Monday, March 25, 2013

Three Short Acts, Three Generations of a Family Experiencing Change

"It's a Monday in mid-autumn, which is its own season. The leaves are already falling. People are making pumpkin pies and hot apple cider. Girls are wearing sweaters for the first time this year. We're a family again on the newest day."

Playwright Noah Haidle
So says an old man called The Colonel, as morning breaks in Noah Haidle's Smokefall. The play is a theatrical triptych, using three short acts to tell the story of three generations of a middle-American family living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They might easily be mistaken for typical at first, but thanks to Haidle's fertile imagination and his willingness to set aside the conventions of the realistic play, this family and its story are full of surprises.

In act one, we meet the family members as they move through their morning routines on what will prove to be anything but a routine day. Mother Violet, stands solidly at the center of the family, despite the fact that she is nine months pregnant with twins and must contend with an elderly father—The Colonel—who suffers from dementia, a teenage daughter with eccentric habits, and a husband struggling to reconcile himself to a life he hadn't bargained for. Even the family dog, Max, has an unexpected inner life. We know this because of the ongoing commentary provided by a character known as Footnote. A sort of existential narrator, Footnote gives us glimpses of the truth hiding beneath the surface of this family's life.

By way of a morning greeting to Violet's unborn twins, The Colonel quotes a favorite Latin aphorism: "All things change, and we change with them." Yet seeming to contradict him, the family's morning rituals proceed as they always have. But then change does descend upon the family, abruptly and momentously, as the first act comes to a close.

The second act introduces two members of the family whom we haven't met before, engaged in a kind of philosophical argument—part Platonic dialogue, part vaudeville comedy routine—about the meaning and value of life. Their debate is hilariously funny, but the stakes could not be higher, and when it ends—forced to a conclusion by outside events—the theoretical argument yields a real-life choice that has far-reaching effects.

In fact, those effects continue to ripple through the final act of the play, which takes place many, many years after the first two. It depicts a reunion and a moment of reckoning shared by brother and sister. The house in Grand Rapids still stands, but nature has begun to reclaim it. The family struggles on, although many of its members have gone the way of all flesh. Footnote makes a brief return appearance—a character who exists outside of time, a dispassionate observer of the tolling bell and the toll taken. In this final chapter of the family saga, time becomes fluid—past, present and future commingle in the house—as the play moves toward an answer to the question it has implicitly asked all along: What makes life worth living?

Running its course in about 90 minutes, Smokefall is a compact play with big matters on its mind. Haidle openly acknowledges his artistic debt to the great American dramatist, Thornton Wilder, whose masterpiece, Our Town, asks similar questions in a similarly unconventional way.

And as Smokefall comes to its conclusion, the simple words spoken by the Colonel at its beginning remain true, but resonate in a very different way: "It's a Monday in mid-autumn, which is its own season… We're a family again on the newest day."

Noah Haidle and SCR: A Long-term Relationship

Playwright Noah Haidle and director Anne Kauffman in rehearsal for the 2012 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Smokefall.
Smokefall marks SCR's fourth production, and third world premiere, of a Noah Haidle play.

Haidle began his professional career at SCR in 2004 (while still a playwriting fellow at The Juilliard School), when his play, Mr. Marmalade, was one of two productions featured in the 7th Annual Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF). Now Smokefall serves as a cornerstone of the 16th Pacific Playwrights Festival; a co-production with the Goodman Theatre—which commissioned it—the play will move on to Chicago in the fall.

Anne Kauffman, who directed last year's PPF reading of Smokefall, returns to stage the production. A sought-after director—particularly for new plays—Kauffman spends most of her time directing at some of the finest theatres in New York. This is her first production at SCR.

Kauffman has assembled a cast of SCR familiars and one newcomer. Heidi Dippold plays Violet; she earlier portrayed a mother with a very different set of problems in the world premiere of Mr. Marmalade.

As her husband, Daniel, Corey Brill makes his second SCR appearance in a role that bears little resemblance to his Mr. Darcy in last season's Pride and Prejudice.

Carmela Corbett, who took on the title role in Eurydice to open the Argyros season, will play Daniel and Violet's daughter—nicknamed "Beauty".

And narrating their inner lives is Leo Marks as Footnote, returning to SCR after playing the bemused archivist in Julia Cho's The Language Archive three years ago.

Making his SCR debut in the role of The Colonel, the one newcomer in the cast may nevertheless be a very familiar face to many in the audience. Orson Bean was a fixture for years on "To Tell the Truth" and other popular game shows in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and has continued his prolific career with hundreds of appearances on "The Tonight Show" and roles on "Desperate Housewives" and other popular television series. Bean starred on Broadway for 20 years, winning a Theater World Award and a Tony Award nomination in the process. As a veteran of stage and screen, Bean has learned how not to be upstaged by a dog, which will prove useful for his frequent interactions with the canine Max, also making his SCR debut in the role of "Max."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reviews in the News, Reactions in Social Media: "The Whale"

Matthew Arkin and Blake Lindsley in The Whale.  Photo by Scott Brinegar.
Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale is bringing playgoers and reviewers alike to the Julianne Argyros Stage. Both are praising the production and the acting ensemble. Here’s a sampling of what they’ve said about the show:

  • The Los Angeles Times says The Whale is “Funny … deeply moving” and “Impressively acted … superb.”
  • The Orange County Register calls The Whale a “perceptive and moving new play” that “shows immensity of spirit.”
  • Backstage says it’s “compelling.”
  • LA Splash praises the production, saying “ Martin Benson’s deft direction and playwright Hunter’s use of short scenes interspersed with blackouts help move the production at a fluidic speed without being rushed.”
  • StageSceneLA was “blown away by this absolutely brilliant, unexpectedly funny, devastating powerful new play.”
  • “Powerful. The actors were incredible!” –Ita, via Facebook
  • “One of the finest plays SCR has ever done.” –John, via Facebook
  • “I loved the play. I was blown away.” –Sara, via Facebook
  • “Matthew Arkin is so impressive in “The Whale.” –Sherry, via Twitter

Experience the play for yourself!

Watch Video Clips              Buy Tickets Now             Share Your Reaction

"The Whale" Captivates Opening Night Audience

At the end of The Whale, the sound stops abruptly and the stage suddenly goes black. On March 15, First Night of Samuel D. Hunter’s new play, directed by Martin Benson, that moment was followed by stunned silence from the audience.

Sometimes this happens on opening night of a great play, as it did on January 29, 1947, when the curtain came down on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Miller thought his play was a flop. Then audience members let out a collective roar of praise as they rose to their feet.

And that’s exactly what followed on opening night of The Whale. “It was emotional,” said Elizabeth Williams, Honorary Producer with her husband Ryan and her mother Mary Beth Adderley. And as they gathered for the Cast Party at Scotts’s Restaurant & Bar, everyone agreed—and so did the critics in the days that followed, led by the Los Angeles Times (“deeply moving”) and the Orange County Register (“absorbing”).

Later, Elizabeth spoke more at length about the play, saying, “It was very shocking, realizing that Charlie’s daughter, despite her rages during the play wanted to connect with her father.”  Ryan added, “It’s extremely powerful—and profoundly moving at the end, to find that she really loved him.”

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Getting to Know Helen Sadler and Wyatt Fenner

Wyatt Fenner and Helen Sadler in The Whale.  Photo by Scott Brinegar
Helen Sadler and Wyatt Fenner are featured as Ellie and Elder Thomas in SCR’s production of Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale. By using their own experiences and through dedication to their art, they have been able to revel in these strong and challenging roles.

We recently sat down with them and got to know a little more about the people behind the characters.  

What drew you into acting?
 “For me, South Coast Repertory means artistic integrity and quality theatre. Worth braving the 5, the 605, and 405 for!”—Helen Sadler
Helen Sadler: I think it came from spending a lot of time with my dad, who was a film professor, and watching old Hollywood black and white films. I was enamored with the strong female actresses, like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, and felt a real kinship with them and their point of views! Also, I was the fourth of five children, so I probably had a bit of middle child syndrome—that need to make my mark and be seen!

Wyatt Fenner: After lunch one day in first grade, we went down to the gymnasium where Mrs. Grove, my first-grade teacher, led us in a game of kickball. She was pretty old and I remember thinking how cool it was that she was teaching us kickball in her teacher clothes, long skirt and glasses!  Before that day, though, recess had always been for me a time for playing “pretend“: my friends and I would set up these pretend worlds outside on the jungle gym and we'd play Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians, Little Mermaid or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As the school year went on, we got to have recess outside again. But after that day with Mrs. Grove teaching us kickball, everyone was crazy about kickball and every recess from then on was all about kickball. It drove me nuts. So, basically I started doing plays because it was a way to still play “pretend” when other kids seemed to be growing out of that.

 “As an actor, building a career means to dedicate yourself to what you hope to do and say yes to every opportunity you can. Surround yourself with people you admire. Read. Enjoy the process.”—Wyatt Fenner
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced building your acting career?
HS: Money. Or rather lack of! Financially, it is very challenging while you are still building career momentum and credits. One of the hardest parts of being an actor is when you’re not working, and being able to handle those periods in between jobs, to retain equilibrium and not freak out! So that when you do have a job, you can just appreciate the work you’re doing, in the present, without worrying about what’s next. 

WF: Rejection; specifically learning to handle rejection early on. My senior year of high school, I completely bombed my audition for The Juilliard School. I remember walking across Lincoln Center in New York City in the rain, weeping because I felt like a total failure and thought that was the end of the line for me. But, eventually I understood that as long as you are giving everything you can, then you can be more “zen” about it all because you've earned that peace of mind by working hard. I still weep in the rain every single time I don't get what I want, but I'm way more zen about it now!

Is there any personal experience that you drew upon for the characters of Ellie and Elder Thomas?
HS: Oh sure, I was a seriously angsty teen, so I can definitely relate to her frustration and disappointment in adults and the world around her and her strong opinions. But, I had an outlet in art, so I could channel those feelings into something more productive until I grew out of them.

WF: Yes, but I won't say what.

 Sadler: On Her Debut in The Whale

“Ok, you asked for it, so now I’m afraid I’m going to start gushing!

“Being in The Whale, has been one of those rare experiences where you have to pinch yourself as a reminder that it’s actually happening; to appreciate every moment of it, because it doesn’t happen very often and it will over so soon. First, the cast is incredible, really brave and generous actors, and we all get on sickeningly well. Working with Martin [Benson] is a dream; he is so experienced and supportive and his enthusiasm for the play was very contagious it made the rehearsal process really enjoyable. And then of course, there is the play itself.

“When I read The Whale, I could tell immediately that this was really something special and I was desperate to be a part of it. Sam Hunter’s writing just acts itself, frankly, he is so brilliant. He has created this amazingly realized world, darkly hilarious, and deeply moving; full of interesting, complex characters, which is great fun to inhabit every night. And we’ve been really lucky to have him around during the rehearsal process."

“Finally, the audiences at SCR here have been amazing so far--so responsive--and they seem to love the play as much as we do!”
Fenner: SCR Is a Special Place

“I have great respect for people capable of the dedication and doing the amount of work that the founding members put into building South Coast Repertory. Richard [Doyle] played my character’s dad in Misalliance and from the beginning of that process, he and I became close. I recently did a reading with Hal [Landon Jr.], and he was talking to me about when they started this company together—it's nice to be reminded that ultimately, the only person responsible for you doing or not doing what you want with your life is yourself.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Describing "The Whale" In a Few Words

During opening weekend for Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, we asked audience members to describe the play in one, two or a few words. It wasn’t an easy task for this engaging and complex story. See some of the written results.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Meet the "Smokefall" Cast

THE CAST: Orson Bean, Corey Brill, Leo Marks, Heidi Dippold and Carmela Corbett.
A Dog's Debut

Max Braden
Max is a hard-working Schnauzer/Lhasa mix, who is probably seven years old. In other words, he’s a "dog pound special," says Vickie Braden, his human companion.

In March 2006, after what is now considered to be an unfortunate "cat-chasing incident," Max got lost and was placed in a Long Beach animal shelter.  He lived under the assumed name of “Gavin” for a couple of weeks before he found his “forever home” and a new name – Max. He currently resides in Huntington Beach.

Max had no prior acting experience prior to landing the role of Sparky in SCR's production of Smokefall. Prior to that, he had worked as "head of security" for an event planning company in Los Angeles. His bark was probably worse than his bite.

During his down time, Max chases tennis balls to keep in shape for the role of Sparky, which requires him to consume a great deal of treat—which is the reason he is so excited to be in Smokefall!

Most weekends, Max can be spotted at Huntington Beach's famous dog beach—hangin' out with his dawgs. Max is humbled and honored to be working with the great cast of Smokefall and is looking forward to a terrific premiere at South Coast Repertory. Oh, yes, and lots of treats during opening weekend!
A mix of actors, who are both returning and debuting, comprise the cast for the world premiere of Noah Haidle’s Smokefall.  The great group assembled includes Orson Bean, Corey Brill, Carmela Corbett, Heidi Dippold, Leo Marks, and Max as Sparky, the dog who does not bark.

Orson Bean makes his SCR debut with Smokefall, but he’s no stranger to theatre. He starred on Broadway for 20 years, winning a Theater World Award and a Tony Award nomination in the process. He was the star of the original cast of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and was featured in Subways Are For Sleeping. He appeared on “The Tonight Show” more than 200 times, 100 of them as substitute host. In recent years, he has guest-starred in “Two and a Half Men,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and in a recurring role in “Desperate Housewives.”

Corey Brill appeared at SCR last season in Pride and Prejudice. His Broadway credits include Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (understudy) and Cabaret (Broadway national tour). In regional theatre, his credits include How I Learned to Drive (Santa Monica Rep), The Glass Menagerie (The Kennedy Center), Doubt (Seattle Repertory Theatre); Opus (The Old Globe); Lady Windermere’s Fan and On the Razzle (Williamstown Theatre Festival), The Bay at Nice (Hartford Stage), Beauty (La Jolla Playhouse), Twelfth Night and Three Sisters (Chalk Repertory Theatre). His television appearances include “CSI: Miami” and “Confessions of a Dog.”

Carmela Corbett made her SCR debut last fall in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, and came back for a reading of Steven Drukman’s new play, Death of the Author. She’s a recent graduate of The Juilliard School’s drama division, where some of her roles included Sorel in Hayfever, Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well, Isabella Bird and Nell in Top Girls, Miss Leighton in Once in a Lifetime and Amy in Mine by Laura Marks. Originally from London, she moved to New York at the age of 19 to study at the Lee Strasberg Institute. She narrates for Audible Books and is a member of the Misrule Theatre Company in the UK.

Heidi Dippold first appeared at SCR in the world premiere of Noah Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade and later in Joe Penhall’s Dumb Show. She recently received a Big Easy Award for her work as Olivia in Twelfth Night at The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival. She has also appeared onstage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre, Signature Theatre (New York City) and The Cleveland Play House, to name a few. Favorite television roles include a recurring role on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” serial killing identical twins on “NCIS” and Jeffrey Tambor’s love interest on the sitcom “20 Good Years.” She also has appeared in numerous television commercials.

Leo Marks returns to SCR, after appearing as George in the world premiere of The Language Archive and Bill Walker in Major Barbara. He also has performed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Old Globe, Intiman Theatre, Geffen Playhouse, Ahmanson Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse, Kirk Douglas Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, La MaMa E.T.C., Soho Rep, and Playwrights Horizons, among many others.

Max is making his SCR debut as Sparky, the who forgot how to bark.

21st-Century Actors Morph Into Ancient Chinese Characters

Max Salinger (Military Captain), Jamie Ostmann (Literary Scholar), Nirali Patel (Music Master), Katie Agrela (Empress) and front, Harvey Sutton (Emperor) in rehearsal for SCR's Junior Players production of The Nightingale.
The Nightingale
story by Hans Christian Andersen
adapted for the stage by Marisha Chamberlain
directed by Mercy Vasquez

In this engaging tale, an emperor is charmed by the beautiful song of a small ordinary bird, the nightingale. Then a mechanical bird takes her place. Will the banished nightingale ever return to bring hope and comfort to the kingdom?

Dates:   Saturday, April 6 and 13, Sunday April 7 and 14.  All shows at 1 and 4 p.m.

Tickets:  $10 (may be purchased through the SCR Box Office at (714) 708-5555 or online at
The Nightingale, SCR’s upcoming Junior Players production, takes place worlds (and centuries) away from Costa Mesa, Calif. It’s set in ancient China, in a faraway and almost magical land, where gardens stretch to the sea and flowers bloom underwater. However, the 14 young actors in the cast will step into that time and place with ease because they have “lived” there for months.

Mercy Vasquez, who teaches the Junior Players ensemble students—and directs their annual production—has lived there with them and helped make ancient China a familiar place.  According to Mercy, “Because research is part of every actor’s process, I began by having the students study Chinese customs.”

Before each rehearsal session, a designated student introduces a new custom to the ensemble, allowing them to study—and embrace—different behaviors, mannerisms and charming idiosyncrasies. “This helps the actors connect to a world and a community they know very little about,” Mercy says, “and to discover similarities as well as differences.”

Harvey Sutton (Emperor) and Kelsey Bray (Nightingale) in rehearsal for SCR's Junior Players production of The Nightingale.
Not only do they live in another era, the actors portray an array of characters, both animal and human, real and unreal. That process isn’t as difficult as it may seem because all of the Junior Players have studied acting at SCR for at least two years, and character development is an integral part of their training.

The story they bring to life in The Nightingale is about the emperor of China, who rules from his porcelain palace, becomes charmed by the song of a nightingale which he claims for his own, and finally learns that birds must be free to share their songs with everyone. At first, children in the audience also may find the setting unfamiliar and strange, but the Junior Players will soon make it real and believable for them—and they’ll have a great time doing it.

In fact, the Players have a great time (and form strong friendships) year-round—in classrooms, rehearsal halls and on stage. Studio B, one of the Education Department’s rehearsal spaces—currently both their classroom and their stage—seems like a second home to the Players.  But when they move to the Nicholas Studio, where The Nightingale will be presented, they’ll be at home there, too.

And they’ll be inseparable. In the final weeks before The Nightingale opens, the Players arrive after school and often rehearse until 8 p.m. with a break for dinner—which they enjoy together, especially when parents surprise the cast and crew with meals of Chinese food.

From September through May, a dedicated staff is available to assist them and Vazquez is by their side, so it’s a safe and cozy world for the SCR Players, whether in Costa Mesa or ancient China. Maybe that’s what being in an “ensemble” is all about.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

SCR Donor Circles Get Down to the Nitty Gritty

An Evening of “Tech” for The Whale

Ever wonder what it’s like at SCR the week before a play opens?  Just ask members of the Golden or Platinum Circle, two of the theatre’s most active—and curious—donor groups.

On Wednesday night, March 6, Circlers observed a “tech” rehearsal for The Whale, watching as all the technical elements—lights, sound, special effects—were added.

Techs can be very technical; just ask longtime techie, Olivia Johnson.  “There’s always a lot of stopping and starting while the director, actors, designers make adjustments to their work,” she said.

“But it's so amazing to be able to view the critical detail that goes into every minute of each scene to create the polished finished product on stage.”

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Matthew Arkin: An Actor’s Journey Into a Larger World Connection and Redemption

Jennifer Christopher and Matthew Arkin in The Whale.
Creating an Authentic “Charlie”

Actor Ramsey Moore has provided support to his friend Matthew Arkin in preparing to play the role of Charlie in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale. Moore has much personal insight into some issues the character faces: Moore once weighed nearly 600 pounds.

Ramsey Moore

About Moore’s own situation: “I went through a similar weight gain in college when my mother died from breast cancer. It was a very dark time and I gained 200 pounds in two years and kept gaining weight all the way up to 600 pounds, which is what the character Charlie is going through. The loss of my mother was so painful that I did not want to love anyone ever again. All of the weight provided a great barrier to keep people out of my heart. The irony is that love finds a way, even in the face of such human misery.”

About The Whale: “The play is amazingly powerful in the way that it connects with you. The message of hope and redemption is what I ultimately take from the play. At the end, Charlie realizes that he is loved, despite all of his human weakness. And that is beautiful.”

Helping Matthew Arkin Prepare for “Charlie”:  “I provided first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be 600 pounds and the mindset of such a person. I told Matthew that society views these creatures as criminals because their affliction is self-imposed so no one will ever feel sorry for them; that there is a constant state of fear because the loss of control would mean the end of their freedom; and that this is the ultimate act of rebellion towards society, so "Charlie" would not be nice or friendly in real life. I spent a great deal of time with him as he prepared for the role. It was important for Matthew to feel that he would be alright emotionally at the end of this process because for him to go where "Charlie" goes is dangerous and must be done. I hope that this play is as powerful it can be.”

Matthew Arkin is an actor, educator and student of the human condition.  In Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, he takes on one of the most challenging roles of his career in his portrayal of Charlie, an online writing teacher confined to his small north-central Idaho apartment, who weighs 600 pounds. We talked with Arkin about acting in general and Charlie in particular.

What attracted you to the character of Charlie and to The Whale?
The challenge. I don't think that any role, if you're approaching it correctly, is easy. They all require work and preparation; that's just the nature of the beast. That said, there are many roles that I have played where, when I looked at the script, I said, "Oh, yeah. I know this guy, and I know why they approached me with this role. It's in my wheelhouse." Charlie is a different story. I don't think he's in anyone's standard repertoire. Here's a chance for me to really stretch myself and grow, to exercise skills that aren't always called upon. Certainly not to the extent that they are here. And that's part of why I became an actor, to have the chance to constantly try new things and learn new things.

I was attracted to the play on a very profound level. It's about connection and redemption, between and for the characters, certainly. But I think it goes deeper than that. We have a play that will begin with the audience looking at characters who are so very different from each other, and from the audience members themselves that they will first have a sense of "otherness," of a great distance between themselves and these people. But if we do our job well, that distance will be bridged during the course of the evening. As the characters connect with each other, the audience will connect, will experience empathy and understanding. I believe that experience, those feelings, then go out of the theatre and into the world. A healing process continues.

There's a wonderful Hebrew phrase for it: “Tikkun olam,” or “repairing the world.” That's the most important role of theatre, of art, as far as I'm concerned.

How do you transform—physically, psychologically and emotionally—into Charlie?
I've never worked so hard to prepare for a role as I have for this one. Usually, I start work on a role the first day of rehearsal. With this, however, there was a ton of reading to do: Moby Dick, "Song of Myself,” information on the Mormon world, the biblical books of Jonah and Job, to name just a bit.

Physically, I started trying to eat really well and get myself in a little better shape, so that my stamina would be up to it. I have to confess that I'm usually much more ready to address the emotional and intellectual challenges of a piece. I have never struggled with my weight and health the way Charlie does. But, one thing that I have been able to use was an experience I had a couple of years ago where I got Swine flu, then severe pneumonia, had coughing fits so bad that I cracked a rib and ended up with pleurisy on top of it all. I was confined pretty much to a reclining chair for about five weeks. That experience has informed this process quite a bit.

Emotionally and psychologically, the process has been a bit daunting. I had to look at the places in my own life where I felt the most trapped and the loneliest. I've actually been going through a bit of a time like that personally. And it has been a little scary, knowing that I have to just rest in that place, let it be, and let it reveal itself through the character, rather than fight it. With this role, I'm at a place in my life where I'm getting pretty used to a lot of solitude, which has it's good aspects. But, I also am across the country from my children, and that feeling of missing so much of their growth and day-to-day experiences is very much with me all the time. If I expand on that, it fuels much of what Charlie is going through in the play.

How has fellow actor Ramsey Moore been part of your process?
He has grappled with his own weight issues, which at one time were nearly as severe as Charlie's. I was nervous at first about contacting him to ask for his help. I wasn't sure how it would be received by him, to ask him to share the intensely personal struggles he had, both physically and emotionally. But, he was thrilled to be a part of the preparation, and was incredibly generous with his time and sharing his experience. The insights he gave me into the world of those who face obesity have been invaluable, and I hope that this will allow me to bring a level of understanding and compassion to this character, which is a necessary element of any portrayal.

What's been the most surprising part of this play’s process for you? 
I'm shocked every time I see myself when the transformation is complete. One thing that’s been great has been the opportunity to work with this incredible design team that has created my body and my facial prosthetics. That visual stimulus, and the restriction in my movement and breathing imposed by the costume and the prosthetics, informs so much of what Charlie's struggle is throughout the play.

How do you use an opportunity like this to teach the actor's art/craft to your students?
I have been blogging like crazy to chronicle this journey! You don't often have the chance to play a character as rich as this one, who presents emotional, intellectual, and physical challenges, and where all of these different aspects have to be addressed and explored. I hope that my students are following my posts and I’m also speaking with them about the role, being as honest as I can about my own fears and challenges in tackling this. Acting is about going to frightening, difficult places in your own heart, so that maybe you can shine a light for other people on their own experiences, and help lead them to a new place. It's not always "fun" to do, but it is rewarding.

How do you know that the connection with the audience has been made?
I'm not sure that I try to read an audience, so much as have an awareness that they are there. They are our witness, the recipients of the gift that we are trying to give. But I don't allow myself to think of them as an entity whose approval I need. Concert pianist Frank Glazer said something once that struck a chord, and I carry it with me. He was talking about the night that he made his Carnegie Hall debut, and he was a bit nervous. But as he walked out on the stage, he told himself, "Now, you don't ask them. You tell them." That's what we, as artists, have to do. We carry the message, whatever it might be.

How can playgoers get the most out of The Whale?
The most important thing—other than turning off your cell phone, unwrapping any candy or cough drops before the lights dim, and not texting during the performance, of course! —is to come with an open mind, and let the play take you where it takes you. Lean in to the characters, listen carefully, and take this as an opportunity to travel to a new land and meet people you would not otherwise meet. No matter how strange they might at first seem, if you look carefully, you're likely to see yourself peeking out from behind the people you're watching on stage. And you might learn something about yourself that you never knew.

Follow Arkin’s journey on his blog:

Monday, March 4, 2013

"The Whale": The Power of Empathy

THE CAST:  Blake Lindsley, Matthew Arkin, Wyatt Fenner, Helen Sadler and Jennifer Christopher.

by Kelly L. Miller

The first and last moments of Samuel D. Hunter’s heartbreaking, fiercely funny new play The Whale begin and end with his larger-than-life protagonist, Charlie.

As the play opens, Charlie sits on his soiled couch in a dingy, northern Idaho apartment, teaching online writing to college freshmen. Isolated, debilitated by his own body, he uses a microphone, rather than risk alienating students with a video camera. Because Charlie is morbidly obese—weighing in at nearly 600 pounds—and he has been eating himself to death for the last 15 years.

Charlie has been slowly dying from congestive heart failure for some time, but as the play begins, he suffers an intense cardiac episode, at the exact moment a young Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas, stops by to share the word of God. Charlie’s longtime friend and caretaker Liz begs him go to the hospital, but he refuses. Charlie doesn’t have health insurance—and he may only have a few days to live. The only thing Charlie wants to do is call his estranged daughter, Ellie.

Charlie hasn’t seen Ellie since she was two years old—but he has a father’s immediate, infinite compassion and love for her, even though she’s now grown into a cruel, acerbic 17-year-old, who’s on the verge of failing out of high school. Desperate to reconnect with her, Charlie makes Ellie a deal—and persuades her to spend the next few days with him. He’ll rewrite her failed essays if she’ll do a little free writing for him. But she has to be honest. Tell him what she really thinks.

Ellie's Monologue

In this monologue from Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale, Ellie (played by actor Helen Sadler) reveals her feelings about the story and characters in Moby Dick.

Hunter was inspired to write The Whale after struggling to teach expository writing to apathetic freshmen at Rutgers University. He says of the experience: “I realized that I wasn't just teaching [the students] how to write good essays, I was teaching them how to think. I was teaching them to come up with original ideas, giving them the ability to have an independent thought and put that thought into words on paper. In many ways, writing a good essay is almost exactly like writing a good play—it takes original ideas, development, complication, revelation. Perhaps most importantly, it takes the ability to treat your subject with respect and a lack of judgment. It takes empathy….”

He continues: “Though the story of The Whale is fundamentally a story of a father trying to reconnect with a daughter, he’s doing so by trying to teach her how to write a good essay. But in teaching her how to write a good essay, he's trying to teach her how to think independently and how to relate to other people. Ultimately, he's teaching her how to have empathy.”

Honesty and empathy are two hallmarks of Hunter’s plays—and the characters who inhabit them. He creates everyday people who are perennial outsiders, like Charlie, living on the fringes of society. His characters hail from small-town America—usually from some part of an almost-mythic Idaho. (Hunter, himself, is from Moscow, a small university town in the northern part of the state.) They are often brutally honest people, struggling against the imperfect circumstances of their own lives and unrealized dreams. They are flawed, but funny and innately human in their imperfections. And in Hunter’s plays, over time, their lives of quiet desperation accumulate the weight of something epic.

The Whale played to great audience and critical acclaim in its first two productions—the world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre and its New York debut at Playwrights Horizons last year. Michael Feingold of the Village Voice called it “a vibrant, provocative new play,” saying “the sharp-eared skill and sensitivity with which Hunter explores his thickly layered material are matched by his fair-mindedness.”

Feingold praised the specificity of Hunter’s characterization: “Limited, angry, perplexed, divided, his characters all speak in their own rhythms, and act out of their own deep needs. Though his story’s love and grieving, and its arguments over faith, could have taken place in any decade, his telling of it lives in the specifics of our own time.”

Hunter’s own profound empathy—for his characters and their search for meaning and connection—permeates The Whale. And it informs the epic, complicated journey of his protagonist, Charlie, whom Hunter renders bravely and honestly on stage. He presents a morbidly obese father, determined to reconnect with his daughter. And then reveals this man to be an eternal optimist, incapable of believing that people are bad.

Hunter quietly, cumulatively challenges our perceptions of normal love and faith, grief and the body.

Because in the world of Samuel D. Hunter, life is never that simple.

Haven’t Heard of Samuel Hunter Yet? You Will.

by Skyler Gray

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter.  Photo by John Baker.
Samuel D. Hunter has quickly established himself as one of the hottest young playwrights in the country. His friendly smile and warm demeanor belie the quiet brilliance behind the flashing round spectacles he wears.

South Coast Repertory introduced playgoers to Hunter at the 2012 Pacific Playwrights Festival with a reading of his new play The Few. Hunter’s plays have been performed around the nation at Playwright’s Horizons, Denver Center Theatre Company, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Clubbed Thumb.

Hunter has been making big-time news since receiving the 2011 Obie Award in playwriting for his play A Bright New Boise. Hunter grew up in small town Idaho and many of his plays are set in that rural landscape, but the themes he explores have a universal resonance. Although many of his plays are informed by this specific locale, Hunter says “the plays actually are trying to be sort of non-regional, in a way. They could be anywhere in America.”

Hunter’s work is often singled out for his detailed portrayals of the characters that inhabit these worlds. Hunter says “the baseline of a lot of my plays is the struggle for meaning and also the struggle for connection between characters.” The people in Hunter’s plays range from a former cult member who tries to reconnect with his son in a craft store to a 600-pound man trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter.

Hunter’s work continues to be celebrated by esteemed theaters and theatrical organizations across the country. He is the recipient of the 2012 Whiting Writers Award, 2013 Otis Guernsey New Voices Award, 2011 Sky Cooper Prize, and the 2008-2009 PONY Fellowship. Mr. Hunter is also one of the playwright fellows at Arena Stage and is a founding member of Partial Comfort.  With five active commissions, including a commission from SCR, Hunter is continuing to set the American theatre on fire.

Plays By Samuel D. Hunter:
  • A Bright New Boise (2011 Obie Award for playwriting, 2011 Drama Desk nomination for Best Play; original production by Partial Comfort Productions in New York City, second production at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company);
  • The Whale (Playwrights Horizons, South Coast Repertory, original production at the Denver Center);
  • A Permanent Image (commissioned and produced by Boise Contemporary Theater);
  • Jack's Precious Moment (Page 73 Productions at 59E59);
  • Five Genocides (Clubbed Thumb at the Ohio Theater);
  • Norway (Phoenix Theatre of Indianapolis; Boise Contemporary Theater). 
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