Friday, December 28, 2012

Creating Controlled Mayhem

Six Questions with Fight Choreographer Edgar Landa

Edgar Landa
Edgar Landa likes the fact that he creates violence and mayhem for a living, and it’s all in the name of the theatrical arts. Landa, a fight choreographer, is working with the cast of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker with the Hat.

SCR: How do you prepare fight choreography before getting onstage with the actors?
Edgar Landa: I read the play multiple times—for story, for character information and for other small pieces of information that would affect how a particular character might approach a fight or react to violence. I also make notes of props, weapons and any blood or injury requirements. Whenever possible, I ask for a floor plan of the set design so that I have an idea of the space in which a particular fight or piece of violence will take place in. And finally, I talk to the director. I ask for his or her thoughts on the play, particular characters, and the fights or violence. Often I'll ask for descriptive key words or phrases for specific characters that sometimes can open up doors in how to approach certain fights.

Once rehearsal begins, how do you work with actors to create the illusion of a fight?
EL: I come into the first rehearsal with some ideas about what the fight/violence might look like, what I feel it may have to it, and how the story and given circumstances might motivate the fight. 

Sometimes I'll have worked out some fight bits with some of my graduate students [at the University of Southern California] before coming to rehearsal. Choreographing some possible fight moments beforehand allows me to explore and come into the first rehearsal better-prepared. These ideas will shift once I meet the actors and get input from them. I often find that we discover the fight/violence much more organically that way than if I come in with a prepared fight to impose on them.

In the rehearsal room I like to work collaboratively with the actors. I may start with some of my ideas just to get the actors moving and out of that they will often come up with good or better ideas that I can craft into safe and effective fight moves that tell a good story and support the overall story of the play. The choices made in the fight are determined by character and story and also by what can be done safely. That is always our first concern.  We are creating the illusion of violence.

How do the fights in this play differ from other plays?
EL: The fights in The Motherf**ker with the Hat are challenging to choreograph because they are "messy" fights. There is no particular style or elegance because the characters are not skilled fighters. Yet we have to choreograph it so that the actors always are safe and in control to create the illusion of the fight not being in control. Even a seemingly wild and chaotic fight must be controlled and choreographed so that the actors are safe, the story of the fight is clear and the audience remains engaged in the illusion of the world that the director, actors and designers have created.  The choreography is very much a dance with its own pace, rhythm and beats.

Tell us how you ensure actor safety.
EL: We work on mats in the rehearsal room and I encourage the actors to wear knee pads and elbow pads, if necessary. We work on fights slowly and methodically and build up slowly to "performance" speed. I remind the actors that "performance" speed is slower than reality because the audience has to be able to see the violence, and because intent and specificity in the fight is always better than speed.

Props and scenery pieces are custom-made to look like the real thing, but actually are made from soft materials. We choreograph the fights to avoid contact by found weapons and those items also are made from soft materials, which add a layer of safety. The breakaway furniture is made to consistently break as required. The rehearsal process allows the actor to be confident in the furniture functioning as intended.

I want to stress that the fight is a dance and the actors involved must look out for each other, must constantly breathe and create the violence from a place of relaxation in their body rather than from a place of tension.
What kind of fights will we see in The Motherf**ker with the Hat?

EL: The play calls for violent contact with "found" weapons, like a pistol whip, a stickball stick to the head, a coffee table/side table getting broken or broken on an actor during the fight. 
What makes your job fun?
EL: I love working with actors!  I’m an actor myself, so part of the fun for me is figuring out how to work with each actor, how much to lead and how much to listen. I also love the moment when actors take ownership of a fight or piece of violence. The moves are the moves—in and of themselves—so they’re not particularly exciting or fancy. It is the actors investing the moves in the fight with intention and specificity that makes for an exciting story telling moment.

Back to Basics: Karen Hensel Teaches "Acting III"

Karen Hensel with students.
In the world of actor training, Karen Hensel is renowned as the founding instructor of Actor’s Workshop, the most advanced class in SCR’s Adult Acting Program. And for good reason. A successful actor in her own right, Karen is the program’s director as well as a longtime member of the SCR company.

Karen with Richard Doyle in 
Frankie and
Johnny in the Clair de Lune.
Now there’s great news for students who are advancing through the program but are not yet ready for Actor’s Workshop. For the first time, Karen has put Acting III on her teaching schedule. A popular class for students with prior training, either at SCR or elsewhere, the class is a final step before they advance to Actors Workshop. Karen will be at the helm when winter classes begin on Jan. 14.
Among those already registered for Acting III are several repeat students.

Darren Nash probably holds the record as a frequent Karen Hensel student. He has taken—more than once—Acting III and Actors Workshop, and he’s a graduate of the Professional Intensive Program, an eight-week summer course for career-minded actors. According to Darren, “Anything I have achieved as an actor is directly due to the skills I acquired from Karen’s instruction.”

And, he will repeat Acting III this winter. Why again? “Just to be in the same room with her infectious joy for the art of acting—and to re-connect with why I decided to be an actor in the first place.” Darren has guest-starred on the Biography channel and appeared onstage at Shakespeare Orange County.

Acting III delves deeper into technique. But because she can’t know the newcomers to her class immediately, Karen begins with small steps. On the first day of class, students fill out a confidential questionaire, which allows her to understand them more completely and help with their specific problems and concerns.

Karen Hensel with Hal Landon Jr. in A Chrismas Carol
According to Karen, “They’ll have the option of choosing their own scenes and monlogues or taking suggestions from me. I’m very excited to be teaching at this level because it gives me the opportunity to work on the emotional connection to a script and gives my students a chance to think about where they feel the need for more work.”

Among Karen’s acting credits are major roles in SCR productions, including Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, with Founding Artist Richard Doyle, which went on to the Singapore Theatre Festival, and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award-winning Top Girls. Karen appeared on Broadway in Zoot Suit, and her many television credits include 18 years and counting as Doris on “The Young and the Restless.” She was seen most recently in her annual role as Mrs. Fezziwig in SCR’s A Christmas Carol. Karen has taught acting at Santa Clara University and is a faculty member at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she teaches Acting Styles.

According to Founding Artistic Director David Emmes, “Karen has a distinguished career as an artist, but one of her greatest gifts is helping students discover their inner potential as actors.”

That about sums it up. And her students agree.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

What’s in a Name?

by Kimberly Colburn

“The Hat Play.”
“The play with the unprintable name.”
“The one with the curse word in the title.”
“One funny mother of a play.”
“The cursing play.”
“The MotherMMMHHHMMM with the Hat.”
“The [Unpleasant Person] with the Hat.”

This is a report of a few of the monikers audience members have given to the box office in order to purchase tickets or ways the play has been referred to in the printed press. Shorthand names of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ newest play, The Motherf**ker with the Hat, are plentiful. It’s almost as though Guirgis is daring you to say it aloud. The title brilliantly captures the explosive dark humor in this play and whether you find the title titillating or a turn-off, the comedy and power of this piece cannot be denied. The Wall Street Journal called it a “tight, smart and splendidly well-made…a tough-minded, unromantically romantic comedy that keeps you laughing, then sends you home thinking.”

Set in New York City, the play opens on Veronica, “cleaning” up her single room in a residential hotel off of Time Square (including getting rid of a line of leftover coke) and giving dating advice to her mother. Veronica insists her mother’s current beau resembles a fish. “Take a real good look and ax yourself in all honesty—‘Do I wanna fuck him—or fry him up with a little adobo and paprika an’ feed him to fuckin’ Buster and Negrito, okay?!’” Veronica knows something about dating; she’s been dating Jackie on and off since the eighth grade.

Elisa Bocanegra as Victoria and Tony Sancho as Jackie.
Jackie is fresh from a two year stint in prison for selling drugs. He’s clean now, thanks to AA and the help of his sponsor, Ralph D.  He returns home to Veronica’s place with great news. He’s found a job. More than that, it’s a job with potential for advancement. For the first time in his life, they can plan for the future together. Jackie promises Veronica a night of celebration, but Veronica puts the plan on pause to go and take a quick shower. Jackie’s celebratory mood sours when he notices a seemingly innocuous object on the table. It’s a hat. It’s a man’s hat, but it sure ain’t Jackie’s hat. Who is the owner of that hat? And what was he doing with Veronica?

Jackie accuses Veronica of stepping out on him. She denies it, but he doesn’t believe her. How could he? Jackie asks her “Why the bed smells like Aqua Velva and dick?” Like Ralph D. says, you can’t trust an addict—and everyone is struggling with his or her demons in this play. From Jackie to his lonely cousin Julio, no one can quite manage to tell the cold, hard truth. It’s just not that simple when you live in desperate circumstances and the people around you solve problems with drugs or violence.

Jackie’s never been able to keep it together long enough to become what society might see as a functioning member, and now he’s so close he can taste it—but life keeps hitting him with one distracting revelation after another. Guirgis’ play explores the nature of addiction. Jackie is forced to wrestle with avenging his cuckold status while navigating the temptations that are luring him to indulge in his past bad behaviors, the only ways he has ever known.

Director Michael John Garcés, in his work as the artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company, has personal connections to the themes in this play. He has worked with community members who have struggled with addiction. When asked what excites him about the play, Garces cites Guirgis’ ability “to use rough language to make deeply insightful statements about love and the human condition” and “tackle important issues—in this case alcoholism and the effects of addiction—in a way that makes for great, engrossing and entertaining storytelling.”  (Read an interview with Garcés.)

Artistic Director Marc Masterson calls this play “sharply funny and achingly honest” and is “thrilled to introduce this important American playwright to SCR audiences.” Guirgis has penned hit plays such as Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. He has also enjoyed success in television, working on shows such as "NYPD: Blue" and "The Sopranos."

The comedy in this play lies in Gurigis’ masterful manipulation of the extremity of the characters’ circumstances mixed with a dose of good old-fashioned romantic farce. Whose hat is it? Can Jackie manage to find the owner of the hat and bring him to justice, all while staying clean and out of jail? A play by any other name could surely not be this provocative—or this funny.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Artistic and Stage Life of the Cast of "The Motherf**ker with the Hat"

Larry Bates, Elisa Bocanegra, Cristina Frias, Tony Sancho and Christian Barillas.
The characters in The Motherf**ker with the Hat have relationships and connections that are deeply rooted in their shared past, which led them to the circumstances of the play. Jackie and Veronica, friends since eighth grade and lovers since high school, have their mutual trust put to the test when Jackie discovers another man’s hat in Veronica’s apartment. He turns to Ralph D, his AA sponsor, for help, but Jackie finds something out that he can’t forgive. Even Ralph D’s wife, Victoria, has had it with Ralph, so she tries to drag Jackie into the couple’s relationship problems. And Jackie turns to his Cousin Julio for help. The complex and riveting characters created by playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis are one reason that The Motherf**ker with the Hat has earned praise.

The show’s cast has past connections as well that tie them together. Christian Barillas, who plays the role of Cousin Julio, just appeared as Young Ebenezer in SCR’s production of A Christmas Carol. He also originated the role of Alvaro in Octavio Solis’ Lydia at Denver Center Theater Company. Coincidentally, actor Tony Sancho—who plays Jackie in The Motherf**ker with the Hat—appeared in Lydia at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in 2009.

Tony has a deep history with the role of Jackie in The Motherf**ker with the Hat: he read the role at the 2009 Ojai Playwrights Conference. At SCR, he’s working again with director Michael John Garcés, who directed Tony in a production of Need Theatre’s The Web. Tony isn’t the only actor to have worked with this show’s director. Garcés also directed Cristina Frias—who plays Ralph D’s wife Victoria—in a production of Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo at the San Francisco International Arts Festival in last September.

Speaking of Ralph D, he’s portrayed by longtime SCR actor Larry Bates. His most recent performances at SCR include the co-production with Pasadena Playhouse of August Wilson’s Jitney, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, and the 2010 revival of Sideways Stories from Wayside School. This last production, for SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences program in 2004, featured actress Elisa Bocanegra, who plays Jackie’s girlfriend Veronica in The Motherf**ker with the Hat.

Learn more about The Motherf**ker with the Hat and see this cast on the Julianne Argyros Stage, starting Jan. 6, 2013

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Five (Plus) Questions with Michael John Garcés

THE CAST: Larry Bates, Cristina Frias, Christian Barillas, Elisa Bocanegra, Tony Sancho.
Now that playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has your attention with the title of his play, Michael John Garcés, who is directing South Coast Repertory’s production of The Motherf**ker with the Hat, shares a few thoughts about the play and SCR’s production.

Question: Some people can’t get beyond the title. What’s important for them to know about this play?

Michael John Garcés: I think it's a great title, because it lets people know, straight up, that the language is explosive and in-your-face. This is a play about people who are on the edge of really falling apart, and the desperation of their situation is expressed in the way they communicate. That said, this is also a play about people trying to be better human beings: better in their decisions, better to the people they love, better at being responsible. It's a play about addiction, and that affects people's lives and families regardless of background or economic situation. And it's really funny!

THE DIRECTOR:  Michael John Garcés
What gets you really excited about this play and this cast?

MJG: The language is really poetic; by that I don't mean that it is pretty or in rhyme, but that it really sings, and flows naturally, and is both very real and also heightened. Stephen, as a writer, is able to use rough language to make deeply insightful statements about love and the human condition, which is ultimately what great playwrights do. He is also able to tackle important issues—in this case alcoholism and the effects of addiction—in a way that makes for great, engrossing and entertaining storytelling.

Tell us about your work with playwright Stephen Adley Guirgis.

MJG: I have known and admired Stephen for many years. We both came up together in New York in the early ‘90s and worked together quite a bit back then. He acted in a couple of plays of mine (he's also a great performer), and we were both in the same theatre company. I think the connection between director and playwright helps because I have seen and read a lot of his work, and hear it in his voice, and it brings some understanding to how his characters interact and why they talk in the specific ways that they do.

When the actors sat down around a table in December and read through the play for the first time, what did you listen for? And how does that figure into what we’ll eventually see onstage?

MJG: I'm listening for connection. What parts of the play, of their characters, do they really, inherently, connect to? What surprises me in how they approach certain scenes, line or moments? What parts of the play read completely differently than I imagined? And, also, how do the people listening respond?

What do you want audience members to come away with after seeing the play?

MJG: I'm hoping that people are reminded of the need to empathize with those around us, whether they are strangers or members of our own families, who are having a really hard time, who are not able to easily solve their problems, who are not "successful." I'm hoping that the play makes the audience remember that we all have times when we hit bottom, and, though some of us are more able to cope than others, we are all worthy of compassion and love. And I'm hoping people will have had a good time!

How do you kick back after really intense rehearsals for this play?

MJG: After the intensity of rehearsal, I do welcome the commute to Los Angeles. A big part of what I do to unwind is music: mostly, I've found myself listening to jazz, Louis Armstrong and Dexter Gordon sides, things that are upbeat and fun, and funny. I also read a lot, like the new book by Julian Barnes and a book by a Colombian writer named Santiago Gamboa. And, more than anything else, I enjoy time when I can play with my son.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

BAH! Humbug!

Your friends and their families have been to see SCR’s A Christmas Carol this year. Why haven’t you?

Here are four more ways to know that you’re a Scrooge:

  • If you give bathroom fixtures as Christmas gifts.
  • If your idea of Christmas dinner is a six pack of beer and a cheese log.
  • If the only three spirits that visit you are gin, whiskey and rum.
Share some other ways to know if you’re a Scrooge on our Facebook page.