Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Jitney" Closes the Season to Raves

Thunderous applause greeted the last moments of August Wilson’s Jitney on May 18, as a cast of nine extraordinary actors took their bows. After the show, everyone met on Ela’s Terrace for the final Cast Party of the Season—and one of the most exciting.

The First Nighters had glowing words for the play, the director and all the artists as they partied in a colorfully hip ’70s setting, complete with a photo booth and some wild accessories for extra fun.  The praise was led by Honorary Producer Laurie Smits Staude, who has been an enthusiastic—and very involved—underwriter, from the Jitney design presentation on the first day of rehearsal all the way through opening night, when she had glowing compliments for everyone.

Her words were echoed by Joan Kaloustian, Senior Vice President of Honorary Associate Producer Union Bank, who added, “"Jitney has hit another home run for SCR, and Union Bank is proud to have been a part of it."

The raves continued over the weekend of performances capped by standing ovations and reviews that reflected the First Nighters’ enthusiasm, led by the Los Angeles Times (“A  poignant, rich slice of Wilson gets an excellent staging”) and the Orange County Register (“Simultaneously funny, touching and revealing, clearly the work of a master”)

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Clothing Makes the Character

Sydney Lester, Kelsey Kato and Allie Mgrublian show-off their collages.
SCR’s Teen Players, who present David Lindsay-Abaire’s Snow Angel this month, have proven their acting chops: they had to spend two years in SCR’s conservatory and go through an audition before being admitted in to this program. However, these talented teens learn a lot more than their lines in these productions. Working with costume and scenic designer Sara Ryung Clement, who has contributed to several TYA productions including Ben and the Magic Paintbrush and Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business, the students created costume collages to help them bring their characters to life.

Nikki Daurio, Christopher Huntley and Nick Slimmer discuss their characters.
Clement’s prompts for the project included those that would elicit a visual response (What is your character’s favorite color?), but also those that made them think more deeply about their characters’ personalities and motives (What does your character fear? Are you precise or sloppy?). Clement then helped the teens distill their ideas into functional costumes.

Some costumes came to life almost exactly the way the students envisioned. For instance, girlie girl Tina-Louise (played by Sydney Lester) wears pink almost exclusively, right down to her floral-print sweater, just like Sydney envisioned. Benny, played by Kelsey Kato, wears a pair of shoes nearly identical to the pair Kelsey put on his collage.

On the other hand, sometimes the costumes varied greatly from their original concept, as was the case with Sophia Falmagne, who plays an awkward outsider named Helen. Sophia originally thought that her costume would be a no-frills affair with the occasional half-hearted attempt at fashion. “But the whole thing is an attempt at fashion that fails miserably,” she says of her orange tights-and-strapless sweater dress combo. “But it makes me feel awkward just wearing it, so it helps me feel more in character.”

IN COSTUME:  Left, Sophia Falmagne, Bahaar Tadjbakhsh and Jasmine O'Hea; right, Max Weinberg,
Clarke Schwartz and Kelsey Kato.
The students all agreed that putting on their costumes helped their characters come to life. Allison Baayoun and Allie Mgrublian, who play twins Betty and Fran, said that wearing matching outfits made it easier to coordinate their movements, while Kelsey Kato (Benny) said that dressing in the show’s winter layers helps him remember that the play is set in Vermont, and that all the students need to act as though they are cold. “It’s a constant reminder. It really helps anchor me.”

IN COSTUME: Left, Christopher Huntley, Grace O'Brien and Shireen Kulkarni; middle, Allison Baayoun and
Allie Mgrublian; and left, Nikki Daurio, Sydney Lester and Nick Slimmer.
And it isn’t just clothing they had to think about. “I was worried about what to do with my hair,” says Jasmine O’Hea, who plays Eva, the play’s mysterious heroine. “I needed something that looked old-fashioned but that was easy to do myself!” In addition to doing their own hairstyles, the students are responsible for getting in and out of their costumes themselves.  “I don’t think I considered the quick changes enough!” says Christopher Huntley, who as nerdy kid Arlo has to get in and out of his cold-weather layers half a dozen times in the show.

Come see these budding talents on display in Snow Angel which closes Sunday, May 27.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Characters Influence Dance in ‘Anton’s Uncles’

In the next installment of SCR’s Studio SCR, Los Angeles-based Theatre Movement Bazaar will present a reimagining of Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya. In this retelling, only the male characters remain, the original text is distilled and new elements are added. But even those unfamiliar with the original text will be able to keep up, thanks in large part to the introduction of movement and dance.

Theatre Movement Bazaar began in the 1990s as a collaboration between choreographer and dancer Tina Kronis and writer/mechanical engineer Richard Alger, with the goal of creating new works merging dance, text, cinema and theatre, with an emphasis on physical movement. “We aim to raise the level of physicality in our theatre to that of dance performances,” says Kronis.

Kronis grew up studying classical ballet all over the world, and later expanded her repertoire to include modern, African dance, folk dance and mime. “I found my voice in mime, ironically enough,” says Kronis, who performed with renowned Swiss mime company Mummenschanz. “Mime became the link for me between dance and theatre. With Theatre Movement Bazaar, we are able to mix those worlds even more. Now I approach theatre with the eye of a dancer.”

And though Kronis, who draws inspiration from Charlie Chaplin, modern dancer Pina Bausch, and Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold, is responsible for the company’s choreography, the show’s movement is rarely solidified before rehearsals begin. The framework of each character’s movement style is informed by the character itself, but the actor lends his own mark to the role based on his physical talents and limitations. Even non-dancers have been cast in the show, which Kronis says lends an interesting aspect to the final product. “You get a different type of movement dialogue from non-dancers,” she says.

Once rehearsals begin, actors spend about two weeks exploring the movements of their character before incorporating much spoken dialogue, rather than participating in the seated readings that dominate most rehearsals. The actors learn to improvise, and approach their roles through physical means first. “Our world, our language, is created on stage,” says Kronis. “In the end, it’s all about the performance. It all comes together in whatever form it takes to create the performance.”

Though Uncle Vanya deals with some rather heavy subject matter, the movement and dance in Anton’s Uncles provide a touch of comic relief. “Sometimes it will look like dance,” says Kronis. “Other times, the movement will look rather pedestrian. But it’s a surprisingly funny performance.”

Anton’s Uncles will be presented in the Nicholas Studio June 8-10. Learn more or buy tickets on our website.

Matthew Arkin Joins SCR’s Teaching Faculty

Matthew Arkin
We just can’t get enough of Matthew Arkin. And after seeing him in The Prince of Atlantis, all the way from its first reading to its world premiere last month, Arkin has kindly agreed to stick around, this time teaching SCR’s adult conservatory students. His advanced scene study and characterization class will help advanced students create deeper, more meaningful onstage relationships in three dramatic genres: contemporary drama, contemporary comedy and classical.

Arkin, a well known and successful actor who has appeared in feature films including Liar, Liar and Margot at the Wedding, plus scores of television shows and regional theatre productions, stumbled upon his love of teaching while working as an attorney. Arkin was a lawyer and taught classes in public speaking to fellow attorneys in need of continuing education hours. “It’s basically an acting class, we just didn’t call it that.” He found he enjoyed helping students discover their “aha moments,” and was soon accepting invitations to guest lecture at theatre programs.  When he was offered a regular teaching gig at New York’s famed HB Studio while waiting for a friend in the lobby, he gladly accepted.

Matthew Arkin and John Kapelos in The Prince of Atlantis.
Photo by Henry DiRocco.
Arkin developed his first classes around relaxation techniques, traditional scene study and exercises from Uta Hagen’s “A Challenge for the Actor”—all skills he considers essential for a meaningful career in theatre, television and movies. Arkin says that many acting classes focus on audition skills, which can land an actor the job, but leave them unable to adapt to other actors onstage in a living, breathing scene. “So many classes focus on getting the job, but once you have the job, you have to know how to do the job.”

And of course, doing the job well is essential to getting the next job. “I can help you get hired, but more importantly, I can help you get hired again. And that’s when you start building a career.”

Arkin relocated to Los Angeles two years ago, and now teaches acting classes in West Hollywood with Melissa Kite of The Actor’s Studio. He also maintains a blog on the craft of acting. For more information, visit www.matthewarkin.com.

To learn more about his and other upcoming acting classes at SCR, visit our website!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Announcing the 2012/13 Season

South Coast Repertory’s 49th season will offer audiences an exciting blend of current hits and world premieres. The season begins with Alan Ayckbourn’s hilarious farce, Absurd Person Singular, and will include new plays by some of the hottest writers on the theatre scene, including the world premiere of Noah Haidle’s Smokefall and a second world premiere to be announced; Sarah Ruhl’s comic tale of loss, Eurydice; the Southland debuts of Bill Cain’s touching How to Write a New Book for the Bible, Amanda Dehnert’s trailblazing musical take on Shakespeare, The Verona Project, and David Henry Hwang’s hit comedy Chinglish; and the West Coast premieres of Samuel D. Hunter’s poignantly funny The Whale and Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Broadway hit The Motherf**ker with the Hat.

The 2012-13 season was chosen by SCR’s Artistic Director Marc Masterson. “I am excited by the range and vitality of these plays in my inaugural season at SCR,” Masterson said.  “From sparkling new work to plays with recent Broadway pedigrees, the writers and artists assembled for this season draw on long relationships with our audience.”

Visit our website and find more information about each play or learn how you can join our exciting new season with a subscription!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Jane Wakes Up to a Jungle

Jane of the Jungle set rendering by designer Sara Ryung Clement.
By Kimberly Colburn
The tranquility of a lazy summer’s day, one of the last before middle school starts, is interrupted by the arrival of an important-looking envelope. And it isn’t for her parents…it’s addressed to Jane. Who could have sent it? Her best friend Kayla didn’t send it. Steve, the boy across the street, would have just jumped on his scooter and come over if he wanted to tell Jane anything. Jane finally opens the envelope to find it’s an invitation from the absolute coolest girl in school, Nicolette Miller. This can only mean that middle school will be amazing, right?

Except…that when she wakes up the next morning, everything in the world is different. Jane has spots! Her clothes don’t fit the same way, she’s swirling with intense new emotions, and people that she’s always trusted—like her Mom and her kid brother Milo—seem different. Her world has literally been turned into a jungle, and she has become a jungle animal.

Jane of the Jungle set rendering by designer Sara Ryung Clement.
Her mom tries to assure her that it is natural and normal, but Jane just wants to hide out and not even go to the party. How can she face the world looking like this? This party is going to define her entire middle school career, and Jane can’t blow it or she’ll be a loser forever. 

Kayla bursts in, and she’s had just as radical a transformation as Jane has had—except that she looks amazing in her feathery finery. Bright and emboldened, Kayla convinces Jane that going to the party is more important than anything. With Milo in tow, Jane and Kayla take off into the jungle, in search of guaranteed popularity. As they begin to hit obstacles in the jungle, Jane must decide just how far she is willing to go in order to make it to the party. She grapples with her new animal status and how to wield her claws. Will she lose herself to find the elusive coolness that she’s looking for? Can she ever find her way out of the tangled vines and lies of the jungle? One thing is for sure: Jane’s world is never going to be the same again.

Other Musicals from the team of Karen Zacarias and Deborah Wicks La Puma

Looking for Roberto Clemente
Set in 1972, it’s a story about a neighborhood competition to meet the legendary baseball player Roberto Clemente.

Chasing George Washington
Dee, José, and Annie accidentally knock George Washington out of his portrait and into real life - turning their White House tour into an unexpected adventure.

Einstein is a Dummy
A fictional day in the life of a young Albert Einstein.

Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans
A contemporary, Latin-American retelling of the classic fairy tale with a salsa twist.

Ferdinand the Bull
A musical adaptation of the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand.

The Magical Piñata
An original Mexican play with music: a seemingly plain clay pot magically transports Cucha from her small town to a mysterious jungle filled with eccentric characters.
Jane of the Jungle is a musical for the whole family, and explores the difficulty of moving from the world of being a kid into the scary land of adolescence. Jane’s mom might suspect what is happening, but Jane’s little brother Milo can’t understand it. Jane sure doesn’t know what to do with herself. The play is full of catchy songs and tunes you’ll find yourself humming long after you’ve left the jungle.

The Journey of Jane

South Coast Repertory is well known for its history of commissioning new work. SCR has more than 40 currently active commissions, meaning the playwright is going to write a play especially for our theatre. Jane of the Jungle is the result of such a commission. Playwright Karen Zacarias and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma have a long history of collaboration. They’ve created several other musicals for young audiences together (see sidebar), and Jane of the Jungle is their latest creation.

Three years ago, Zacarias and La Puma had an idea and a song. They met for a week’s workshop here at South Coast Repertory, and by the end of that workshop had developed their ideas into a rough script. Over the course of the next couple of years, they continued to revise and develop their work until it becomes the work that you see presented on our stages!

Q&A with Karen and Deborah

Dramaturg Kimberly Colburn asked playwright Karen Zacarias and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma about their inspiration and process in bringing Jane of the Jungle to life at SCR.

Where did you get the idea for Jane of the Jungle?
Karen Zacarias
KAREN: Debbie and I were talking about the difficulty and the joy of change. We had moved around a lot as kids, and we both had very vivid memories of how it felt to be 11 or 12 and have everything seem different. It's hard to be a pre-teen. Your feelings swing, your body starts to change and your relationships to your family, to your friends, to your school, all shift in unpredictable ways. Debbie's two older daughters were all heading for that challenging and exciting phase. We thought it was the right time to find a musical metaphor that encompassed this vital time of a kid's life.

DEBORAH: As a mom, its both comforting and distressing to see my children going through many of the same issues I had growing up—and being able to have my teenage and tween-age girls read the script and talk to me about these issues has been a huge inspiration!

While Jane is an original story, some of your other pieces are based on books or fairy tales. How is it different when you’re creating from scratch? What’s the process like?

KAREN: Most of our musicals are created from scratch, except Ferdinand the Bull (which is based on the book) and Cinderella Likes Beans and Rice (which is an original spin on the beloved fairy tale). When you start from scratch, you know that the audience has no pre-conceived ideas of the story or the characters...so you have to build them right there on stage in that moment every time. You have to create the story and world. When something is adapted...you have something to lean on but that has its own up and downs. The audience must be able to recognize the story and characters, and yet still be surprised by what they glean from the stage. Adaptations need to both appease and challenge what audiences thought they knew.

Deborah Wicks La Puma
DEBORAH: Karen and I still love to write together even after so many shows because we are always looking to make each show unique—not just in the characters and what happens to them, but also in the sound and music. In Jane we wanted to have a sense of a very ordinary girl traveling into an exotic and unknown musical jungle, so we are using lots of interesting instruments in the arrangements from around the globe, like the Japanese Taiko mixed with Indian Tabla, South American Marimba, and mashed into a song using good old rock-and-roll guitar.

How has the piece changed since you started?

KAREN: In an earlier version, the play started when Jane moved to a new house and neighborhood. In another, Jane went to a new camp. We realized however, that the interesting thing that was happening to Jane wasn't the changes in the outside world, but what was changing on the inside. This version, Jane is living in her same house with her little brother Milo, with her same friends...and yet...everything changes anyway. Her friendship with her BFF Kayla changes a lot. How she figures out who she is as she's changing and how to deal with peer pressure is what this play is all about.

Is there anything you would want kids to know before they see the show?

KAREN: This show is about boys too. There is a really fun little brother Milo who is really important. His adventures are very exciting.

DEBORAH: This show makes me want to learn how to skateboard...(with a helmet, of course).

What do you hope kids take away from this show?

DEBORAH: That growing up is a scary but totally fun process that doesn't end when you are "grown up."

What keeps you coming back to writing musicals for young audiences?

KAREN: Young audiences are the most sophisticated, fun, demanding theater audience. And we like writing for the best.

DEBORAH: They say that teachers learn a lot from their students, and I know I learn tons about the world when looking at it from a young person's perspective. Young people focus on the future, not the past, and that is awesome!

Get to Know Your Summer Acting Workshop Teachers

Louis Lotorto and Diana Burbano in
Ready to meet your child’s teachers for South Coast Repertory’s Summer Acting Workshop? You probably already have! Our teachers are leaders in their field, and they can be seen on screen and on stages all over Southern California, including right here at SCR.

Diana Burbano, who will be teaching 5th- through 8th-graders in the workshop’s first session, has a long history with SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences program, having appeared in The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, Bunnicula, Imagine and The Emperor’s New Clothes. She has been a working actress since the age of 12, and has appeared on television in “The District,” “Cold Case,” “What About Brian?” and many others. Burbano has contributed her time and talent to SCR’s Theatre Conservatory programs for four years.

Tom Shelton and Brenda Canela in
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
SCR regulars will probably also recognize Tom Shelton, who will instruct those taking part in the Musical Theatre Workshop. He has been a part of more than 15 productions here since 1980 when he appeared in Hotel Paradiso. Recently, he has appeared in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, several productions of A Christmas Carol, and most recently in the musical Lucky Duck.

Other teachers helping to guide aspiring actors this summer include: Erin McNally, who provided musical direction for several SCR Conservatory productions, including Cinderella and Into the Woods;  Richard Soto, who has been in more than a dozen productions of A Christmas Carol, plus television shows such as “The West Wing”;  Joe Alanes, another The Emperor’s New Clothes actor and director of the Jr. Player’s production of The Jungle Book; Jr. Player’s Sleeping Beauty director Mercy Vasquez, who also appeared on stage in Our Town; Amy-Lousie Sebelius, who received a Drama Logue Award for her work in American Holiday at The Attic theatre in Hollywood; Chris Sullivan, who held a small role in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl”; and musician Bobby Nafarrete, who provided orchestration for Into the Woods.

Learn how our team of professionals can train your rising young star in our Summer Acting Workshops.

Gala Reveals All—Over Lunch!

The spread.
On May 9, Beth Phelps, Gala Chair, welcomed SCR’s 2012 Gala Ball committee for a luncheon at the site of the upcoming event (The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa) and brought everyone up to date on the latest news.

And what news! 
  • The Gala Ball titleSetting the Stage — says its perfectly, according to Entertainment Co-Chair Olivia Johnson, “It’s a theatre theme because that’s what we’re all about on SCR’s stages, and it’s what we do best at SCR’s Galas.”
  • The BandJ.T. and the California Dreamin’ which, as everyone knows, is the biggest and best band in SoCal, with singers and entertainers galore.  This will be the fourth Gala for one of SCR’s favorite donors (and drummer extraordinare) John Tu.
  • The Cuisine — by Executive Chef Chris Savage, who has traveled from a dairy farm in Australia to kitchens around the world (London, Guam, Melbourne, Washington, DC and Chicago, for example!) and settled in Orange County, to the delight of SCR.  For just a hint of what’s to come, Chef Chris served up a delicious lunch. 
  • The DécorEverything that happens backstage — before the lights go down (reception) and after the curtain comes up (dining and dancing), according Décor Co-Chair Sophie Cripe and Gala Designer Tom Buderwitz.  Watch the SCR blog for more details!
"Setting the Stage" will be held at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa on Saturday, September 8, 2012.  For more information or to find out how to join the fun, call Susan Reeder at (714) 708-5518.

Bette Aitken, Chef Chris Savage and Elaine Weinberg.
Gala Chair Beth Phelps and Laurie Smits Staude

Gail Doe, Olivia Johnson and Barbara Cripe

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

"Jitney" — Where August Wilson Began

Directors Note:

Sometimes when asked to write something about the project I am working on I shy away from it. But with August Wilson it seems to be easy to talk about the experience, and what it means as an artist to work on his plays, in particular Jitney, one of my favorite plays of all time. I had the good fortune of working on the play as an understudy to "The Wilsonites" as I like to call them. I worked with powerhouse actors Paul Butler, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Anthony Chisholm, Russell Hornsby, Willis Burks II, Michole Briana White and Barry Shabaka Henley, who I feel are friends to this day even though our paths haven't crossed much over the years. That Jitney experience never left me.

Director Ron OJ Parson

Understudying can be a very frustrating and difficult job, but it was such a family atmosphere that it was a joy and pleasure to be around in whatever capacity. I felt like a sponge soaking it up. My mother fell ill during the run, and again it felt like I was with family during that trying time. Working on this production of Jitney, and all of August's plays, I feel his spirit exist in the room at all times. Watching August and my friend and mentor Marion McClinton work their magic was an experience I can never replace. Thank you, Marion. That experience has given me some insight that I know has helped in every Wilson play I have directed or acted in.

With this production we have assembled a great cast and I feel honored to be working with Charlie Robinson, someone whose work I have admired for many years. It has been such a joy bringing Jitney to life again.

I want to thank SCR for giving me the opportunity to tackle another August Wilson masterpiece, making it my 19th August Wilson production. I have to say a special thank you to Steve (Henderson), for pushing me and giving me the confidence to continue my career when I was about to chuck it in, and I would also like to dedicate this production to Israel Hicks, Paul Butler and Willis Burks II, three pioneers in the business who influenced me without even knowing it. They left us too soon. And of course, thank you August for making all our lives richer.


Ron OJ Parson
August Wilson's boyhood home at 1727 Bedford Street in Pittsburgh.

“Don’t put your business out in the street,” jitney station owner Becker advises his  driver Youngblood after he gets into a fight with Turnbo, an older driver who always has his nose in other peoples' business. But in August Wilson’s Jitney—an ensemble drama about gypsy cab drivers in Pittsburgh’s Hill district—that’s a herculean task.  Because everybody knows something about everybody else’s business.

Because everyone knows everyone in the Hill—Pittsburgh’s predominantly black neighborhood in the late seventies. And Wilson’s colorful cast of characters—who pass the time trading local stories, jokes and insults—are a microcosm of the neighborhood. Wilson’s ensemble includes four jitney drivers besides Becker:  Turnbo, who is always more interested in the business of others than his own.  Youngblood, a hot-headed young Vietnam veteran, determined to do right by his girlfriend Rena and their two-year-old son.  Fielding, an alcoholic, who used to be a world-class tailor to jazz musician Billy Eckstine.  And Doub, a Korean War veteran, who is Becker’s longtime friend.  They’re visited by Shealy, a numbers runner who uses the station as his base; Rena, Youngblood’s girlfriend; and Philmore, a local hotel doorman and frequent jitney passenger.

Historical marker in front of Wilson's boyhood home.

Becker has run this car service for 18 years, but now he faces the threat of encroaching urban renewal.  The city of Pittsburgh plans to close his jitney station in two weeks for redevelopment.  To complicate matters, his son Booster has just gotten out of prison after serving a 20-year sentence for a crime of passion.

August Wilson wrote an early version of Jitney in 1979—called Jitney!—before he had any idea it would become part of his greatest achievement—his landmark “Pittsburgh Cycle” of ten plays chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century.  From 1979 to 2004, Wilson wrote one play for each decade, setting nine of the ten plays in the Hill District—his childhood home.  Jitney was his first full-length play—and the only play of the cycle written in the decade in which it was set. (The play takes place in 1977.)  Wilson garnered numerous awards for his Cycle plays, including two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama for Fences and The Piano Lesson. Jitney was awarded a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Olivier Award for Best New Play.  (Read a summary of each play here.)

Jitney received its first major professional production at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Repertory Theatre in 1982.  Invited to return to the play by the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1996, Wilson reworked particular scenes, expanded characters and clarified relationships, between station owner Becker and his son, and the young lovers Youngblood and Rena.  He continued to develop the play as it went on to productions at eight regional theaters—including Center Theatre Group in 1999—before it opened to critical acclaim off-Broadway in New York and in London.

Jazz mural on Wylie Avenue,
one of the Hill's busiest streets
in the play.
Commenting on the Wilson’s characters, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote: “Real life, whether comic or tragic, is the best show in town in the Hill District.  Mr. Wilson’s characters get as much of a thrill from sitting in the audience of observers, kibitzing and criticizing and retelling local dramas as they do from being the major players.  Set in the 1970’s, Jitney could be described as just a lot of men sitting around talking.  But the talk has such varied range and musicality, and it is rendered with such stylistic detail, that a complete urban symphony emerges….What gives the play its extraordinary verve is how the characters define themselves—and by extension, the hardscrabble world in which they exist—through bristling dialogue and tasty anecdote.”

Wilson—In His Own Words

Playwright August Wilson
“I think the primary concern is to do the work to the best of your ability and to fulfill its aesthetic requirements.  My audience, if I thought of one, would be Ibsen, O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Baraka, and Bullins—my fellow playwrights who have wrestled with the problems of the art form and have contributed to my understanding of it.  When I sit down to write, I am sitting in the same chair that Ibsen sat in, that Brecht, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller sat in.  I am confronted with the same problems of how to get a character on stage, how to shape the scenes to get maximum impact.  I feel empowered by the chair.  For years I sat in that chair and tried to best my predecessors, to write the best play that’s ever been written.  That was my goal until I ran across a quote by Frank Lloyd Wright, who said he didn’t want to be the best architect who ever lived.  He wanted to be the best architect who was ever going to live.  That added fuel to the fire and raised the stakes, so to speak.  Now you’re not only doing battle with your predecessors but with your successors as well.  It drives you to write above your talent.  And I know that’s possible to do because you can write beneath it.”

-from an interview in the 
Paris Review
August Wilson wrote Jitney when he was still learning how to make his characters talk.  And in writing the intricate banter of their everyday lives—stories of neighbors and musicians, and gossip about one another—he created a profound portrait of their existence.  In his hands, the quotidian story of one small jitney station—and its drivers—illuminates the universal story of a young man trying to do right by his family,  a son seeking his father’s forgiveness, and a group of men seeking community.  Stories of humanity, love, honor, and betrayal—rendered by a master playwright, just beginning.

A Jitney Station on the Hill

2046 Wylie Avenue - the front of the jitney station.
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s full-time theatre critic and theatre editor from 1983 to 2008, Christopher Rawson chronicled August Wilson’s career in detail, starting with his Broadway debut in 1984, and compiled a comprehensive record of reviews, interviews and new stories about his work.  In his new book, August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays (co-authored by Laurence Glasco), he details the many Pittsburgh locations mentioned in Wilson’s plays, including this operating jitney station on the Hill.

The working pay phone
in the jitney station.
2046 Wylie Avenue

This building stands as an example of the many jitney stations that were needed because taxis would not service the Hill.  It is popularly referred to as the Wylie and Erin Jitney Station.

Sala Udin (then Sam Howze) says that he, August Wilson and Rob Penny often met at the Pan Fried Fish restaurant operated by two brothers, Clifford and Irv, on Wylie Avenue near Arthur and Roberts Streets.  Wilson typically arrived before the others and passed the time at a jitney station next door, listening to the drivers brag and laugh, telling stories, both true and invented.

Inside of the station with
manager Tom Wilson.
Similarly in Jitney, the men keep going next door to Clifford’s to get a fish sandwich.  The building Wilson frequented had disappeared by the time he wrote Jitney, and there are three other jitney stations mentioned in the play, but this one at 2046 Wylie Avenue can stand as the site of the play because its telephone number, 412-566-9802, recalls the number of the vanished station, Court 1-9802.  If you are invited inside, you will see it looks just like the stage set Wilson describes, with the exception of the television set.  The old-fashioned pay telephone still rings constantly.

Read Mr. Rawson’s article “The Pittsburgh Cycle” about Wilson’s epic 10-play cycle here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Meet Your "Jitney" Drivers

Jitney, which opens on the Segerstrom stage this month, is one of a series of plays by August Wilson known as the Pittsburgh Cycle. Each of the plays depicts the African-American experience during a different decade of the 20th century. While several of the actors in this all-star cast are new to SCR, nearly all of them previously have appeared in one of Wilson’s plays.

Charlie Robinson, who plays jitney station owner Becker, appeared here at SCR in Fences, Wilson’s play set in the 1950s, along with Larry Bates, who plays Vietnam War vet Youngblood, and Gregg Daniel, who plays regular jitney passenger Philmore. Becker’s son, Booster, is played by Montae Russell, who has performed all but one of the plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, and appeared in staged readings of Wilson’s work at The Kennedy Center. Ellis E. Williams, who plays gossipy jitney driver Turnbo, appeared in Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf, also at The Kennedy Center, while Kristy Johnson, who plays Youngblood’s girlfriend, Rena, appeared in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson’s ‘20s-era play, at Court Theatre. Rolando Boyce, who plays Shealy, a numbers-taker who uses the jitney station as his base, appeared in Fences at Court Theatre.

Rounding out the cast are newcomers David McKnight, who plays Fielding, a longtime driver with a few demons of his own to deal with, and James A Watson, Jr., who appears as Doub, a level-headed Korean War veteran.  McKnight is a theatre veteran who won an NAACP Theatre Award for his role in Soljers at West End Playhouse, while Watson brings with him a long film and television resume, plus several Emmy and NAACP Image Awards.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Slide Show: Pacific Playwrights Festival Turns 15

Theatre professionals and theatre lovers from across the country (including 40 playwrights) gathered at SCR April 27 - 29 for the 15th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival. Audiences heard five new plays read for the first—but certainly not the last!—time. Our cameras caught actors, playwrights and directors in rehearsal and at play. Here are some of our favorite behind-the-scenes moments from one of the nation’s most important new-play festivals.

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Reviving "pool (no water)”

Fans of the now-defunct experimental theatre company Rude Guerrilla will want to nab a seat for pool (no water), the next installment of Studio SCR. The movement-based piece, written by British playwright Mark Ravenhill, is produced by Dave Barton who founded Rude Guerrilla in 1997, and his newest endeavor, Monkey Wrench Collective, is just as dedicated to envelope-pushing theatre.

And this show will definitely raise some eyebrows. The premise involves a famous artist who invites a group of friends to her luxurious home for a reunion. But when a horrific diving accident (hence the play’s title) brings the celebration to a close, the friends begin to consider a sinister plan: Could her suffering be their next art project?

“It speaks to the things we think about, but can’t talk about,” says Barton, who is known as the US expert on Ravenhill’s work. Barton has directed more Ravenhill pieces than any other American, and has lectured on his “in your face” theatre at the University of Greenwich in London. He says he is drawn to the difficult, often times uncomfortable subject matter because of the conversations these plays spark.

“I can’t see spending the time and resources on a play that doesn’t make a difference,” he says. “There is a secular evangelical aspect to theatre. We want people to hear and receive the message.”

In addition to its bracing subject matter, pool (no water) is unique in that it employs a technique known as movement theatre. Movement theatre involves the addition of choreography and physical action to lend subtext and emotion to the play. These movements may reinforce or completely contradict the dialogue, giving audiences a glimpse into the characters’ minds. If it sounds hard to wrap your head around, it is: Even Barton admits to being slow to warm up to the idea of movement theatre. “I always thought it was pretentious and overly arty,” he says. “This piece totally changed my mind.”

Barton first produced pool (no water) with Monkey Wrench Collective in 2010, but says that this staging includes an expanded cast, completely reworked dance and movement and a “rawer” feel. Even those who have seen the play produced before are in for a new experience.

“They truly will never have seen anything else like this in Orange County.”