
These days, she's now one of the conservatory assistants and also has worked in the Literary Department as festival assistant for the Pacific Playwrights Festival; she also recently completed a literary internship. In November and December, she is adding another SCR credit to her resume as she returns to A Christmas Carol in an entirely new role—child wrangler. What is a child wrangler? Toossi explains and recounts some of her favorite SCR and A Christmas Carol memories.

What exactly is a child wrangler?
It sounds like I herd horses, but in general, a child wrangler basically keeps track of the child actors backstage. In A Christmas Carol, the wrangler leads a pre-show warm-up, assists with quick changes and makeup...most importantly, does not lose the kids. This might involve herding.

You practically grew up at SCR. When and how did you first get involved?
I did! I could not hold down an extracurricular activity. I tried everything, and I was either terrible or completely uninterested. When I took ice-skating lessons, everyone in my group—except for me—kept getting bumped to the next level. We played this game in which we were supposed to skate through the teacher's legs, and I found that game absurd and had a breakdown on the ice (which is hilarious to me now). So I went home and told my mom that I hated ice-skating. She said, "You hate everything; you have to find something". I thought I might like acting, so I Googled "acting classes orange county" and guess what I found...

Toossi in A Christmas Carol in 2006,
with Jennifer Parsons.
What is your history with A Christmas Carol?
I played Martha Cratchit twice when I was a student in the conservatory when I was 14 and then 16. Martha is the oldest of the Cratchit bunch, and she's awesome. I know the show and many of the actors in it very well, so my mom and I go see the show every year. We like to discuss little changes after.

What’s your favorite A Christmas Carol memory?
I can't think of anything specific, but what has stuck with me all these years is how fun it was being onstage with Danny Blinkoff and Jennifer Parsons, who play Bob and Mrs. Cratchit. After all these years, I still have dreams where I'm onstage, Jenny's looking at me, and I cannot remember my lines.

What are you looking forward to the most this time around?
I'm looking forward to working on the show while not being a hormonal teenager with homework! Also, this show really gets you in the Christmas spirit—I'm going full Christmas this year. Hats, tinsel, all of it. I'm going to be a Christmas terror. Get ready, friends and co-workers.

You work in many aspects of theatre—is there a favorite part of theatre to work in?
That's tough because I've been fortunate enough to work with really great people who have made each job enjoyable. But a few things...I will tell you that it'd be a tough sell to get me to act on a stage again (to no fault of anyone's). Acting is hard and scary and I'm getting lazier with each year. The responsibility of stage management would probably send me into cardiac arrest. I've loved working in literary—seeing playwrights' brains work, witnessing a new work develop, seeing a director's take on things. But I think working in our conservatory has been very rewarding for me. Giving kids a place to be themselves—the same place where I got to be weird—is important to me.

Sanaz with playwright Dipika Guha during her literary internship.
You’re also a playwright; can you tell us more about that?
I grew up in the conservatory and I loved acting here. But I always secretly knew I didn't want to be an actor, and yet I knew I loved theatre. I realized what I loved about the theatre were the words, the page coming to life. It was more fun for me to imagine what the actors would say in my head than it was to say it myself. So now I write plays! Some are funny and some are really not funny. I always try to include inappropriate jokes. I love writing more than anything. Maybe it'll be something I pursue, maybe it won't. And some days everything I write is stupid and pointless, but it's still what I love most in the world.

What has been your favorite show at SCR?
Vietgone by Qui Nguyen. Hands down, 100 percent, I have never seen a show so impactful and bright and important. My parents, like Nguyen's, immigrated to this country from a conflicted area, and as a writer, it's been really important to me to tell their story. Until I saw Vietgone, I had never seen a story like that treated with such passion, and humor and sincerity. It changed how I think about my own writing.

Sanaz in rehearsal for her play Nobody's Child.
Have you had a mentor who has provided you with guidance on theatre issues?
I met Theatre Conservatory director Hisa Takakuwa when I was 13 and I knew immediately that I wanted to be friends with her. Aren't those the best friendships? The ones where you sort of pick each other? She cast me as an evil troll in a Summer Players and we've been friends ever since. She has supported me through everything. I have come to her with every rash decision and crazy idea and she talks me through it, always truthfully and always with love. She's the reason why I'm in theatre; she encouraged me to write. I cannot imagine what my life would have been without her. While she's been my best teacher and best director, what's been really cool for me is how I've gotten to know her as a friend. Because she's brilliant and sharp, of course, but Hisa is hilarious and just so fun to be around. And one of my favorite things to do is just kick it with her in her office and make weird jokes. There are lots of people who can shape you as an artist, but it's so cool, I think, to be able to call that person your friend.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Slideshow From "A Year with Frog and Toad"

Oh, what fun—check out this slideshow from the delightful musical A Year with Frog and Toad.

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Unwrapping "A Christmas Carol"

For 11 months out of the year, the sets, costumes and props for A Christmas Carol are carefully packed away, waiting for their time to shine in the spotlight. Now they’re out of storage and waiting patiently to be used in rehearsals and be loaded onto the Segerstrom Stage for performances that run Nov. 27-Dec. 27. View the slideshow to see the set pieces as they wait in SCR’s scene shop.

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Snowy Night at SCR: Auditioning For "A Christmas Carol"

The kids of A Christmas Carol from left to right, Lauren Lyons, Rachel Bailey, Catherine Mitchell, Aoife McEvoy, Jamie Ostmann, Kennedy Haynes, Carissa Diller, J.T. Casey, Colin Root, Jack Matthews, Sean Kato, Hudson Mattingly Stefanello and Louis Alvarez Tonkovich (missing: Rachel Charny, Kiana Kamm and Nick Trafton.)
“It’s Christmas Eve. Imagine what’s around you—a snowy night, crowded streets, festive decorations. It’s just you and your imagination. Have fun!”

That’s Theatre Conservatory Director Hisa Takakuwa, inspiring young actors as they take part in an improvisational pantomime (a street scene in 19th-century London), the first step in auditions for A Christmas Carol.

As many as 75 students in the Kids and Teen Acting Programs try out, and 16 are chosen (double-cast in eight roles). Auditions are open to all students in the third year of training and above and second-year students recommended by their instructors. (First year students may audition for the role of Tiny Tim, which is cast separately.)

In class, they’ve been taught the importance of process over product and reminded that auditions should be a learning experience. “I encourage them to listen, be flexible, try new things and show a positive attitude,” Takakuwa says. “If they do all that, they’ll feel really good— no matter the outcome.”

During step two of the audition, the young actors read scenes from A Christmas Carol. They’re called in groups that represent the ages of the characters they’ll portray—from the youngest Cratchit daughter, Belinda, to the oldest boys, Peter Cratchit and Ebenezer as a student.

A week later, everything is repeated—in front of a larger crowd. (Takakuwa is joined by Director John-David Keller, Casting Director Joanne DeNaut and Casting Assistant Stephanie Marick for “callbacks”).

Within a few days, Takakuwa sends personal letters to those who didn’t make it. “I remind them to be proud of doing their best and most confident work. They’ve learned how to audition!”

But if the phone rings—you’re in!

Those who made it range from first-timers to more experienced young actors.

Nick Trafton and J.T. Casey
Kennedy Haynes
Colin Root and Hudson Stefanello
Carissa Diller and Kiana Kamm
J.T. Casey and Nick Trafton, who alternate in as Boy Ebenezer, are “old pros,” having been in the Summer Players production of Mary Poppins. In that audition, J.T. learned, “You have to be prepared. I was expecting the unexpected this time, and the first audition felt good. I thought I nailed it in the callback, but there were a lot of kids who were really good.”

Nick had been nervous at the Mary Poppins audition because it was his first play. “I was a little more relaxed this time since I knew what to expect,” he recalls. “After the first audition, I was hopeful. When I walked into the callbacks and saw Mr. Keller I thought to myself, ‘stand up straight and look professional.’”

Kennedy Haynes is a third-year student, who has been waiting for the chance to audition for A Christmas Carol since she was eight years old. “I felt confident about my improv,” she says. “But I walked out of the callback thinking there was no way I would get a role—it was so quick, and I thought quick usually wasn’t good!”

Hudson Stefanello and Colin Root alternate as Turkey Boy. Hudson is in his second year and was recommended by his instructor. “It was an honor to be chosen,” he said. “I was excited about auditioning because I love the play and was dying to meet the man who plays Scrooge.* I wasn’t nervous because I blocked out everyone to focus on the character and the improv.”

This is Colin’s second time auditioning for A Christmas Carol. “Looking back on last year, I realize that I wasn’t ready,” he admits. “But this time I felt I would get a role because I took the director’s advice and applied it to the audition. I made better decisions and was more open.”

Second-year students Carissa Diller and Kiana Kamm were recommended by their instructors. Kiana, who likes sewing, pantomimed making beautiful dresses in a tailor’s shop. “I felt confident doing the pantomime again in callbacks, but I didn’t think I would get a part. This was my first audition, and I was just very happy to have the experience.”

Carissa thought she might have made it to the callback. “SCR has a very good audition process because they treat you well and make you feel comfortable. I learned to be calm and listen to instructions. I felt like I did a good job, but didn’t expect to get a role because so few kids get chosen.”

How did they react when the phone rang?

Carissa: Super happy.
Hudson: Screaming, “I’m Turkey Boy—I get to meet Scrooge!”*
Kennedy: This is completely RAD.
J.T. It was like a dream come true.
Kiana: So excited—I was ready to pass out.
Nick: Excited—and relieved. It’s going to be great working with professional actors.
Colin: Beside myself with joy—excited to meet the cast.*

*And, of course, they’ll all get to meet the cast, led by SCR’s Scrooge—Hal Landon Jr., playing the role for his 36th season.


A Christmas Carol runs on the Segerstrom Stage Nov. 27-Dec. 27, 2015. 

Children’s roles are double cast. Actors with † appear Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at noon. Others appear in balance of performances.
FAN, the sister of Ebenezer:
J.T. Casey, Nick Trafton†
Sean Kato, Louis Alvarez Tonkovich†
Carissa Diller, Aoife McEvoy†
Kiana Kamm, Kennedy Haynes†
Jamie Ostmann, Lauren Lyons†
Hudson Mattingly Stefanello, Colin Root†
J.T. Casey, Nick Trafton†
Jamie Ostmann, Lauren Lyons†
Jack Matthews, Catherine Mitchell†
Carissa Diller, Aoife McEvoy†
Sean Kato, Louis Alvarez Tonkovich†
Rachel Bailey, Rachel Charny†
Kiana Kamm, Kennedy Haynes†
J.T. Casey, Nick Trafton†
Hudson Mattingly Stefanello, Colin Root†
Learn more and buy tickets.