Monday, September 30, 2013

May the Best Con Win

by Kelly L. Miller

GRIFTER: One who lives by her wits instead of by force. Also known as a con artist.

A Little Con Inspiration

Carla Ching
Playwright Carla Ching loves the classic con genre. For inspiration, heading into rehearsals for Fast Company, she re-watched four of her favorite films/TV shows.

The Grifters (1990) - Roy left home at 17 to get away from his scheming, grifter mother. When she shows up seven years later, there is nothing but trouble when she finds out he is also on the grift and has two paintings full of money.

Ocean's Eleven (2001) - The Stephen Soderberg-directed remake of the Rat Pack caper film when Daniel Ocean plans the biggest heist Vegas has ever seen to steal back his wife from a millionaire casino owner.

The Italian Job (2003) – This con movie features Charlize Theron and Donald Sutherland as father-and-daughter safe crackers. When he is murdered, she teams up with his whole crew to reclaim $35 million in stolen gold from his murderer.

Hustle (2004) – A BBC television show about a team of con men who become something like family.
You’ve never met a family quite like the Kwans. Grifters by nature. Con artists by choice. They’re a family of hustlers, united only by their common love of executing a good con.

That is, until daughter Blue tries to pull off the job of a lifetime: to steal the world’s most valuable comic, then sell a copy to an unwitting investor for millions.

Everything is set. But when Blue is ready to make the sale, she’s betrayed by her own brother, Henry (or H), and forced to call in the only people she still trusts to get the comic back—her brother, Francis, and her mother, Mable, the greatest grifter of them all.

Grifters never “break code”—or betray their own crew during a job. And being grifted by your brother is even worse. But H was desperate to repay a gambling debt—and now Blue will do anything to find him, and to restore her reputation. Even crew up with her dysfunctional family.

“Carla Ching’s Fast Company is a hustler/grifter tale with so many twists and turns that it keeps you guessing all the way to the end,” says South Coast Repertory Artistic Director Marc Masterson. “Carla is a rising young talent in the American theatre and we are excited to be producing her world premiere.”

Her step-brother, Francis, is an illusionist, who performs grand-scale magic for the masses, like David Blaine. He is a natural-born “roper,” who comes out of retirement to help Blue.

And then there’s Mable, the greatest “Inside Man” who ever lived—a versatile player, able to run any position in a con. But she’s also a tyrannical matriarch, who’s always been the hardest on Blue, refusing to teach her the family trade she desperately wanted to learn.

Blue has had to work her way up, running small cons in B-market towns, learning the rules of the game on her own. She has the best cover of them all: a college student at an Ivy-league school.

To find H and to get the comic book back, they’ll have to use a combination of classic cons, psychological persuasion and Blue’s new secret weapon—Game Theory. Blue is a math major at Brown, where she’s working to invent a whole new kind of con.

Carla Ching’s Fast Company is a fun, fierce new comedy about the nature of loyalty, the dysfunction of family, and the art of learning who to trust when everyone’s on the make. It’s also a suspenseful con caper, full of twists and turns, manipulation and magic.

Ching cites multiple sources, when asked about her inspiration for Fast Company, including the original Ensemble Studio Theatre/Sloan Foundation commission that funded the play. But ultimately, she returns to family: “I was interested in what parents think they are teaching their children versus what children actually learn from their parents.”

She says: “I wanted to explore the idea of a family of kids who were raised to have a unique skill set by their grifter mother—to be criminals, essentially. I wanted to see if those gifts could be re-appropriated and used in different ways. I feel like so many of us have gifts that could be used for ill and that we choose how to use them. I wanted to explore that question—if you had a gift where you could make a lot of money or get people to bend completely to your will, would you use it for self-gain or for greater good?”

Meet the cast or dig deeper on the website

THE COMPANY (l. to r.): Playwright Carla Ching, Emily Kuroda, Lawrence Kao, director Bart DeLorenzo, Jackie Chung and Nelson Lee.
CRAFTING THE CON: A Playwright and Director at Work

Playwright Carla Ching and director Bart DeLorenzo have been hard at work since this summer, collaborating on the world premiere production of Fast Company. Since the play’s reading in the 2013 Pacific Playwrights Festival, Ching has continued to develop the script in workshops—and she and DeLorenzo have engaged in an ongoing conversation about the nature of the con and the fast, sleek physical design of the play.

As they headed into the final week of rehearsal, dramaturg Kelly Miller asked them to reflect on the inspiration for the play and the process of making it happen.

Playwright Carla Ching—On her inspiration and the evolution of Fast Company:

I wrote this play because I have known a lot of people who are always working angles. I think because I am honest, they like me. They can relax and stop working so hard, because I'm not working them back. Anyway, I wondered, "Are they always working? Even with family?" I also wondered about the good and bad habits we learn growing up in our specific family. “Can they be used for good? Even the bad habits?”

Carla on Comedy

“I have always considered myself a dramatic writer. But this play requires comedy, because these are characters who live by their wits and use humor as weapons or armor. So, I have been learning to understand my own brand of humor, which often lies in the answer to the question, "What is the most messed up thing this character would say or do right now?"
I spent a long time building each of these characters—and learning to love them. I think the one thing I love about them most is that they're all dreamers, trying to make the big time. I come from a long line of people who had to work their way up the hard way, from nothing. And the dream of something better kept them going.

I recently saw SCR's Death of a Salesman and NAATCO's [National Asian American Theatre Company] Awake and Sing. One of the plays that made me want to be a writer is Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day's Journey Into Night. The common strand in all of these, to me, is parents who ruined their children. This has been a pervading notion in American theatre: We're messed up because of our parents. I wanted to examine the notion that the things that could ruin you can be mined and turned into strengths. The very things that make you special.

Watch our video with Carla.

Director Bart DeLorenzo—On what excites him most about Fast Company—and how his favorite grifter stories have influenced the set:

I thought the play was so fresh, like nothing I had read before. I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, without a lot of access to theater, so my first real taste of drama came from old movies. Our local TV station would show classic Hollywood films every afternoon at four o’clock and I think my first education in art—and life—came in fast-talking black-and-white from Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, and especially, Alfred Hitchcock.

Carla’s play is very now, but her characters speak with a crackling unsentimental wit. And her plot, too, definitely tips its hat to the classic Hollywood stories of cons and double-crosses. The play’s a blast! And within this hard-boiled caper genre, Carla somehow also manages to tell the moving story of a contemporary family, barely hanging together but desperate for connection. I have to admit: I love a play that can make you both laugh and cry. So, as I said, this is a unique concoction and it’s been a thrill to work on.

I love stories and movies about grifters and my favorite is probably The Grifters with Anjelica Huston; but Carla’s play isn’t quite that dark. I think for this production, we’ve been inspired by the style of the more caffeinated recent swindle stories like Ocean’s Eleven and Catch Me If You Can. And visually, we’ve been particularly drawn to the great credits sequences that Saul Bass designed in the 50s and 60s. The opening of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is a favorite of mine. The designers and I are trying to capture the cool spare style of these influences, along with their speed and energy. We’ll be using a lot of moving scenery and projections which we hope will make for a very dynamic presentation and a production as original and fresh as Carla’s play.

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