Monday, May 24, 2010

Improv with Atkins

Improv teacher Greg Atkins, center, works with students.

“There are only four areas in which improvisation will help you: auditions, performances, business and life.” – Greg Atkins

So, that covers everyone. For serious students, Greg’s improvisation classes are considered essential. Whether playing a role or auditioning for one, improv prepares actors for any challenge.

For everyone else, improv is simply a great help in life—when going on a job interview, presiding over a business meeting, teaching a class, speaking in public, meeting new people or just hanging out. After eight weeks in Improvisation I, shyness is a thing of the past.

Improv has other, often surprising, benefits, to which the instructor himself can attest. “The truth is that improv has helped me in many creative endeavors; for instance, I wouldn’t be as good a writer as I am if I didn’t have a solid basis in the storytelling techniques of improvisation.”

And a good writer he is. His children’s plays (published by Samuel French and Baker’s Plays—check them out online) include William of Stratford, a lovingly embellished glimpse into the life of the young Bard; The Everyday Adventures of Harriet Handelman, about a super-genius girl called upon the save the world; and a musical version of The Emperor’s New Clothes (or a Costumer’s Nightmare).

His most lauded book, Improv! A Handbook for the Actor, is a staple in the world of improvisation.

Besides being a writer (and a longtime consultant on the TV show “Who’s Line is it Anyway?”) Greg has created, directed, and performed with numerous improvisational comedy teams, acted on stage and television and directed more than 30 plays.

For 20 of his 30 years as an SCR instructor, he has taught improv, without skipping a beat—or a season. Does boredom ever set in? “Impossible! There’s always something new. ‘The teacher learns from his students,’ sounds like a cliché, but with improv, it’s true. I’ve been doing similar exercises for 20 years, but while they rarely change, the outcome is always different.”

Greg’s next improv class begins June 15, 2010. Details.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Crimes of the Heart Closes the 2009-10 Season with a Bang

Playwright Beth Henley, center, with Honorary Producers Jean and Tim Weiss.

The audience didn’t actually see Babe shoot her husband (because she didn’t like his looks); nor did they hear the gunshot. But it gave impetus to the action in Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize winning Crimes of the Heart. SCR’s production boasted a stellar cast, two generous honorary producers and was graced by the presence of the playwright.

After the thunderous standing ovation, First Nighters headed for Ela’s Terrance for the season’s final Cast Party, where they joined the playwright, director and all the artists for a smashing event, with food, drinks and decor straight out of the Old South, also the home of Jean Weiss, who said, “I was not only transported back to my roots but to my parents’ kitchen! I actually felt like I personally knew the characters as soon as they began their dialogue.”

Read all about the party and see the glittering photos.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Plays for Children—and Adults

Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, one of the inspirations for Ben and the Magic Paintbrush. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Ben and the Magic Paintbrush is an adaptation of an ancient Chinese folk tale, but it owes a great deal to early Disney movies.

Its author, Bathsheba Doran, grew up watching those films, which often featured children who helped change the adults in their lives for the better: “I liked that structure very much,” she says. “In Mary Poppins, the kids cause the grown-ups (with the help of Mary Poppins) to undergo an evolution.”

And so in her story, orphaned siblings Ben and Megan teach the grown-ups around them a thing or two. The talented pair—Ben’s a painter and Megan’s a human statue—deliver a comeuppance to the greedy couple who try to take advantage of them, and bring together another couple who become their surrogate parents.

Doran, a British native who lives in New York, has been at SCR throughout much of the rehearsal process to watch her world premiere take shape. She took a few minutes to talk about writing for children and what sort of stories she liked as a child.

Where did the idea originate?
This was a story I remember from when I was little. It came in the form of a tiny children's book with wonderful drawings. One particular image that stayed with me—the image of a bird flying off the piece of paper onto which it had been drawn.

But when I re-read the book, the story was a lot more frightening than I had remembered. So I decided to keep the basics of the myth, but to use it as a jumping-off point to write something that that I thought children would love.

What do you want children to take away from the play?
I want little boys to know they can be artists, and little girls to know they can be astronauts. I hope they'll see the merit of loyalty, and that even though they are children they can effect enormous change.

Mainly though, I want them to fall in love with going to the theatre, the way that I did when I was a child. So I've tried to write something that they will like, and something that their parents will like, so that they can enjoy the experience all together, without the barriers that usually exist between children and grown-ups.”

What sorts of stories did you like as a child?
I was obsessed with the British author Enid Blyton. I liked stories where kids were the main agents and they would go on these big adventures, and adults didn’t really exist except for the criminal that they would have to capture on their vacation.

Enid Blyton wrote 700 books, and I read about 650. I owe my love of reading to this author. They were not great literature, but they were compelling.

Ben and the Magic Paintbrush runs May 21 through June 6. Tickets are $17 to $29.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Updating 'Crimes'

Clockwise from top left, director Warner Shook and actors Nathan Baesel, Kasey Mahaffy, Tessa Auberjonois, Kate Rylie, Jennifer Lyon and Blair Sams during rehearsal of Crimes of the Heart.

Rehearsals are well underway for Crimes of the Heart, the final play of SCR’s 2009-10 Season which, given the director’s SCR history, theatre-goers await with bated breath.

Consider the plays directed by Warner Shook for SCR: The Importance of Being Earnest, Born Yesterday, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, The Circle, You Can’t Take it With You, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Beyond Therapy—all megahits with audiences and critics alike.

And for that matter, consider just a few of the plays the Crimes cast members have appeared in:  Tessa Auberjonois (Everett Beekin), Nathan Baesel (Princess Marjorie and, by the way, Shook’s production of The Last Night of Ballyhoo), Jennifer Lyon (Noises Off and also Shook’s production of Born Yesterday), Kasey Mahaffy (Taking Steps), Kate Rylie (Goldfish) and Blair Sams (The Last Night of Ballyhoo, too).

Recently, Shook and the cast took a break from rehearsal to watch To Kill a Mockingbird. “I wanted them to see a depiction of a small Southern town similar to the one the characters they portray grew up in,” he explained. “Even though it was a different decade, there’s a certain vernacular in those towns that never changes, right up until today. I wanted them to experience something similar but not pertaining directly to the play.”

And that they did. According to Lyon, “Much of the play is about how we relate to each other, having played together as kids. The movie provided an in-depth specificity with my relationships.”

Not only did the characters in Crimes of the Heart grow up in the same town, the three sisters grew up in the house where, as adults, they’ve gathered again—in the big, cozy kitchen of their childhood. To try and solve some of the problems playwright Beth Henley has heaped upon them.

During rehearsals, the kitchen is taped out on the floor of SCR’s Colab rehearsal space, which the cast occupied until the first onstage rehearsal Tuesday, May 4, with the first preview following on Friday, May 7. The buzz is beginning!

Post PPF

Actors Matthew Humphreys, Rebecca Mozo, Mandy Siegfried, Josh Radnor and Sarah Rafferty at the 2010 Pacific Playwrights Festival.

They began to arrive on Tuesday, April 20, and by the following Monday they were gone, but the results of their efforts will be seen in the months and years to come at theatres across the county.

They are the nearly 50 writers, directors, actors and dramaturgs whose talent infused SCR’s 13th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival. 7 Plays in 3 Days was the tag line, and whether playgoers attended some or all (two full productions and five readings), they were treated to extraordinary new work.

More than 30 theatres—from New York to Louisville, from Seattle to San Diego—were represented at this year’s festival. Besides industry guests, Orange County playgoers continued to attend the festival in large numbers as they have for 13 seasons, filling the Segerstrom and Argyros stages and selling out the Nicholas Studio.

According to Festival Co-Director John Glore, “The enthusiasm and dedication of everyone involved—artists, staff and audience—gives PPF its extraordinary energy and accounts more than anything else for its ongoing success. Our thanks to all.”

See photos from the party and from reading rehearsals.