Thursday, February 14, 2013

Finding Inspiration in Chekhov

Russian Humor

“Russian writer Anton Chekhov has been an inspiration and source for our works,” Richard Alger says. “Chekhov’s writing connects humor and pathos. We really embrace that and find ways to inject even more humor, beyond what’s there.”

In Track 3, three sisters and their brother are stranded in a provincial town where they long for some ideal, which is Moscow. They are waiting and looking for something outside of themselves to give them happiness, but in reality, the answer is within them.

“There are some great interjections from characters who comment on or break up what people are saying,” relates Alger. “Someone will say they want to go to Moscow, and another person in a different room will yell out ‘That’s nonsense!’

“We’re taking a story that is somewhat of a soap opera, with lots of melodrama and very touching moments, and giving it a surprisingly lively adaptation that keeps moving all the time. The audience can see how beautifully woven the relationships are between the characters.” In the tradition of Theatre Movement Bazaar, Track 3 also utilizes singing and dancing.

“Our hope is to inspire people to read the original Chekhov,” says Tina Kronis. ”And for those audience members who have read Chekhov, to engage with our storytelling and be ready for its energy.”
Artist and Mechanical Engineer Seem Unlikely Pairing, But Create Incredible Theatre Experiences

Maybe it seems like fate: Tina Kronis and Richard Alger first set eyes on each other at an New York audition in the mid-1990s. They quickly became friends. But romantic feelings didn’t stir until they worked together artistically at an off-Broadway warehouse on 39th Street where the Theatre of the Body Festival was being hosted.

It seemed an unlikely attraction at first: she was a choreographer and director; he was a mechanical engineer and writer. But their creative passions led them to collaborate and create what is now known as Theatre Movement Bazaar, the Los Angeles-based performance company.

“We were on the same page, even though we came from very different backgrounds,” says Kronis.  “But we are able to meet in the work at hand. That’s where we find common ground. It’s great.”

At the festival in New York City, Alger asked Kronis to do a production with him. Then she introduced him to silent clowning. They developed her piece, just the two of them, with mask, movement, clowning, mime and good times. The piece was called Cornography—a mix of corny things (the clown part) and choreography. Kronis’ time with Mummenschanz, the renowned Swiss-based mask theatre troupe, helped fine-tune the early works she and Alger developed.

Kronis and Alger married and then honeymooned by taking Cornography to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Mary Brennan, writing in The Herald, said Cornography’s “sense of humor is rooted, securely, in fine clowning and skilled mime.”

After the pair returned to the United States, they eventually moved to Los Angeles and began to partner with other kindred artistic souls, like Sacred Fools Theater Company. That’s where Kronis and Alger started plumbing the depths of Anton Chekhov’s works, beginning with an adaptation of Three Sisters as Chekhov’s Sisters and followed by an adaptation of The Seagull. Alger wrote and was involved with lighting and set design; Kronis directed and choreographed. [Theatre Movement Bazaar brought its adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in a work called Anton’s Uncles to Studio SCR in 2012.]

“We both wanted to prepare material that could be explored in a multi-faceted way,” Alger says.

Tina Kronis and Richard Alger
Their confidence and partnership growing, in 2000, Kronis and Alger officially formed Theater Movement Bazaar. Their vision was to grow beyond their two-person performing team and develop an ensemble and train the members in the Kronis-Alger method of storytelling.

Helming the company has been creatively rewarding for Kronis and Alger. In 2007, they performed again as a duo—backed by the ensemble players—in Monster of Happiness, a love story based on the myth of Adam and Eve that examines a cornerstone of the American Dream: the pursuit of happiness. In real life, the experience started off without much happiness: Alger was hit by a car and by the time Monster premiered, he played his scenes by sitting around a table. That incident prompted the company to develop and weave multi-media into its shows and the high-tech angle stayed true to their first meeting in New York City.

“We share not only a great compatibility, but a willingness to experiment and think about ways to revitalize theatre,” she says. Alger’s background in engineering and film helped deepen that sense of fearlessness in experimenting.

“Our creative relationship is built around our strengths,” she adds. “After all this time, we continue to surprise each other and challenge each other,” says Kronis of the key behind their creative partnership. “When Richard writes something, it’s like a piece of music to me. I get to take that “music” and bring it to life—flesh and blood—with the actors.”

Kronis adds that the ensemble isn’t playwright-driven. “Text is just one level,” she explains. “The direction is one level, the music is one level and we interweave it all. That’s at the core of Theatre Movement Bazaar.”

About Theatre Movement Bazaar

Theatre Movement Bazaar is dedicated to creating original performance works. The company merges elements of dance, text, cinema and media from many different sources to create provocative theatrical storytelling with an emphasis on physical action. The company strives to reinvigorate the theatre for contemporary audiences.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Actor Drawn to Theatre’s Magic

Emily Eiden and Jennifer Parsons in Anastasia Krupnik.
Jennifer Parsons
The magic of make-believe drew Jennifer Parsons into acting. She is featured as the Grandmother and Mrs. Westvessel, a teacher, in South Coast Repertory’s production of Anastasia Krupnik.

“The thing that got me into acting in the first place was pretending to be these larger than life characters,” she says. “And the Theatre for Young Audiences roles really ask all of us to use our entire skill arsenal: singing, dancing, tumbling and dialects. They require lots of energy and stamina. You have to give your all and I like that!”

The character of the Grandmother in Anastasia has an additional poignancy because she suffers from Alzheimer’s. For Parsons, real life provides some insights. “For a role like this, you probably know people who have gone through it, and then the key is bringing that in and pretending it’s happening to you.”

She likes how Meryl Friedman has adapted the story of Anastasia from Lois Lowry’s beloved book series. Parsons says that the three generations in the family—Anastasia, her parents and her grandmother—have something that everyone can relate to.

“Once my mom sent me an old fashioned black and white photo of a little kid who looked very serious and a little bit consternated at the proceedings at the time of the photo,” she recalls. “The kid looked like me, but I couldn’t recall the time or place. It turned out it was actually a photograph of my mom when she was little. I saw myself in her It made me realize how all older people were younger people once. And that’s why my mom and dad and grandparents were so good at making me feel better about stuff.”

Parsons hopes that audiences will enjoy Anastasia Krupnik.

“They’re the real reason I do plays! I hope that the kids hear the story and are somehow moved to think in a new way.  At least that's what I hope: to open their minds.”

Parsons’ acting ranges from television to movies to stage. Her television credits include “Bones,” “Without a Trace,” “JAG,” “The X Files” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Her film credits include Never Been Kissed and Dragonfly.

At SCR, she’s been Mrs. Cratchit in A Christmas Carol and has been in several Theatre for Young Audiences productions, including The Borrowers, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Bunnicula, James and the Giant Peach, The Only Child, Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business, Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!, The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and The Brand New Kid.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Cheers for "Chinglish"

On Friday, February 1, playwright David Henry Hwang joined in the applause as cast members of Chinglish—his hilarious play that embraces both sides of the cultural divide—took their well-deserved bows.

Then it was time to stroll across the street for the Cast Party, co-sponsored by the Center Club, where the cheers went up again, not just for the playwright and cast, but for members of the production team who fit the elaborate Broadway set onto SCR’s stage and made it all work.

As First Nighters partied in the newly-renovated Encore Lounge to the music of Chinese Hip Hop, they sipped signature “Year of the Snake” martinis and sampled hors d’oeuvres that included sweet and spicy chicken with Asian slaw—served with chop sticks in Chinese mini-boxes.

The evening ended as it began, with praise for all concerned, which was led by the Honorary Producers and echoed by the press in the days that followed.  Here are some choice adjectives :

--Honorary Producers Yvonne and Damien Jordan

--Honorary Producers Betty and S.L. Huang


--LA Times

--Hollywood Reporter

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Tale of Two Who Love Puppetry and Masks

About Rogue Artists Ensemble

Rogue Artists Ensemble was founded by a group of theater artists studying at the University of California, Irvine who shared an emphasis on the visual aesthetic of creating theatre. They use the term “Hyper-theater,” which comes from “hyperbole,” to emphasize their dedication to making big exaggerated choices to make each moment of their storytelling the best it can be. As they’ve grown, Rogue Artists Ensemble put an emphasis on education. Sharing the work they do and their process has become just as important as showcasing the work they create.
Puppetry and mask work have always been important aspects of creating theatre for Rogue Artists Ensemble—the next company to present a show in South Coast Repertory’s Studio SCR.

Sean T. Cawelti, Rogue’s artistic director, never dreamed that his childhood love for these two art forms would give rise to a company, let alone draw in such talented and dedicated artists like Songs of Bilitis playwright Katie Polebaum.

A-Typical Storytelling at a Young Age

Early on, Cawelti had a knack for artistic storytelling through his drawing and paintings. At age 4, his parents took him to a swap meet and let him to pick one toy. He chose—and still has—an old marionette from Mexico, which he named Pedro. Puppeteering fascinated him, so he bought and built as many puppets as he could. He used leftover scraps of fabric from his seamstress mom—who earned money by making clothes for Cabbage Patch dolls—to create even more puppets. Add to all of his puppet work the fact he grew up in the age of The Muppets, Cawelti quickly began to see how puppets could interact with humans to tell stories.

Sean’s parents got him involved with Orange County Children’s Theater. And by middle school, he already was directing school plays—incorporating puppetry, multimedia and special effects to explore different types of story telling. But according to Sean, most grade school shows were miserable failures. “They were never great pieces of theatre. But it wasn’t about the end, it was about the process.”

At UC Irvine, Sean connected with like-minded artists who had an interest in puppetry and mask work; their first production was The Poe Play. The 10 artists realized they wanted to continue producing art together even after graduation and officially formed Rogue Artists Ensemble, a self-proclaimed nerdy reference to Star Wars’ Rogue squadron.

East Coast Parallels

At the same time Cawelti explored puppetry and mask work in high school, on the East Coast, Katie Polebaum started working with her high school technical director, who also had an interest for these art forms

In 2006, at Middlebury College, she channeled her passion into her senior thesis on puppetry. Nearing graduation, she found a Rogue Artists Ensemble post on Craigslist. She visited their website, knew it was an artistic match and sent a cover letter, resume and photos of her work. Within two weeks of graduating, she packed her bags, moved to L.A. and was working with the Rogues.

At first, Polebaum simply volunteered, but after two years of saying “Yes” to whatever they needed, she became an ensemble member.

 “I love them. I moved across the country for them. They are my West Coast family. The work that I’m passionate about is with Rogue Artists Ensemble.”

Making It Real

She and Cawelti share a keen understanding of why puppetry and mask work are integrated.

Notes Cawelti, “When used properly, a mask or a puppet can help get to an idea, emotion or action that you can’t see with an unassisted actor. If you have a well-defined mask, it gets to the heart of a character that a human face can’t. Especially characters that are bigger than life. They link audiences to what the other characters are thinking.”

Adds Polebaum, “Because, puppets aren’t constrained by the laws of physics; they can fly, disappear, get huge and become tiny. It allows for motr theatrical ways of story telling.”

Get your tickets for Rogue Artists Ensemble’s production of Song of Bilitis, directed by Cawelti, presented as part of South Coast Repertory’ Studio SCR. February 14 – 17, 2013.

Photos from top to bottom:  Sean T. Cawelti, Katie Polebaum and Sean and Katie.

Songs of Bilitis
The Origins of Bilitis

The play originated with The Getty Villa, which reached out to Rogue Artists Ensemble to collaborate on a project, and proposed an adaptation of the written works of Bilitis.

Polebaum began to research Bilitis, her poetry and her stories, but grew more fascinated with telling the story of the man who created the fictitious character of Bilitis, the real-life poet and writer Pierre Louÿs.

Louÿs did not simply create the character of Bilitis, but attempted to pass her works off as real poems written by a real ancient Greek courtesan. With so much praise being lavished on the fake Bilitis, the actual talent behind her—Louÿs—was overlooked.

Polebaum never got a satisfying answer as to why Louÿs created Bilitis and her writings. He was known to be a bit of a prankster and a failure at gaining the success that he wanted. As a result, his story in Songs of Bilitis is mostly fictitious. Polebaum uses the play and the actual text of Bilitis to explore Louÿs’ thought processes while he wrote Bilitis’ poems. Polebaum says, "In the play, Louÿs is creating a work that is better than anything he ever thought he could write himself. It is so much bigger than anything he had done before that it creates a chasm between the creator and the created."

A Bold Blend of Alternative Theatre: SCRamble

Ten West. Photo by Cameron McIntyre.
Sit back for seven theatrical shorts. It’s SCRamble, South Coast Repertory’s evening of comedy, dance, puppetry and mask work, and more. In 10-minute increments, you’ll experience a bold new blend productions from some of Southern California’s most interesting artists.

SCRamble’s featured artists include:

Actors Circle Ensemble presents The Experiment, written by Melanie Wehrmacher and directed by Tamiko Washington. The performers are Sean Burgos and Alexa Giuffre. Founded in 2011, Actors Circle creates complex and engaging characters in a theatrical environment to provoke thought, freedom of artistic expression, innovative ideas.

Echo Hart Commons presents Josephine an excerpt from Hôtel de l’Avenir, a clown-cabaret written and performed by Alexis Macnab. Echo Hart is a Los Angeles-based “art engine” with a creative process that transforms, fuses, and defies the boundaries of genre and discipline.

Moving Arts presents SHE: an excerpt from The MosaicWonderland Project, directed by Vesna Hocevar. The project is an ongoing exhibition of short scenes and monologues that connect the visual and performing arts. Moving Arts developed the project in conjunction with SoCal artist Kimberly Jordan. Each scene is inspired by an art piece from Jordan's collection and simultaneously tells a story and captures the feeling of each art piece.

Rickerby Hinds present an excerpt from Dreamscape, written and directed by Rickerby Hinds. Through poetry, dance and beat-boxing, Dreamscape explores the life of Myeisha Mills (Tyisha Miller), a 19-year-old African American woman shot and killed by four Riverside, Calif., police officers. Dreamscape re-frames her death by following the trajectory and impact of the 12 bullets that struck her - each one triggering its own unique memory.

John Pick and The Smith and Martin Company present The Best of Craigslist, performed by Pick and developed with the help of directors Abigail Deser and Ian Forester. Craigslist is a web-series produced by Pick and Mike Hoy, taking ads from Craigslist and portraying the characters who post them. The Smith and Martin Company is a Los Angeles-based production company that develops and produces film, theatre and web content.

Ten West presents Ineffable, written and performed by Jon Monastero and Stephen Simon and directed by Bryan Coffee. Ten West is a Los Angeles-based physical comedy duo. Their work is influenced by clown, commedia dell’Arte, mime and dance. Both Monastero and Simon are active in the Cirque du Soleil clown database.

El Verde presents Night of the Kukaracha, written by Anthony Aguilar and directed by Alejandra Cisneros. It’s namesake is the superhero alter ego of Mexican immigrant factory worker Arturo Sanchez, whose adventures are chronicled in an episodic series of one-act and full-length productions. In this tale, El Verde faces the Kukaracha King. The performers are Anthony Aguilar, Jeremiah Ocañas, Juan Diego Ramirez, Oscar Basulto, and Angela Imperial.

Friday, February 1, 2013

"Chinglish" and More: A Hwang Whirlwind

Honorary Producers S.L. and Betty Huang, David Henry Hwang, and Honorary Producer Damien Jordan
Peg E Rollans and David Henry Hwang
S.L Huang, John Glore and Barbara Roberts
David Henry Hwang and Maria Hall-Brown
Since arriving in California for the opening of Chinglish, playwright David Henry Hwang has found himself in the middle of a whirlwind of activity, with so many events scheduled that the theatre created a document to keep track of them.

Audiences at preview performances on Jan. 29 and 30 received unexpected treats: after each show, David participated in a “Talkback” with Literary Director Kelly Miller.  One surprised playgoer, Jan Wilcox, said, “I loved the opportunity to hear directly from the playwright after the show.  It provided insight into his vision and made the experience even more intimate and meaningful.”

Another surprise is in store.  Instead of jetting home to New York after First Night of Chinglish, David will stay around for a “Talkback” the next day—Feb. 2, following the matinee performance.

In his “free” time, David was interviewed by Paul Hodgins of the Orange County Register (read it here) and David Ng of the Los Angeles Times (watch for it in an upcoming issue).  On Jan. 30 he recorded a PBS So Cal segment with Maria Hall-Brown (“Real Orange” will air at 5 p.m. on Feb. 4 and 12:30 a.m. on Feb. 5).

After the recording session, David rushed back to SCR for a “Salon” in the Nicholas Studio.  The champagne reception with members of SCR’s Playwrights Circle was followed by a lively discussion moderated by Associate Artistic Director John Glore.

On the afternoon of opening night, Marie Hall-Brown joined David at SCR to record another PBS SoCal segment for “LAaRT,” which will be seen at a future date.  As soon as the video wrapped, he was off to Pinot Provence for a private dinner party with the Honorary Producers, followed by First Night of Chinglish and the Cast Party afterwards, co-sponsored by The Center Club.  Look for those photos in “Party Play” on Feb. 7.

Dialog/Diálogos: SCR and Latino Health Access Story Circle

Some of the participants from SCR’s first Dialog/Dialogos workshop at SCR, Jan. 28, 2013.
A large circle of chairs filled up Monday in Colab for a daylong workshop about the Dialog/Diálogos project. Representatives from South Coat Repertory and Latino Health Access spent the day learning about community-based theatre from members of the outreach and engagement team at Cornerstone Theatre. SCR and LHA are partners in the Santa Ana-based project.

Marc Masterson, SCR’s Artistic Director, says Dialog/Diálogos is important because it will give SCR opportunities to connect with Latino residents of Santa Ana through the process of making theatre together.

“This can be a life-changing process,” he said. “By listening to stories and putting them into a production, we give voice to the voiceless and start building a new kind of community.”

During the day, attendees were able to sample the type of activities designed to help bring out and tell stories: people told stories, sampled the audition process, and at the end of the day, three teams put things to practice by creating and presenting short performances.

“What we modeled today is how we’ll go into the Santa Ana community, bring people together in a story circle, listen to stories and over the time of our project, let those stories reveal themselves. Then we’ll come back to the community and by working together, craft Santa Ana’s stories into a production,” said Jose Cruz González, project playwright.

He’s enthusiastic about what the project will bring and mean to Santa Ana residents: “I can’t wait to see what we can create together.”

The two-year project is funded by a two-year grant from The James Irvine Foundation.