A Writer Returns to Where It All Began
Playwright Allison Gregory’s adaptation of Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! has been seen all over the country, but South Coast Repertory’s production is extra special for her: The Orange County native took her first playwriting class right here at SCR. We asked Allison a few questions about her art and adventures, growing up as an actor and playwright in the OC.
Q: I know you were born and raised in Orange County. Where did you grow up, and how often do you come home?
A: I was born in Anaheim, and moved to Orange Park Acres when I was 8. Back then it was "country," and everyone had horses and chickens and goats and—well, you can imagine the smell. My sisters and I were in 4-H; in sixth grade my pig won grand champion of the Orange County Fair! His name was Pink Floyd.
Most of my family still lives in OC (there was no "the" when I lived there), and I try to come home at least once a year.
Q: Do you remember the first play you ever saw at South Coast Repertory?
A: The first play I saw at SCR was Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge, because a friend of mine was playing Christy. This would have been in the early ́80s when I was...an infant. It was a lovely, exciting production, and it put SCR on my map.
Q: Do you think growing up here influenced your work or artistic sensibility?
A: I think you bring your past to everything you do, intentionally or not. My first play was blatantly based on my own family. They have since forgiven me and have been very supportive. I find myself now, 10 or 12 plays later, writing a new play with the lead character a thinly veiled version of another family member. (I won't say who; they'll just have to come see the play to find out.) My sense of humor, my fears, my interests, my voice—certainly all of it was shaped by growing up here. You don't escape it, for better or for worse, no matter how much you forget. You pull from it and, ideally, put it to work. That, to me, is a useful life.
Q: When did you first fall in love with the theatre? And start acting?
A: I saw my first full-blown musical, Brigadoon, when I was in 5th or 6th grade. It was a college production at Stanford. I don't know that I fell in love with theatre so much as with the actor playing Charlie Dalrymple, but it left a lasting impression. Flash forward many years: I'm a ballet dancer just out of school and looking for work, and I get cast at a summer theatre in central California (Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts/PCPA) in, you got it, Brigadoon. I play Jeanie, who's getting married to...Charlie Dalrymple! After that I stayed on to do parts in straight plays, and got onstage training from some of the best actors in the country: Mark Harelik, Dakin Matthews, Byron Jennings, Deborah May. It was a thrilling place to be.
Q: When did you discover that you wanted to write plays?
A: I thought most playwrights were dead until I started performing new plays at the Denver Center Theatre. This was my first clue that people were still writing these things.
At some point I signed up for an acting class at SCR with the delightful Karen Hensel, but it was full, so, since I was here anyway, I joined the playwriting class taught by the wonderful John Glore, SCR's Associate Artistic Director. I had no intention of writing a play; I was just waiting for someone in the acting class to bail. Several hard-fought months later I found myself with my first play—which went on to win an honorable mention in SCR's Pacific Playwrights competition, and which earned me my first commission, from SCR. So, there were many firsts here, all of which makes this current production so meaningful to me. As John Glore recently said, the circle is complete.
Q: You've written so many great plays for young audiences, including adaptations of Go, Dog. Go!, Peter and the Wolf and Junie B. What inspired you to start writing for kids?
A: My husband (playwright Steven Dietz) dared me. I love the different writing muscle it takes. Kids are so quick and smart—they get what you're saying right off. You can't belabor things with that meaningful monologue or clever but repetitive scene; kids are story taskmasters; they will let you know (painfully) when you've gone off task. Good children's theatre is honest writing.
Q: What inspired you to adapt this particular Junie B. story?
A: I used to read the Junie B. series over and over to my daughter Ruby. No other books could make her laugh as hard. We all walked around the house reciting quotes, like Junie B. clones, cracking each other up. She really got that the language was incorrect, but it had a kind of accuracy when it came to describing Junie B.'s thoughts and feelings. I got to work really closely with the series author, Barbara Park, on this play, which was a big thrill. It was like meeting Junie B. herself!
Q: Junie B. is such a great character—a quirky, funny troublemaker. Did you get into trouble when you were a kid?
A: Talk to my mom. On second thought, don't talk to my mom. I was a perfect a child, I never did anything wrong. Really.