Friday, October 30, 2015

Fun with Frog and Toad

by Kat Zukaitis
Alex Miller and Justin Michael Duval in the 2009 production of A Year with Frog and Toad.
Frog and Toad don’t have much in common. Frog is outgoing and gregarious; Toad is shy and charmingly grumpy. Frog enjoys adventures and scary stories; Toad would rather stay at home with a cozy cup of tea.

And yet, neither is really happy when their friend is not.

In A Year with Frog and Toad, the two perfectly mismatched pals weather the adventures and challenges that a new year brings. The story begins in the spring, with Frog’s energetic attempts to rouse a drowsy Toad from hibernation… even if he has to resort to trickery to do so! In the months that follow, Frog and Toad fly a kite, plant a garden, and bake a batch of utterly irresistible cookies. They secretly rake each other’s yards in the autumn, only to have their efforts erased by a pair of mischievous squirrels. One dark and stormy night, Toad is frightened out of his warty skin by his friend’s scary story about a large and terrible frog—and nearly breaks off their friendship that winter after a sledding trip goes disastrously wrong.

But a timely letter sets things to rights, and friendship proves stronger than fear for our eponymous amphibians. With the able assistance of a cheery mouse, a stalwart snail, and a host of other creatures, Frog and Toad are all set for a year that teaches them about the great power of everyday interactions.

A Year with Frog and Toad first warmed the hearts of SCR audiences in 2009. The production was such a success that we’re bringing it back this fall, complete with nearly all of the original cast members. Director Nick DeGruccio once again takes the helm, and scenic designer Fred Kinney and costume designer Soojin Lee will bring the woodland world to life with their marvelous creations. (Read more about the cast here.)

Arnold Lobel
Meet the Creators: Arnold Lobel, Adrianne Lobel & the Reale Brothers

Arnold Lobel is best known for his classic illustrated books about Frog and Toad, which have captivated generations of children with their whimsical exploration of the meaning of friendship.

Lobel began drawing early in life. While growing up in Schenectady, New York, he missed long stretches of the second grade due to illness. He passed the time by drawing animal characters, and used these characters to make friends with his classmates when he finally returned to school. Lobel later drew on the experiences like these to create the timeless characters that populate his books. “Frog and Toad,” Lobel commented, “are really two aspects of myself.”

Lobel’s books were widely read and widely praised: Frog and Toad was a Caldecott Honor book in 1971, and he won the Caldecott Medal a decade later for the lighthearted yet profound Fables. He frequently collaborated with his wife, Anita, also a talented illustrator, and found inspiration in outings with their two children. "I cannot think of any work that could be more agreeable and fun than making books for children," Lobel said. When he died in 1987, he left behind a legacy of almost 100 books.

Arnold’s daughter Adrianne Lobel, herself a noted set designer, realized the theatrical potential of her father’s work. With the assistance of Willie and Robert Reale, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, Adrianne brought A Year with Frog and Toad to life at the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis in 2002. A sold-out run in New York followed, and the musical earned several Tony nominations. A Year with Frog and Toad has since been seen at theatres throughout the country, bringing Lobel’s beloved woodland characters to a new generation of children.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Opening Night Audience Cheers Reprise of Beth Henley’s "Abundance"

At South Coast Repertory on Friday, Oct. 23, playwright Beth Henley was in the audience for the revival of her western drama, Abundance. When she was introduced from the stage, the clapping turned to cheers that finally brought Henley to her feet to acknowledge the welcome for her and for the fiercely funny play that had its world premiere on the same stage 26 years ago.

After the show, Henley and Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson, who directed Abundance, joined theatregoers at the Cast Party, co-hosted by The Center Club.

“I’ve always loved this play and wanted to do it,” Benson said. Then, with a nod to the playwright, he added that directing Abundance was “every bit as delightful as I expected.”

Modern bluegrass music wafted through the autumn flower-filled room as First Nighters and their guests sampled all-American delicacies, including fried chicken and biscuits, and—prepared with a nod to the play—cornbread, lemon pound cake and pumpkin pie bites.

But the conversation centered on Abundance, with past SCR trustees chiming in.

“It was filled with twists and turns—just like life,” said Betty Huang.

“I really liked it, and the acting was incredible,” added Wylie Aitken.

Carl Neisser was impressed with “the juxtaposition of nature’s players.” His remark drew chuckles from his friends, but they all agreed that the characters were well defined and portrayed superbly.

Barbara Roberts summed it up. “A wonderful play, and leave it to Martin—he always comes through with a great production.”

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Different Definition of “Dressing for Success”

SCR's Wardrobe Supervisor Bert Henert

Wardrobe Supervisor: In charge of all costumes once they leave the Costume Shop (where costumes are built) and move to the performance space (Segerstrom or Julianne Argyros stages, and as needed, the Nicholas Studio). Oversees work done by any costume staff on shows to ensure that costumes are ironed, pressed, cleaned and repaired. Checks in on each show to confirm that everything related to costumes is going well. Helps actors with quick changes in general, getting into and out of costumes.

Dresser: Works on a specific show, doing specific jobs, such as costume maintenance, ironing, or steaming.
Bert Henert is backstage at South Coast Repertory, waiting for Beth Henley’s Abundance to start. He’s dressed in black, with a full-length apron that has multiple pockets. The apron is adorned with an array of items including safety pins, two small flashlights, bobby pins, a tape measure, pens, a small notepad, small scissors, tissues, bandages, zipper wax, an eyeglass repair kit, glass cleaning cloths, shoe horn, tweezers, sewing needles, thread and hand sanitizer.

He is ready for anything in his role as SCR’s wardrobe supervisor, which includes helping actors with costume changes during performances. Everything needs to run smoothly, whether a costume change takes five minutes or needs to happen in 15 seconds.

But Henert’s job goes beyond those backstage changes during a show. Once costumes have been built in SCR’s Costume Shop, the pieces move to one of the theatre’s performances spaces (in the case of Abundance, on the Segerstrom Stage), where Henert manages them.

Angela Balogh Calin designed the period costumes for Henley’s American West tale of two mail-order brides in the 19th century. Included are frock coats, working clothes, bowler hats, bonnets, fancy dresses, bustles, corsets and petticoats, and on each piece, an array of fine details—both seen and hidden.

Henert stresses that costumes are not clothing—they don’t come off a store rack ready to be worn by an actor. Even costumes for contemporary plays have special treatment or elements to ensure that they will meet the needs of the production. For example, fabric may be painted or specially dyed or have other finishing or quick-change elements built in. And costumes need to withstand wear and tear from up to three-dozen performances. Day-to-day, costumes are maintained through cleaning, maintenance and repairs. The gowns in Abundance need special attention since they may not necessarily be wash-and-wear.

Paige Lindsey White and Daniel Reichert in Abundance.
Then, it’s on to the matter of changing costumes during a performance. It takes a lot of pre-planning and, once rehearsals start on stage, coordination between the Costume Shop, stage management and Henert to ensure that this element of the production goes smoothly.

“The designers and our Costume Shop find the best way to be true to the look of the period, but to hide the use of modern elements like zippers or snaps, which are much faster to use than buttons,” he says.

The backstage wardrobe area includes a number of things to help the actors. A rolling rack, baskets, chairs and shelves help him prepare things for easy access. Lots of shelves in this case because Abundance has numerous shoes and hats. A standing mirror is one last element so that actors can do a quick check before returning to the stage.


What are you watching now?
“‘Homeland’ and ‘Nurse Jackie.’ These are two shows that I’ve been meaning to watch and I’m a huge Eve Best fan!” Next up for him to watch: “The Affair.”

What do you do outside of theatre?
“I garden. I like working with plants and being outdoors. I’m trying to get into long-distance hiking nad have a goal to hike the John Muir Trail one day.”

What’s your beverage of choice?
“Tea, herbal or black iced teas. Right now, I’m sipping on a blood-orange black iced tea. It’s great!”
Henert’s non-performance-time work space includes washing machines and dryers, an ironing board with a built in steamer and vacuum, a sewing machine and lots of extra supplies. For him, this command center is right where he wants to be—he thrives on the creativity, problem-solving, organization and imagination—in short, the theatre.

Henert grew up in Wisconsin and was drawn to theatre at an early age when he took acting classes and worked in productions at Children’s Theatre of Madison. He still remembers his first production: Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding. (“Right? For kids!” Henert chuckles. “But it was fun and we were involved in the whole backstage process, helping out and getting to see everything.”)

He studied theatre and costume design at the University of Southern California and came to SCR seven seasons ago. He loves the artistry and inventiveness that is woven into the dramatic arts.

“I love how costumes help create a character,” he says. “And there is so much fabric to play with!”

SCR is home for Henert. He enjoys working with the many actors, directors, designers, stage managers and others, including the theatre’s regular staff.

“We do such great work here and it’s a great place to learn and to be a part of,” he says.

And the solution to the 15-second costume change? The actor wears two costumes—taking off the outer garment, revealing the costume underneath for the next scene Presto, change-o—it’s the magic of theatre.

Learn more about Abundance and buy tickets.
Photos by Ben Horak.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Plays for Young Audiences Have Deep Meaning for Actors

Emily Eiden, Erika Schindele and Justin Michael Duval in SCR's 2009 production of A Year with Frog and Toad
Erika Schindele, Justin Michael Duval and Emily Eiden in A Year with Frog and Toad.
The start of rehearsals this week for A Year with Frog and Toad is a bit like a homecoming for nearly all the cast—most of them were in South Coast Repertory’s 2009 production of the memorable musical. Emily Eiden and Erika Schindele are among the returning cast members.

“This is an intelligent show for both adults and kids,” Schindele says. “The music has intricate harmonies and characters are so lovely.”

“I love the simplicity of the story—its gentle focus on the everyday aspects of friendship,” Eiden says. “What’s fantastic is how Frog and Toad enrich each other’s lives just by being there for each other, every day of the year.”

Friendship is a key part of theatre that Eiden and Schindele know well; they became friends in 2009 during that first production of Frog and Toad. And each had an early start in theatre through supportive friends and family

For Eiden, whose father directed shows and whose mother both directed and acted, childhood was all about great storytelling and experiencing the power of theatre. She first stepped onstage at the age of three in a production of The Miracle Worker, directed by her father.

Kasey Mahaffy and Emily Eiden in the 2008 production of Taking Steps.
“I played a blind child, with one line,” she recalls. “I still remember the feel of the stage lights on my face and in my eyes.”

Her mother directed a touring production each year and Eiden traveled with her and a group of kids to local libraries and parks to put on plays and, after rehearsals, they also would work on costumes and props.

“I learned much of what I know about acting from my parents,” she says.

Schindele fondly remembers her first time on stage when, as a young girl, she was in a production of Annie at a community theatre. But for her, the acting bug didn’t bite until she began taking drama classes in junior high school. She credits a love for theatre to her drama teacher, who encouraged, taught and cast her, and helped her explore all aspects of stagecraft. Years later, he hired her to choreograph middle and high school productions.

Eiden’s first production at SCR was Kitty in Alan Ayckbourn’s farce, Taking Steps (“I spent most of the show locked in a closet and it was a blast!”).

Richard Doyle, Erika Schindele, Matthew Koehler and Daniel Blinkoff in SCR's 2008 production of An Italian Straw Hat.
“My favorite role so far is definitely Anastasia in Anastasia Krupnik,” she relates. “The play was so honest and funny, and it dealt with some very real-life issues. I think it was bold and wonderful of SCR to let kids be with Anastasia as she muddled her way through it all. 

Schindele found portraying Helen in The Italian Straw Hat to be amazing, “because I got to run around in a stunning wedding dress built for me by SCR’s phenomenal Costume Shop.”

She also loves the role of Belle in A Christmas Carol, made more memorable for a few reasons: she and her family had been coming to see the show for years; and she got engaged during the run of the show in 2010 (“He proposed and the following day at the two performances, I could show off my ring and my beautiful proposal story. I love our Christmas Carol cast so much that it was like sharing the news with family.”).

Outside of SCR, both Eiden and Schindele remain active in theatre, television, film and voiceover work.

“In live theatre, I love the process—rehearsals, costume fittings, tech, previews and then the show’s run,” Schindele says. She enjoys working with actors and directors, as they develop characters, and discussing the story, meaning and message of a show. In film and television, she does her “little piece of a huge project in one or two days. It’s still fun, thrilling and fulfilling, but a completely different way to tell a story”

Eiden does quite a bit of work geared for younger audiences, including theatre, audio books and cartoons.

Emily Eiden, Tobie Windham, Erika Whalen, Rudy Martinez, Tony Sancho and Melody Butiu in Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!
“I think my stage work gives color to my voice work and vice-versa,” Eiden says. “In theatre, my audience is right there with me, experiencing the world of the play and letting me know what they think. In voice work, I’m often alone in a recording booth, so I have to picture the whole world of the story and try to convey it all through my voice. I can only wonder what my audience is going to think.”

Plays created for younger audiences have special meaning to this pair of actors, perhaps since each had an early introduction to the theatre. As they work again together on A Year with Frog and Toad, both think about young audience members.

“We follow Frog and Toad through the seasons and through all sorts of adventures,” Schindele says. “Through it all, they look out for each other. Maybe kids will leave humming a few catchy tunes or learn that friends can be family, too.”

“Kids are the best audiences,” Eiden says. “They come ready to have fun and believe in our onstage world. I find that the ‘simple’ lessons of the play are some of the most important lessons for kids to learn—and it doesn’t hurt to remind the adults in the audience of those lessons, either.”

Learn more about the play and buy tickets.

Photos by Henry DiRocco.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Artisans of SCR: Crafting the Rough Edges of "Abundance"

Abundance costume designer Angela Balogh Calin in SCR's Costume Shop. Photo: Ben Horak/SCR.
A pirate, a civil war solider and a grasshopper all have something in common. And it’s not a bad punch line. Their commonality is the mastermind behind their clothes, their style and their looks—all crafted by costume designer Angela Balogh Calin.

Calin has designed for more than 50 productions at South Coast Repertory. The list could go on for days: from last season’s Peter and the Starcatcher to Crimes of the Heart to Noises Off and more than a dozen Theatre for Young audiences productions, she’s gone from contemporary times to the 1800s to fantasy. The one place she hasn’t yet gone with her designs at SCR? The Wild West.

Until now, that is. Her time is currently being filled with fittings and finding the right pieces for costumes that she's designing for Abundance by Beth Henley, with first previews starting Oct. 16. In Abundance, the time is the late 1800s and two mail-order brides head west to the Wyoming territory in hopes of finding a more complete life. Calin couldn’t be more thrilled to be designing a western this time around. They happen to hold a special place in her heart.

“I am very fond of this period and setting for more than one reason,” says Calin. “One of my most vivid memories from growing up in Romania was watching westerns with my father. We were both mesmerized by the scenery, the harshness of life and the resilience of the human spirit. Even now, one of my favorite places to travel to is the Southwest with its amazing colors, views and endless blue skies.”

As she began work months ago for this production, Calin looked for inspiration in many places, including television. Pulling from some of her personal favorites, “Hell on Wheels” and “Deadwood,” she found the beauty of the Wild West in its rough worn edges.

Calin working in SCR's Costume Shop
“Both series were a great source for my research," she explains. "They seem to truthfully convey the harshness of life in the Wild West. At the time, clothes were expensive and ordinary people could not afford more than a few. A hat or a pair of boots would have to last for a very long time, a ribbon or a yard of lace would be a cherished accessory for a young woman.”

Calin has been scouring SCR’s collection of stored costumes to find the perfect pieces. She loves the history that previously created costumes hold. “I always enjoy recycling clothes or costumes because I believe they have a past life and stories to tell. Just like people. Past experiences add a new dimension and excitement to life,” she says.

Outside of SCR’s collections, Calin also has been looking online for companies that specialize in recreating vintage clothing. She’s even been able to find and alter modern clothing to fit the needs of the production. And, of course, she’s had a few pieces created specifically for the show, “This play needs authentic-looking clothes in order to successfully covey the journey of the two couples,” she says. “We only built a few costumes, mainly the ones that we need doubles of and two of the more elegant ones.”

With technical rehearsals starting today and performances just around the corner, Calin keeps in mind what might make a costume design stand out, “Have you noticed those times, when watching an old movie, that the design looks so outdated and it’s almost sad? And then, there are the movies that always are as exciting as the first time you watched them! I think successful costume designs are about creativity, imagination, humor and the courage to speak about the characters they are made for.”

Learn more and buy tickets now.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Vietgone" Opens to Laughter, Tears and Praise

At South Coast Repertory on Friday, Oct. 9, murmurs of surprise were followed by stunned silence, followed by peals of laughter, a few tears and then more laughter—and at the end, a standing ovation. All the emotions a playwright hopes to elicit from an audience were just what Qui Nguyen achieved with Vietgone, his new play that officially opened the season on SCR’s Julianne Argyros Stage.

As theatregoers gathered at the Cast Party, co-hosted by AnQi, there were words of praise for the director, actors and artisans. All were well deserved, it was agreed. But the playwright's new work was what everyone talked about.

And the superlatives flew, led by Honorary Producers Marci Maietta Weinberg and William Weinberg, who have been associated with Vietgone since they first saw it in a staged reading at SCR's Pacific Playwrights Festival.

(Emeritus Trustee and First Nighter Olivia Johnson guessed right when she said, "I bet they feel like proud parents.")

"When Marci and I saw the play at PPF, the minute the lights went down, it was like an electric shock," William said. "We knew it was going to be a hit—and tonight it is."

Guests lingered into the night, sampling Asian fusion delicacies in the restaurant’s captivating red setting.

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

The Not-So Old West

by Kat Zukaitis
Paige Lindsey White and Lily Holleman in Abundance.
It’s 1868. Two women with dreams as big as the wide Wyoming skies head west to find fortune, adventure and love. But the frontier is unforgiving, and dreams and friendships will both be put to the test.

In 1976, Beth Henley moved to Los Angeles. The young writer and actress was looking for a big break in the film industry—and was disappointed to find that, for so many, the West remains an inhospitable place for young people with big dreams.

Playwright Beth Henley
Henley proved to be one of the lucky (and talented) exceptions. Dismayed by the lack of compelling roles for women, she began to write, and her first full-length play struck critical and commercial gold. Crimes of the Heart garnered her the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new American play and an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay. Audiences quickly fell in love with her richly painted characters, quirky voice and dark, distinctive humor.

But Henley never forgot the years when her goals seemed maddeningly elusive, and circled back to the theme in 1989’s Abundance. “I was dealing with what happens with people's dreams,” she says. “People come out to California so full of hope to be an actress or to be in movies and slowly they find themselves working at Chicken Bob's or they want to be great novelists and they're trying to write bad TV scripts. How do your dreams get chipped away?” Inspired by the bleak images of 19th-century settlers in a book called Wisconsin Death Trip, she began thinking about the mythology of the American West and what happens when the reality proves to be more complicated than the myth. She found her subject in two young women who, like Henley and so many others, traveled west with high hopes.

In Abundance, Macon Hill and Bess Johnson come to the Wyoming Territory in 1868 as mail-order brides. Both have received “partial fare” from their husbands-to-be. The long journey, during which Bess had practiced saying “I do,” has put her near the end of her tether. Macon, however, is invigorated by the adventures that surely await, and by the opportunity to become whoever she wants to be.

Macon’s husband turns out to be William Curtis, a stolid and decent farmer who has lost an eye in a mining accident. Bess’s new spouse is Jack Flan, as wild a man as Wyoming has to offer. The two couples marry and begin their lives as settlers. They soon learn that the seemingly endless promise of the Western Territories comes with a price.

Abundance follows the Flans and Curtises from 1868 to 1893. What occurs during the 25-year span involves the dreams of all four confronting the reality of what they can create together and separately. Not surprisingly, the characters don’t always get what they want. With perhaps one exception they do face despair in their lives but ultimately find hope in themselves. And interestingly, that hope sometimes has its foundation in answers taught and things given to us by those who may have also had a hand in our despair.

Twenty-six years after Abundance premiered at South Coast Repertory, its lyricism and epic scope continue to resonate with audiences. New York Times critic Laura Collins-Hughs described a recent off-Broadway revival as “the sort of production that makes you realize how much you’ve missed a playwright’s voice.” Like Crimes of the Heart, Abundance is steeped in Henley’s signature sense of humor, which mines humanity’s highs and lows for moments of comic absurdity.

We are proud to welcome Beth Henley’s Abundance back home to SCR as part of our 2015-16 season. “I’ve always loved Beth’s work,” says Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson, who helms the current production. “She has some of the most beautiful imagery in her plays, and they’re always tremendously interesting in where they go. John Millington Synge once said about a play that it should be full flavored like a berry or a nut, and all Beth’s plays are totally full flavored.”

Benson is joined by two members of the original 1989 world premiere production team. In addition to their considerable artistic talents, composer Michael Roth and dramaturg Jerry Patch have provided the current cast and production team with insights into the play’s history and development—plus a few choice stories from the "good old days."

Belita Moreno and O-lan Jones in the 1989 production of Abundance.
Michael Roth: Composer,
1989 and 2015

Michael Roth
Michael Roth has never been to Wyoming. “I’m the worst person to be composing this show,” he jokes—although the record suggests otherwise. Roth composed the original music for Abundance in 1989, and his vibrant score was so successful at conveying the poetry and scope of Henley’s writing that Martin Benson asked him to return for this year’s production.

When Roth was asked to work on the world premiere of Abundance, he wasn’t sure it was a story he would relate to. Then he read the script and found it stunning. “It has the resonance of a lifetime,” he says. “The play takes you through time in a really interesting way that is unique to Beth Henley’s writing—there’s this kind of mythic quality to it.” That epic journey is reflected in his score, which echoes the desolate beauty of the Western frontier before transitioning into early ragtime at the end of the play.

Roth, whose style a colleague once described as “solo fiddle Philip Glass,” is revisiting and expanding his earlier compositions for this year’s production. He observed the actors during the first several days of rehearsal to get a sense of their dynamic together, and of the rhythm of Martin Benson’s direction.

Listen to more of Roth’s work.

Belita Moreno, Bruce Wright, Jimmy Ray Weeks and O-lan Jones in the 1989 production of Abundance.
Jerry Patch: Dramaturg,
1989 and 2015

Jerry Patch
Early in Act Two of Abundance, one character mentions a "Captain Patch at Fort Sully." That captain is named after none other than SCR’s Jerry Patch, who served as the dramaturg on the world premiere production of the play in 1989. He and playwright Beth Henley worked so well together that she decided to pay tribute to him in the script. Talk about naming rights!

Patch returns as dramaturg for the 2015 production, bringing with him a wealth of information about the play’s history, insights into its dramatic structure, and anecdotes from back in the day. He remembers  an early reading of Abundance at Henley’s L.A. house, in which the roles of the principal couples were played by Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Holly Hunter and John Lithgow. At SCR, the cast joked that they were simply keeping the costumes warm for those four to take to Broadway. "But the cast was wrong," says Patch. "They were terrific, giving us a hit, and the New York cast was completely different from that first reading and SCR's premiere." 

Patch, who now splits his time between SCR and the Manhattan Theatre Club, where he serves as the Artistic Development Consultant, is excited to revisit Beth Henley’s play at the theatre where it began. “Its characters are beautifully orchestrated, and she's managed to cover a time period lasting decades in an incredibly economic way,” he says. “I think Abundance is one of Beth’s very best plays.”

Learn more and buy tickets.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Early Interest in Drawing Led to Costume Design Work

Maureen Sebastian and Raymond Lee in Vietgone.
It started simply for Anthony Tran: as a kid, he loved to draw and started copying designs that he saw in Disney films. Then, he started creating his own versions of the film characters. On a middle school visit to see a costume exhibit in Los Angeles from The Lord of the Rings, things finally clicked for him: “I discovered that costume design could be an occupation!”

His current costume design work at South Coast Repertory is for the world premiere of Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone.

We asked him about his early influences as a designer and how he approached the concepts for Vietgone.

Raymond Lee and Jon Hoche in Vietgone.
Who are your mentors? 
Donna Fritsche, resident costume designer of the Long Beach Playhouse, was a huge mentor to me and is a great friend today. She really took me under her wing and taught me to sew, gave me a show to design there and allowed me to pillage from their costume stock whenever I needed it. Film costume designer, historian and author-extraordinaire Deborah Landis also was amazing to me. I learned a lot about the business side of the industry from her.

How did you get introduced to SCR?
After college, I sent my resume to SCR’s Costume Shop and I worked there in a few different times in various capacities, in-between designing films and other theater projects.

Tell us about the role that costumes play in theatre?
Costumes have so many roles in theatre!  They can set the tone or mood, show a time period and can help the actors "feel the character" physically. In those ways, they definitely support the story by helping to visually communicate what's in the script.

How do you describe your work?
I'd like to think my work is both bold and unexpected.  I'm a big fan of the unusual and unique.

Let’s talk about the costumes you’ve developed for Vietgone. How did go about researching and developing the concepts?
For Vietgone, I started by the looking at photos of actual Vietnamese refugees in camps like Camp Pendleton and Fort Chaffee, where much of the story takes place. Combing through all that research, I found various people in those photos seemed to be kindred spirits to our characters and that became the springboard for each one's individual style. Of course, there also was my research into general clothing of the '70s, but I always prefer photography versus fashion research since there's a higher degree of authenticity and naturalism. There are roughly two parts to the design of this show: trying to be authentic, as much as possible, to the clothing worn by the Vietnamese characters, whose lives are the focus of the story; and getting the chance to have some fun and create much broader characters with the Americans that they encounter, like a Hippie couple and a military captain inspired by Top Gun.  With five actors portraying 20-some characters, it then became about plotting the various quick change components and the practical aspects of the clothing.

Samantha Quan and Raymond Lee in Vietgone.
What have you come to love most about ‘70s clothing?
I love the sheer variety of styles of clothing in the '70s!

Is there any personal or family connection that you feel toward Vietgone’s story?
My family members were refugees from Vietnam, so I do see a lot of parallels in Vietgone to their own lives starting out in America—the pain of leaving family behind—and wondering what would become of them—the inability to communicate and the struggle of starting over.
Tell me about some of your other design work.
I designed a superhero TV series, "Mighty Med," and a '60s beach party homage movie, Teen Beach 2, for Disney, which were a blast. I like going between film, television and theatre work because I enjoy the variety and because I feel that each works different parts of my brain. Though the initial design process is pretty similar for both, there's a practical aspect of theatre costume that you always have to keep in mind: how they get in and out of the clothing and how much time they have to do that. Visually, in film and television, the camera gets so much closer to everything so the little details are especially important. Most of the time, you'll only see things from the waist up in medium shots so you have to pay special attention to that to help communicate character to the audience. In theatre, you see it all and in real time.

What’s the most surprising thing about you that people might not know?
 I'm a big fan of the Turner Classic Movies channel and a huge film history buff!

What three words describe you—and why did you choose them?
Creative: I like to think outside the box.
Easy-going: I think this is one of the keys to collaboration.
Ambitious: I'm motivated and driven, all things I learned from my parents.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Metamorphosis of "Vietgone": From Vietnam to Arkansas to New York to Orange County

By Thuy Vo Dang, Linda Trinh Vo and Tram Le*

Maureen Sebastian and Raymond Lee in Vietgone.

From left: Thuy Vo Dang, Christina Woo, Steve MacLeod, Tram Le, Kelly Miller and Qui Nguyen during the playwright's first exploratory visit to the UCI libraries.
South Coast Repertory’s world premiere of Vietgone by playwright Qui Nguyen is a highly anticipated event for us, as we’ve had the unique experience of watching this play’s metamorphosis since its inception. Qui, who hails from Brooklyn, NY, originally had tossed around the idea of writing a script about Vietnamese gangsters in Little Saigon. However, during his residency in the summer of 2013, SCR staff invited the three of us to meet with Qui and share the work we were doing in the local Vietnamese community.

He later visited the UC Irvine Libraries Southeast Asian Archive and was captivated by the photograph collection of Vietnamese refugees at Fort Chaffee, Ark., one of four military bases that served as a temporary processing center in 1975. These photographs made him reflect on the stories his parents told him growing up. Qui’s parents, along with thousands of other refugees, were both processed through Fort Chaffee after the fall of Saigon. He was inspired to write about how they met and fell in love—might we say lust—at first sight in this camp. Thus, Vietgone was born, a wickedly funny and poignant play that captures the personal journeys of a first generation Vietnamese American couple with nuance and a reimagining of the tale of refugee journeys, complete with hip hop notes woven throughout. Its tone is fresh and surprising.

The cast, playwright and director of Vietgone at the post-reading "talk back" with the audience at the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association.
In November 2014, Vietgone’s director May Adrales and the actors presented a staged reading of the full script at the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA) Center in Santa Ana to an enraptured community audience.

At the end of the reading, one first-generation Vietnamese American man stood up and exclaimed, “That’s my story!” because he also met his wife in a refugee processing center. In February 2015, Qui and two cast members performed an excerpted reading from the play, followed by a lively Q&A, in Linda’s Asian American Community class with 240 students. In a follow-up survey of the event, one student wrote, “I enjoyed the Vietgone reading because it gave me a new perspective on the Vietnam War. I have only heard the American side, but I have never heard what Vietnamese people actually thought about the war.” The event, funded by the new Illuminations: A Chancellor’s Arts & Culture Initiative, encouraged students to see the connections between the historical materials in the class and artistic storytelling and gave students, many who had never attended a play, a better appreciation for the arts. The common response from students was that they wished they could see a full stage production of the play.
At the front of the class, left-to-right: Raymond Lee, Qui Nguyen and Maureen Sebastian performing an excerpt reading of Vietgone in Prof. Linda Vo's Asian American Communities class.

Students shared their stories about their family’s refugee and immigrant journeys and were inspired to learn more. What’s powerful about plays like this is that it will stir conversations between generations where there is often silence, particularly about the past.

Qui, with his director, actors and production team, have re-visited the archive several times to continue their research journey.

Qui, the cast, and SCR staff members also visited the VIETNAMESE FOCUS: GENERATIONS OF STORIES exhibition, a partnership between OC Parks and UC Irvine, at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana to immerse themselves in the refugees’ life stories and their journey of resettlement. This interactive art and history exhibition presents snapshots of a dynamic and vibrant community, including photographs, documents, artifacts, original artwork and oral histories from the Vietnamese American Oral History Project (VAOHP), Orange County & Southeast Asian Archive Center and private collections.

Vietgone actors and creative team looking through the Fort Chaffee photographs in the UCI Libraries Special Collections reading room.
Included are a diverse range of stories of how ordinary people were thrown into extraordinary circumstances because of war and its aftermath and how they were forced to make incredibly difficult choices, stories that echo Qui’s parents’ journey. The premiere of Vietgone at a major playhouse marks a historic moment for the Vietnamese community. This is highlighted by the fact that the Vietgone script, signed by Qui, May and the cast, along with a flyer of the VAALA reading, is featured in the arts and culture display case in the exhibition.

Vietgone flyer and original script signed by Qui and cast on display at the VIETNAMESE FOCUS exhibition.
Qui’s parents’ story is unique and yet very similar to many of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees coming to the U.S. However, aside from oral history archives such as VAOHP, so few stories from those who witnessed these experiences first hand are recorded. Instead, what most people read in history books and see in the media tends to be a narrow point of view, oftentimes from the American perspective that excludes Vietnamese voices who had to endure a civil war in their country and were forced to flee and rebuild their lives in America. They are not just victims of the war or history; plays like Vietgone show the humanity of the Vietnamese people.

Vietgone’s journey from script to stage has been decades in the making and reflects a remarkable moment for cultural production in Orange County. We look forward to its full run at South Coast Repertory, Oct. 4-25.

*About the Authors: Thuy Vo Dang, is the Archivist for the UCI Libraries Orange County & Southeast Asian Archive Center, Linda Trinh Vo is a professor in the Department of Asian American Studies and director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC Irvine and Tram Le is the associate director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC Irvine. Vo and Le are co-curators and co-directors of the VIETNAMESE FOCUS: GENERATIONS OF STORIES exhibition.