Thursday, March 31, 2016

Cracking Open Trouble

by John Glore
“When you see someone in pain, constant pain, you can’t help it: if you’re human, you feel a little pain too.” It’s a good working definition of compassion, offered by Gina, the central character of Julia Cho’s new play, Office Hour.

“One of the particular challenges of writing plays is that as time goes by and life gets more complicated, it’s harder for me to find the kind of solitude and quiet that allows me to sink into my subconscious. That’s the place plays truly come from, not from external things I read or see, but from some deep current within me. I can’t force myself to write a play out of an idea. I have to be still and quiet and let the play come out of its own accord.”
– Julia Cho
But there isn’t much compassion on display in the play’s first scene, when Gina meets with two fellow adjunct creative writing teachers to discuss a student who has set off alarm bells with his hostile classroom demeanor and the violence and perversity in his writing. Gina, who has just begun a new class with this student, is uncertain about how seriously to take his strange behavior. But David and Genevieve have come to a stark conclusion: “the kid” is Trouble, and they’re afraid if someone doesn’t do something soon, he could go off like a time bomb. (They won’t even say his name, perhaps not wanting to humanize the threat they have discovered in their midst.) And from the way they describe him, their fears seem justified.

Then the other shoe drops. Having no apparent way to deal with the potential problem through official channels because of various bureaucratic roadblocks, David and Genevieve have concluded that Gina is the only one who might be able to get through to the troubled student and thereby defuse the time bomb. Genevieve reasons that because Gina shares the student’s cultural background, “you guys must have stuff in common.”

However presumptuous Genevieve’s assessment might be, Gina does have to find a way to deal with the problem that has been dumped in her lap. Although she never set out to be a teacher—it became necessary when success as a writer proved elusive—she still takes her teaching seriously and she believes she has an ability to connect with her students. And then there’s that feeling of compassion she can’t seem to shake. So she reluctantly summons the troubled student to a meeting.

The rest of the play covers what happens when he shows up for Gina’s office hour, and nothing can prepare Gina for what she learns about her student—or about herself—as she begins to crack through his shell of hostility.

Although its mode is realistic, the structure of Office Hour is not entirely conventional. Rather than following a linear progression from the beginning of Gina’s meeting with her student to the end, the play fractures at key moments in a way that can’t be explained without giving too much away. But the fracturing becomes key to the experience of the play and, more importantly, it allows the play to honor the complexity of its subject matter.

Office Hour deals with the potential for sudden, shocking violence in a society where too many people—particularly a certain breed of young men—feel alienated, powerless, persecuted and misunderstood, and respond by lashing out. It’s a perplexing, almost unexplainable phenomenon, and the societal fissures it causes seem to spread uncontrollably, like cracks in a thin sheet of ice, one crack leading to another and then another. That’s why Cho has chosen as much as possible to let the story control its own telling.

The result is a suspenseful, thought-provoking drama, whose outcome remains in doubt even as Gina’s final words reverberate in our minds: “Figure it out.”

Tony Amendola, Laura Heisler, Leo Marks, Linda Gehringer and Betsy Brandt in the 2010 world premiere of The Language Archive by Julia Cho.
Sandra Oh
Raymond Lee
Corey Brill
Sola Bamis
To all intents and purposes, Julia Cho’s professional career began at South Coast Repertory in 2002, when her play, 99 Histories, had a reading in the Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF). By now, her relationship with SCR has included three commissions, two world premieres (The Piano Teacher in 2007 and The Language Archive in 2010), three appearances in PPF and one NewSCRipts reading. Although her work has been produced at many of the leading theatres in the United States and she has won such prestigious honors as the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (an international award for the best English-language play by a woman), she continues to think of SCR as an artistic home—so this world premiere of her latest SCR commission, Office Hour, marks a homecoming that both she and the company welcome.

Office Hour had a reading in SCR’s NewSCRipts series in 2015 directed by Neel Keller, who returns to stage the full production. An associate artistic director at L.A.’s Center Theatre Group, Keller has made a career of directing new plays at theatres across the country, including the provocative, formally inventive work of such playwrights as Sheila Callaghan, Kimber Lee, Jennifer Haley and Dael Orlandersmith.

Making her SCR debut in the role of Gina is Sandra Oh. Although she may be best known for starring as Cristina Yang in the long-running TV series, “Grey’s Anatomy,” Oh has made frequent stage appearances throughout her career, both locally (Mark Taper Forum, La Jolla Playhouse) and nationally (The Public Theater in New York and Victory Gardens in Chicago). She also appeared in the films Sideways and Under the Tuscan Sun.

Gina’s troubled student will be played by Raymond Lee, last seen here earlier this season in the very different role of a rap-singing, love-making, motorcycle-riding refugee in the world premiere of Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone. Lee has also appeared at SCR in the Theatre for Young Audiences production of Robin Hood and the Studio SCR presentation of Four Clowns.

Rounding out the cast of Office Hour, as Gina’s colleagues, David and Genevieve, are Corey Brill and Sola Bamis. Brill has played a diverse series of roles at SCR, including Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and the philosophizing fetus in Noah Haidle’s Smokefall. Bamis is making her SCR debut after appearances at such leading theatres as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Playwrights Share Their Experiences

SCR commissions: (L to R) Vietgone by Qui Nguyen (Pictured: Maureen Sebastian and Raymond Lee), Orange by Aditi Brennan Kapil (Pictued: Assaf Cohen and Anjali Bhimani) and Future Thinking by Eliza Clark (Pictued: L to R, Arye Gross and Enver Gjokaj)
Amy Freed

Qui Nguyen

Eliza Clark

Octavio Solis

Julia Cho

Aditi Brennan Kapil
Through commissions, South Coast Repertory provides support—in both literary and financial terms—for playwrights to write new works. It’s a seal of approval by a regional theatre to commission a playwright. Through in-house workshops, public readings, the Pacific Playwrights Festival and productions, playwrights are able to hear their works and see them come to life.

Over the years, SCR has commissioned more than 300 plays from just over 200 playwrights. We asked the writers to share some of what SCR's new play development program has meant to them, what they’ve learned or a few memories from their time with SCR.

Amy Freed
Most recent SCR commission: You, Nero
One of the weirdest paradoxes of a playwright's life is that the night you long for the most is the one you fear the most—and that is opening night. On opening night of my first play with SCR, Freedomland, I was huddled in existential pain in the empty administrative offices—feeling so much like everything in my life was riding on this play and its reception. Founding Artistic Director David Emmes took that occasion, before the show, to offer me a second commission with SCR. It was one of the kindest things anyone could have done: to show a vote of faith before the votes were in.  I've never forgotten it.

Qui Nguyen
Most recent SCR commission: Vietgone
I honestly don't think I could have written Vietgone without the support of SCR. After a decade of running my own company and pioneering of my own geek theatre genre, I became very accustomed to making work in a specific manner. SCR encouraged me to find new ways to approach my work, which gave me the courage to dive deeper than I had before. As a writer of color with a mission to create work that inspires young people of color, I feel it is so vital to have a larger institution like SCR behind me to show that "yes, there is indeed a home for us" in the mainstream, not just on the fringes. I think my relationship with SCR is one of the most important relationships I've made in my career so far.

Eliza Clark
Most recent SCR commission: Future Thinking
I've felt incredibly supported by SCR during this process. I've been given the opportunity to develop my play at various different stages—from inception through production. It's been invaluable to the creation of this process and I'm so grateful. I really wanted to write a play that would speak to the SCR audience. I ended up focusing my play on a Southern California phenomenon—Comic Con. The play deals with fame and Hollywood, but on a deeper level, it's a discussion of the role that parents and children play, framed within the world of television and fantasy. Because of SCR, I've worked with incredible actors and my amazing director, Lila Neugebauer, from the beginning. It's been an amazing adventure.

Octavio Solis
Currently commissioned as part of the CrossRoads program
SCR’s mission has always been about finding and producing new American plays. But that requires a fine-tuned approach to each work, because not all plays are production-ready. They require a deep-tissue development process that I have been quite fortunate to have been part of since 1989. In that time, the theatre not only developed about 10 of my plays, many of which went on to be produced by SCR and at other venues across the country, but they also developed me. I was a young writer who didn’t know what I was doing when I first arrived, but with each workshop, each reading, each note-session I earned my stripes. I developed my own way of working and realized my vision and identity as a Latino playwright in this country.

Julia Cho
Most recent SCR commission: Office Hour
I learned that I was not immune to getting stuck and running out of inspiration. I learned that, at a certain point, I needed faith more than discipline. I also learned that when I lost faith in myself, it was crucial to have people in my life that still did. And knowing that SCR was out there, waiting for a play of mine, really made a crucial difference. It made me force myself to go on and write something no matter what.

Aditi Brennan Kapil 
Most recent SCR commission: Orange
Who knew a journey through Orange County would lead me to write one of the most personal plays I've ever written? I certainly didn't set out to. But I think, in retrospect, there's something about coming in as a blank page that allows the most urgent stories to rise up and attach themselves to paper. I'm deeply grateful for that discovery.

Learn more about the 19th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival

Monday, March 28, 2016

Try Your Hand at Acting: Where It’s “A Ton of Fun” and You Can Play Like a Kid Again

Teacher Richard Soto works with an acting student.
Students work on a scene.
Richard Soto.
Adult students in Richard Soto’s Basic Skills acting class are excited when they talk about how he created an unmatched classroom experience.

“He was perfect, enthusiastic and made the class a ton of fun!” one student shares.

Soto—an acting professional and one of the faculty members in South Coast Repertory’s Theatre Conservatory—says that while students learn from him, he finds delight in how much he gets back from them.

“I love acting!” he says. “It’s such a transformational experience, so I love it when my students open up—trusting themselves and their fellow students. That is a real emotional moment, when we all are moved and forget that we’re in a classroom. I never forget the look on their faces when they realize what they’ve done.”

What’s the classroom experience like for your students?
Overall, I’d say they have a fun experience. It’s a time to learn about the craft of acting and the storytelling of the human condition. So they learn, discover and express. It’s a sharing and friendly environment.

How do you create the environment for your Act I: Basic Skills class?
This is an introduction to the craft of acting and its process. I try to make the class friendly, encouraging and supportive. I encourage them to play like a kid again, using their imagination to believe in whatever they used to pretend without judgment or without being self-conscious. They can do no wrong, as long as they play. To help rediscover those instincts, we play games and do exercises that allow them to use their bodies, voices, emotion and imagination. They learn about making choices to create a character and what motivates that character, much the same way we wonder what motivates any person. Along the way, they learn about people and, hopefully, about themselves.

What’s your best classroom memory at SCR as an instructor?
My favorite memories are anytime students open up and reveal themselves through a character. It’s really a cathartic experience when they share themselves.

What’s most challenging for an adult who takes an acting class?
I think the biggest challenge is to believe in yourself. Everyone has a right to have fun and to be creative, if they want. Acting, like life, involves risks and I tell my students that their fear is like standing on the edge of a cliff, afraid you’ll fall. I tell them jump! In my class, in our world of imagination and trust, you won’t fall!

What do you hear from students about how acting changed their lives?
I have seen many students grow in confidence—their spirits soar! They continue taking classes at SCR, where they have found a creative home, and I have many who have begun careers as actors both locally in Orange County and in Los Angeles. I’m happy and humbled to have been a part of their growth and creative freedom. Many of us stay in touch and continue to provide encouragement to each other.

What students say about Soto
  • “He’s a raw nerve, totally in the moment. His love for acting and the craft is clear.”
  • “The class was fast-paced, interesting, challenging and fun! An excellent class and an excellent instructor.”
  • “I absolutely loved the class, it felt like exercising muscles that hadn’t been used in forever.”

Learn more about adult classes in SCR’s Theatre Conservatory.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Crafting Reality and Sci-Fi: Costume Designer Melissa Trn

The cast of Future Thinking, (L to R) Jud Williford, Heidi Dippold, Virginia Vale, Arye Gross and Enver Gjokaj.

Costume deisgner, Melissa Trn
“I love the psychology of clothing. The 'why' of what we wear,” says Future Thinking costume designer Melissa Trn.

And with the mix bag of characters—including a spoiled starlet, her “momager,” an obsessed fan—Trn has plenty of opportunity to dive into the psychology of these offbeat characters.

“I like to begin with what they are going through,” continues Trn. “What is happening to them? And the answers to those questions inspire their clothing.”

In Future Thinking, Peter, pet photographer and middle-aged super fan, finds himself in a makeshift interrogation room with Comic Con security—the result of violating a restraining order placed against him by his favorite television starlet, Chiara. Despite this setback, Peter is determined to fulfill his destiny—fantasies of a dream world, where he and Chiara happily live together forever. The only thing Chiara cares about is how to ditch her stage mom, her bodyguard and the demands that come with being a rising sci-fi star.

Trn will be making her SCR design debut, but she has designed at other theatres across the country including Brooklyn Academy of Music, SITI Company, Yale Repertory Theatre and Getty Villa. To top it off, Trn is well-versed in the Comic Con phenomenon and the effects of fandom—she’s married to actor Brett Dalton who is on Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Actor Brett Dalton and designer Melissa Trn
“What really appealed to me about the story of Future Thinking was that I loved the character of Peter,” says Trn. “I see him in many of the fan interactions and experiences at the Cons. Marvel fans are so excited, and they have so much love for the characters they watch on TV shows and in films. They invest so much and care deeply. It’s a real reminder about the power of storytelling.”

And just like the fans, Trn’s love and care extends into each character’s costume design. While creating the looks, she had to think of two designs for the production: reality and the fictional world of “Odyssey,” the TV show Chiara stars in.

“In talking with our director, Lila Neugebauer, I discovered that we both had a love of the Temple of Dendur exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum and a fascination with Egyptian art,” says Trn. “I think we see a lot of medieval or Asian influences in sci-fi. I thought that using Egypt as a jumping off point would be different—plus it gives me a chance to use some research I've been hoarding.”

As for the “real world” within the play, Trn is taking a nuanced approach to it. She’s hoping to draw out more than just the obvious looks people may initially think of when it comes to celebrity and Hollywood.

“I think what is interesting in Hollywood is the real versus the facade. It can be easy with Chiara to make her seem one sided: a Hollywood starlet, sexy and TMZ bait. But, I’m hoping to go beyond an US Weekly image and give her clothing with some dimension that is personal to her.”

Striding a balance between reality and fantasy, Trn has plenty to work with in her group of funny and interesting characters as she finds the “whys” of their clothing and continues to craft her design for Future Thinking.

Buy tickets for Future Thinking
Discover more about Future Thinking

Trn's design for Trojan Women (After Euripides)
Future (and Past) Thinking with Melissa Trn

What first drew you to costume design?
I always have been a lover of history and clothes. Costume design is the obvious marriage of those things. As I studied design, I really began to love the collaborative process and seeing a big bunch of ideas coming together to make something new.

What design do you hold close to your heart?
I designed The Trojan Women (After Euripides) at Brooklyn Academy of Music for SITI Company in New York City. Designing at BAM was a dream of mine that came to fruition working on a piece that was beautifully made by Anne Bogart and SITI. Anne is such an inspiration to me as an artist. She also trusts her designers and asks questions that challenge you as a person, as well as an artist.

Is there a show you’re dying to design?
I love opera and haven't really gotten a chance to design any yet. I worked for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis doing wardrobe and then as the design assistant before graduate school. It always has been my dream to come back and design St. Louis is my hometown.

Monday, March 14, 2016

"Going to a Place where you Already Are": A Heavenly Evening at SCR

At South Coast Repertory on Friday, March 11, there were lots of funny moments, a surprise or two, some serious discussions and a few tears—onstage and off, when playgoers relived what they had just seen: the world premiere of Going to a Place where you Already Are, a touching new play about the here and the hereafter.

Were any beliefs confirmed or minds changed? Maybe. Maybe not. But either way, there was much to talk about on the stroll to The Westin South Coast Plaza, co-host of the Cast Party.

Playgoers gathered in the refurbished Catalina Room, where they honored Playwright Bekah Brunstetter, Director Marc Masterson, and Honorary Producers Damien and Yvonne Jordan and Betty and SL Huang. Post-show tears finally were wiped away in time to greet the cast—Founding Artist Hal Landon Jr. and his stage wife, SCR favorite Linda Gehringer; another SCR favorite, Rebecca Mozo, and her stage boyfriend, Christopher Thornton; and an angel, that is, a stage angel, played by Stephen Ellis.

Sampling “heavenly” food and drink, First Nighters and their guests lingered into the evening to enjoy the camaraderie and conversation. Among the most enthusiastic were the play’s underwriters.

Damien and Yvonne Jordan: "We love how Bekah interwove so many different themes: importance of family, how to treat people daily, whether living or dying, the impact of believing in something bigger than ourselves—with moments of laughter and tears—which is what life delivers to us. Incredible performances from the entire cast and so beautifully directed by our own Marc Masterson—we could not have been more proud and inspired to be involved with this production."

SL and Betty Huang: “This was another memorable experience for us! From the first reading to watching the play on stage was such a thrill. It was such a joy to watch all of the talented and passionate people who worked together, from the playwright and director to the actors and designers and others. The costumes, set design, lighting and more all were wonderful. Most important to us was watching the play SCR's devoted and supportive audiences, all under the same roof. It was so touching and emotional!"

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Literary Secrets of a Playwright

Playwright Julia Cho
A commission from South Coast Repertory led to a brand new play from Julia Cho—Office Hour (April 10-30, 2016, Julianne Argyros Stage). And while she’s focused on getting this SCR commission finalized, we asked her to share some of her literary secrets—from childhood to picking the plays and playwrights she admires.

My favorite childhood book.
It's hard to pick one, but I look back very fondly on the Lloyd Alexander series that starts with The Book of Three.

The story I read in secret.
It wasn’t exactly “secret,” but a lot of the Judy Blume books felt subversive, like Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

The first play I ever saw.
The first live theatrical play I ever saw was probably a community production of Really Rosie. I still remember liking Chicken Soup with Rice.

When I knew I wanted to be a playwright.
There wasn’t one singular moment, but it probably all started with seeing Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare at Lincoln Center when I was a teen. It blew the top of my head off and I walked out thunderstruck.

What cemented me as a writer.
Going to New York to begin my MFA in dramatic writing at New York University. It felt like the first real step towards a life of writing.

The first time I saw one of my plays produced.
I had a workshop production of a play at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York. But my first full-fledged production was The Architecture of Loss at New York Theatre Workshop.

The play that changed my life.
Six Degrees of Separation.

A classic play I’ve never seen.
Oh... there are so many—it's embarrassing. I've seen very few of the Greeks. And only a handful of Shakespeare.

The best literary adaptation.
For the way it plays with the very notion of an "adaptation," the Charlie Kaufman movie, Adaptation.

My literary heroes.
Anton Chekhov. Caryl Churchill. Thornton Wilder.

The last play that made me laugh.
Sarah Burgess's Dry Powder.

The last play that made me cry.
Sarah Ruhl's The Oldest Boy.

Something I wish I’d written.
Jean Anouilh's Antigone. I return to it again and again.

My perfect day.
I get to sleep in until 7 a.m. Everyone’s in a good mood. After a delicious breakfast (that magically appears before me), the children happily play together and I get to drink an entire mug of coffee while it’s still hot. I sit down to write and it's like I’m taking dictation from a benevolent God; the words just fly on to the page. I finally stop—feeling satisfied and happily worn out—and take the dog for a long walk. The weather is fine. In the evening, friends come over, dear friends who normally live in faraway cities but are, for some reason, in town. We feast together and tell stories. The kids put themselves to bed. And then I too go to bed, feeling nourished in every sense of the word. Writing it down like this, I read it over and it doesn’t seem so unattainable. And yet I confess that the only part I ever seem to manage is taking the dog for a long walk.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Celebrity, Stalkers and Parents

by Kimberly Colburn
Cosplay at the Comic Con San Diego
Crowds at Comic Con San Diego

Chiara is a child star who has grown up in the spotlight, always with her doting mother, Crystal, at her side. Growing up in Nebraska, Crystal had few options open to her. An unhappy marriage left Crystal with hope for a better life through her only daughter. She took Chiara’s childhood dreams of stardom seriously, and parlayed that into helping create a child star. Rolling the dice, Crystal moved them from their lakeside home that was far from the spotlight to heed the siren call of Los Angeles and all its glory. Success didn’t happen overnight but, with Crystal’s guidance, Chiara persisted. Chiara’s now 23, and she and Crystal have enjoyed the luxury grown from their humble beginnings. They’ve both gotten a chance to see the world…though through grueling film shoots and press junkets.

Now Chiara has a plum role on a popular science-fiction television series called Odyssey. When she makes an appearance at Comic Con, a huge annual gathering that celebrates comic books, movies and television series related to the sci-fi/fantasy genre, an allegedly deranged fan, Peter, is apprehended as he comes near her booth. Last year at the convention, he tried to give her a vial of his blood, so this time he was quickly spotted and bodyguard Sandy whisked Chiara back to her hotel room for safety. Sandy has been in charge of protecting her for years, and spends more time with her than he possibly could with his own kid.

Future Thinking by Eliza Clark opens as Peter is being questioned in a makeshift space by Jim, the head of security. Jim has taken it upon himself to interrogate Peter, biding his time until they know if Chiara’s “people” are going to press charges. Jim fancies himself a future cop, and he’s using Peter to practice his techniques and act out a fantasy of his own. Peter insists that he’s been misunderstood—even last year, because the vial of blood he attempted to give Chiara was not a threat of violence, but instead a meaningful gift that only fans of the show would understand (in the world of Odyssey, clean blood is the only valuable currency). Peter tries valiantly to explain himself, but Jim doesn’t watch the show and can’t possibly understand.

Meanwhile, Crystal and Sandy tend to Chiara, who responds to her gilded-cage life with childish histrionics and hilariously obnoxious acting-out. All three quickly become too wrapped up in their own concerns to worry about the man being held downstairs. The demands of upholding a public image and the accompanying lifestyle it requires recently have begun to take their toll on all of them, and Chiara is chafing at what it means to have your mother double as your career counselor.

The notion of celebrity is a familiar one to playwright Clark. Though she did spend time as a child actor, she’s quick to point out that the play is not autobiographical, and the humor in Chiara and Crystal’s relationship is purely from her imagination. Clark has drawn from many sources of inspiration  to inform the play’s thematic territory, including the fact that she has recently become a mother herself. She’s also married to another writer, Zac Whedon, who writes films and comic books, and she’s attended Comic Con with him so has seen first-hand the role-playing, awkwardly funny moments, and obsessions with a fantasy world that can permeate fandom.

Chiara calls Crystal’s role as a mother into question, while finding that the public role she plays might be more limiting behind closed doors. Crystal enjoys the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to but doesn’t know what to make of her spoiled daughter. Sandy’s trying to keep the peace, but perhaps has become a little too entwined in Crystal and Chiara’s lives. In another space, Jim is role-playing the cop hero he’s always dreamed he could be, and poor Peter is trapped. He is dressed as his favorite character from his favorite show, but Peter’s intentions in reaching out to Chiara are different than what Jim assumes. Everyone’s got a fantasy and a role to play, and by the end of Future Thinking the worlds—of fantasy, reality, fame and parenthood—all collide in this comedy that asks surprisingly deep questions.

Heidi Dippold, Jud Willford, director Lila Neugebauer, Arye Gross, Virginia Vale, Enver Gjokaj and playwright Eliza Clark on the first day of rehearsal for Future Thinking.
The Road to Production

Clark’s play first appeared at South Coast Repertory as a reading in the 2014 Pacific Playwrights Festival. It returns as a full production, helmed by the same director, Lila Neugebauer (who previously directed SCR’s Trudy and Max in Love by Zoe Kazan). Clark and Neugebauer are longtime friends, having met as freshmen in college, but this is the first major production they’ve had the chance to collaborate on. Neugebauer has assembled a cast that includes SCR veteran Arye Gross playing Peter—the first of many shows he was in at SCR was The Time of Your Life in 1978. Heidi Dippold (Smokefall) and Virginia Vale (The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois) return to our stages, while Enver Gjokaj and Jud Williford make their SCR debuts.

Learn more about the cast.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Coming Home: An Actor Traces His SCR Roots

Arye Gross
Kurt Fuller as Lear, Gross as Edgar in scene work for Lee Shallat Chemel’s Conservatory class in 1978
Herb Voland, Ron Boussom, John Ellington, Mike Tomlinson and Gross in SCR's Wild Oats, 1979.
Gross, Patti Johns and Candace Copland in SCR’s 1980 production of Screwball.
Gross and Linda Gehringer in the 2011 production of Circle Mirror Transformation.
“I feel that 80% of the work I’ve done—since graduating from SCR’s Theatre Conservatory in 1978—I can trace back to that training.”

So says Arye Gross, who recently completed his role as the spandex-clad obsessive fan in Future Thinking, his ninth SCR play (counting two Educational Touring Productions) since he first stepped through these doors more than 35 years ago.

But his training as an actor almost didn’t happen.

In the early days of SCR’s Theatre Conservatory, Lee Shallat Chemel—the award-winning director of such shows as “The Middle”—was director of both the adult and professional programs. Select students were asked to join the Conservatory, and Arye was one of them.

“That was a big thrill, being invited by Lee—until I found out about the fee. I was penniless. But she managed to get scholarship money for me so that I ended up owing only a small amount. However, I didn’t have that either! So I went to the administration office and said, ‘If you let me do some work for you, then I can pay.’ That was my gambit—offering to sweep floors, run errands, do chores—and it worked!”

And it has paid off handsomely. Arye graduated from the Conservatory during the transitional period from the 3rd Step to the 4th Step theatre in Costa Mesa, which opened on November 9, 1978 with The Time of Your Life.

“I made my professional debut in that show,” Arye says, “in the role of ‘another cop.’”

The next year, he was cast in Wild Oats. “Then Martin and David hired me for Screwball, where I got my Equity card (union of professional actors and stage managers). A cast member in that show introduced me to my first agent, an actor friend from the Conservatory told me about the movie where I got my first big role, and another Conservatory actor helped with my audition. That got the ball rolling.”

And it’s still rolling. Arye has appeared on stages across the country, including Broadway’s Biltmore Theater and Baltimore’s Center Stage. But most of his stage work has been nearby, at every major theatre in the LA area: Geffen Playhouse, Stages Theatre, The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, The Los Angeles Theatre Centre, Pasadena Playhouse, East/West Players, Grove Shakespeare, El Teatro Campesino and The Antaeus Company.

In addition to his prolific stage career, Arye has been a regular on such television shows as “Ellen,” “The Practice” and “Medium.” And such movies as Just One of the Boys, Midnight Clear, Gone in Sixty Seconds and Minority Report.

Watch for him currently as Dr. M.E. Sydney Permutter on “Castle.”

Friday, March 4, 2016

Behind-the-Scenes: A Marriage Between Props and Lighting

Allie Gillaspie-Williams and Steven Williams
Onstage, Bekah Brunstetter’s Going to a Place where you Already Are looks at the relationships and love of two couples—older Joe and Roberta and younger Ellie and Jonas. Backstage, Props Master Allie Gillaspie-Williams and Electrician/Board Operator Steven Williams not only have a working relationship, they also are married. And soon to be first-time parents.

If you turn a set upside and shake it, anything that falls out is a prop. As props shop manager, Allie communicates closely with the scenic designer about all the props that make their way to stage. The shop team’s work includes building specialty furniture pieces, shopping for the right fabric to reupholster chairs and sofas, and even making fake food.

This is Steven’s first season at SCR. His work in the Argyros Stage includes hanging the lights for each show and then programming them according to what the lighting designer has created for the production. During the run of the show, he makes sure that the design’s integrity is maintained and he ensures that the equipment remains in good working order.

Steven’s career in theatre started by accident. As an accounting major at Calvin College in Michigan, he needed one more credit and an opportunity at the Calvin Theatre Company caught his eye. He never turned back.

“There was a family atmosphere,” Steven recalls. “I loved people’s willingness to help despite the complexity of the show, despite the hours and despite the popularity of the show. The fact that we were doing work together and having our own utopian experience was what made me want to stay in theatre.”

He earned an MFA in lighting design from Virginia Tech and divided his time between freelance lighting and work at Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse. He later programmed lighting for the national tour of Hairspray.

Allie began working in local community theatres around the age of 12, helping sew costumes, paint scenery, make small props and working backstage. She earned an MFA in properties design and management and spent time working at the Ogunquit Playhouse and as a prop master and carpenter in the Boston area. She also helped found a small fringe theatre company in Providence, R.I.

During the final week of rehearsal for Going to a Place where you Already Are, Allie and Steven talked about why they love theatre and the challenges and opportunities of their work.

Where and when did you two meet?

Steven: We met in Salem, Mass., in the summer of 2006. Allie was the costume designer for the Student Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Who’s Tommy and I was the assistant lighting designer.

Allie: I’m a sucker for rock musicals and they didn’t have a costume designer, so I volunteered. The lighting designer was a good friend of mine.

What was the first stage production that you saw?

Steven: The Nutcracker, at age 4 or 5, at the Wang Theatre, now the Citi Performing Arts Center in Boston. I will always remember the Sugar Plum fairies and the height that they were able to jump and how beautiful the lights were. Until I worked in theatre, I always wondered how the tree and the scenery came together. When I got older, I began working on shows at that theatre until I moved to Virginia in 2012.

Allie: A Christmas Carol, in first or second grade, at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass. That particular production has always had a lot of flash—the theatre is in the round, so it’s fairly immersive, there are pyrotechnics, and the ghost of Marley flies. My first full-time, professional theatre job was also at that theatre.

Paul David Story and Mark Harelik in SCR's 2016 production of Red.
Lawrence Kao, Sab Shimono and Ryun Yu in SCR's 2015 world premiere of tokyo fish story.
SCR's 2015 production of Peter and the Starcatcher.
What are the most challenging and fun aspects of your work?

Steven: The most challenging aspect of my job is communication between multiple collaborators. I have to be able to adapt to each of their styles of work. The most fun is seeing the different design styles. I try to learn from all the designers and see the different techniques that they utilize. I talk with them about their place in the theatre world and try to find my niche inside of theirs.

Allie: Artists often have strong opinions and it can sometimes be challenging to get everyone on the same page. The most fun part of my job is the hands-on work. I love to build and sew and solve the strange problems that make their way into a prop shop. With tokyo fish story, I had to create a fake octopus that would look alive with the slightest movement from the actor. For Red, our shop had to invent a paint recipe that could be added to and painted with onstage, but also could be washed out of clothing. No two shows are ever the same so it’s pretty difficult to get bored.

Do you have any special work-related memories?

Steven: At North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., I had the opportunity to work with B.B King. He was using a wheelchair, but wanted to walk to the stage. I helped him into a little lift known as a “slip stage,” so he could ride up to the main stage. I was able to catch him when he started to fall as he stepped off the lift. After the concert, Mr. King and his guards stopped to thank me for my professional attitude, given the situation. He later told me that, “professionalism will always lead to success.”

Allie: I have a lot of “you had to be there” kind of memories.

What’s been your favorite SCR production?

Allie: Peter and the Starcatcher. It was a ton of fun to work on in the prop shop and it also is just a really wonderful story.

What’s next on the horizon?

Steven: We are expecting our first child in May—and I am really excited about this next act in our lives!

Allie: It is super exciting! But, beyond that, it’s hard to say; we tend to be fairly flexible about what life brings us!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Talking With the Director and Playwright About "Future Thinking"

Heidi Dippold, Jud Willford, director Lila Neugebauer, Arye Gross, Virginia Vale, Enver Gjokaj and playwright Eliza Clark on the first day of rehearsal for Future Thinking.
What happens when playwright Eliza Clark and director Lila Neugebauer get together? Right now, they talk (with laughter, deep thoughts and a shared vision) about the upcoming world premiere of Clark’s Future Thinking. The play follows the story of pet photographer, Peter, who is an obsessed stalker-fan of Chiara, the young star of a hugely popular fantasy TV show.

What’s the play about?

ELIZA CLARK: I was a child actor, so I’ve always been interested in writing a story about that world, but it was hard for me to access it from the inside. I needed to approach the story through an “outsider” like Peter (Arye Gross) so that I could write about some of my own experiences. However, I am not Chiara and my mother is nothing like Crystal! (laughs)

I started writing it after I went to Comic Con because I found the world of fandom so interesting: the idea of escapism, fantasy and feeling like you’re part of something that you’re really not. The play is about fantasy, expectations and the idea that sometimes we believe that we’re going to live a life at some future point that looks nothing like the life we live now. It’s also about parents and children, like the mother and daughter [Crystal and Chiara]. These are two people who have lived together, have been each other’s best friend and only touchstone, but in some ways, they don’t know each other at all.

LILA NEUGEBAUER: Future Thinking also is about the ways we attempt to get our needs met—often through people who function as surrogates. It’s about what happens when the people we rely on most to fulfill our needs are people with whom we’re not really connecting or communicating authentically.

How has the play been developed?

EC: It has been great to work on it through the Pacific Playwrights Festival and a weeklong in-house workshop [at SCR]. The biggest benefit for me has been working with Lila over time on Future Thinking. We’ve also had the opportunity to work with some of the actors who are now in the production.

Tell us about humor in the play.

LN: Eli and I have known each since we were 18 and have been working on plays together since 2005. (Don’t tell anyone, but I once acted in a play that Eli wrote and directed at the New York Fringe Festival!) Her particular comic mode is singular and idiosyncratic: think high-stakes screwball comedy that’s totally grounded in character psychology.

EC: The humor comes from the fact that all these characters take themselves so seriously. I hope that the play will be gritty, real, dark and funny throughout. There’s nobody better to make that happen than Lila; I think she understands my tone better than anyone I’ve worked with.

What’s the take-away for audiences after they see Future Thinking?

LN: Call your kid, call your parent and have an honest conversation about who you are now—not who you both were in those formative childhood years. Chiara is a kid who has both grown up much too quickly, had to be a kind of adult professional from a very early age, but also hasn’t grown up at all. She and her mother are grappling with roles they’ve each played—for and with one another—since early on; they’re struggling to change and to more authentically relate in the face of long-ingrained patterns and dynamics.

Future Thinking run March 25-April 24, 2016, on the Segerstrom Stage.

Learn more and purchase tickets.

Witches, Magic and...Virtual Reality?

SCR’s Junior Players are crafting a magical world on stage in their production of The Witches by Roald Dahl and adapted by David Wood. The Junior Players, chosen by audition after at least two years with SCR’s Theatre Conservatory, are guided by Mercy Vasquez.Teem Players and Summer Players productions happen in the spring and summer.

Vasquez, who teaches the Junior Players during the school year, directs their annual production, knows very well the importance of training. She's studied at UCLA; in London at King’s College; the American Academy of Dramatic Arts; and in the Acting Intensive Program, part of SCR’s Theatre Conservatory. Her performance credits include productions at SCR, Garden Grove Playhouse and Heritage Square Theater.

Throughout the rehearsal process, Vasquez works to bring a rich experience to her students. With plenty of support in makeup, costumes, scenery and more, the Junior Players gain hands-on experience working on a full-scale production. This year, she is adding another element to the mix: virtual reality—sort of.

SCR Hair and Makeup Technician Gillian Woodson does a makeup demo for the Junior Players with students (R to L) Caitlyn Roum and Sasa Klein.
“I thought it would be interesting to have the essence of the children the witches transform to remain visible on stage,” says Vasquez. “The idea came to me to have the mice [former children] depicted as virtual reality mice. The cast had to work together to move in sync to create these characters. It involves a marriage between movement, cooperation and vulnerability.”

Vasquez worked with the four student actors to simulate the effect of virtual reality as they follow and mimic the movements of the others. As two of the actors are upstage portraying the mice their characters have become, the actors downstage are their former human selves. Through their lines and movement, the actors take cues from each other to create these synchronized characters.

Work like this reinforces the sense of ensemble, which is a big lesson to learn as students participate in the Junior Players.

“There are no stars,” says Vasquez. “Everyone is crucial to telling the story. They are learning to be generous actors in this process by waiting their turn and making the most of their time on stage.”

With that, there may be an even more important lesson for the players. Learning how to have fun and play—a discovery Vasquez wasn’t quite expecting from her young students.

“Bringing small handheld puppets to life was another interesting challenge because the actors weren’t used to playing this way,” she says. “In this world of gaming, actual toys have taken a backseat to the virtual world. I really had to teach them how to play! They had to work hard at keeping the puppet characters alive.”

The Junior Players present the magic of what they’ve rehearsed March 12-20, 2016 in the Nicholas Studio.

Learn more and purchase tickets.