Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Playwright Allison Gregory on Junie B.

JUNIE B. is BACK… with Jingle Bells On!

The holidays are just around the corner—and Santa is watching first-grader Junie B. Jones like a hawk. It doesn’t help that her classroom nemesis May can’t stop tattling and is threatening to ruin her holiday glee.

Junie B. is thrilled when her class is chosen to lead the first grade holiday sing-along by singing “Jingle Bells,” wearing green elf costumes and jingle hats. But Junie B. and May just can’t get along—and their teacher Mr. Scary threatens to cancel the sing-along for everyone if they get into one more fight.

To make matters worse, Junie B. draws May’s name for their Secret Santa gift exchange—and struggles to decide (with the help of her trusty stuffed elephant Philip Johnny Bob) if May deserves more than a lump of coal. You see, Junie B. really, really wants to buy a Squeeze-a-Burp—the most awesome toy in their holiday gift shop—for herself. But if she does, she’ll have no money left to buy a gift for May.

When Junie B. makes her last-minute gift decision, will she find it in her heart to be a “giver?”  Or will she prove to be a “shellfish” (as May says)? Will Junie B. find a way to share peace and goodwill? Or will May get exactly what she deserves?

Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! is a funny, fast-paced holiday comedy inspired by Barbara Park’s popular Junie B. Jones children’s book series. Park has written more than 25 titles since 1992 featuring the antics of Junie B. and her pint-sized entourage.  The books have become favorites of girls and boys, moms and dads, teachers and librarians alike.

Playwright Allison Gregory was commissioned to adapt Park’s book Junie B., First Grader: Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! (P.S. So Does May.) for the stage by Arizona theatre company Childsplay, Inc., which premiered the play in 2009. Allison worked closely with author Barbara Park on the adaptation, and drew from two other books in the Junie B., First Grader series: Shipwrecked and Dumb Bunny.

Award-winning director Casey Stangl returns to SCR to direct her second Junie B. production for our Theatre for Young Audiences series. Casey directed the popular musical adaptation of Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business during our 2009-10 season. Stangl has worked in renowned theaters throughout Southern California and the country, including the Pasadena Playhouse, Ensemble Studio Theatre, the Guthrie Theatre, Denver Center Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth. Her production of Noel Coward’s Peace in Our Time—a collaboration with The Antaeus Company in Los Angeles—runs through December 13.

South Coast Repertory is thrilled to welcome Junie B. Jones back to our stage—alongside playwright Allison Gregory and director Casey Stangl. We hope you’ll join us for this fun, frolicking story of holiday cheer, goodwill and the power of giving—Junie B.-style.

More Info/Tickets
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.

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