Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Woman's Life—Hilariously Frank

by Kat Zukaitis
Sandra Tsing Loh
“Oh my God. What have I done? It’s like waking up the star of one of those hilarious Hangover movies. Except that you are not a guy, you are not in your twenties, you have no madcap party buddies and this is not hilarious.”

Welcome to Sandra Tsing Loh’s midlife crisis—a funny, frank story about subject matter that rarely gets a funny or frank treatment…especially if you’re a woman.

We all have an idea of what a midlife crisis looks like, and while the details inevitably vary from person to person, the basic outlines—or at least their typical pop cultural representations—are startlingly similar. There’s practically a script.

Here’s how it happens on TV (or in movies, books, and plays): Generally, men purchase a ridiculous sports car or motorcycle, and spend a few weeks or months reliving the glory days of their youth, maybe having an affair with a much younger woman on the ride. Then, having learned a lesson about embracing maturity, they likely have the choice to return home to reinvest in a newly harmonious relationship with the (initially upset but eventually understanding) spouse and children. Or they move on to a new family, secure in the knowledge that they get another chance to get it right. Women in these stories are often handed a very different script, one that involves fewer Harleys and a lot more trauma. Let’s take a quick survey of some classic literary and cultural models of women who, mid-life, need to reinvent themselves.

The traditional narrative involves a housewife trapped in a lackluster marriage who decides to find fulfillment at any cost, often with tragic consequences. In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a frustrated but unapologetic Nora Helmer walks away from the only life she’s known, leaving her husband and children behind. Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s landmark 1899 novel The Awakening, also rebels against society’s expectations of her as a wife and mother—but her chosen method of escape is first an affair; and then, when that sours, suicide.

But surely more recent narratives of middle-aged women who take charge of their destinies are more empowering?

Yes and no. Remember Thelma and Louise from the iconic 1991 movie, a waitress and housewife who shoot a rapist and take off in a Thunderbird? Their tragedy is that there’s not room for women like them in the world—at least not that they can see—and they elect to go out with a bang. Perhaps the biggest midlife crisis movie of the past decade has been 2010’s Eat, Pray, Love, in which Elizabeth Gilbert—like Sandra Tsing Loh, a successful writer who endured a painful divorce—travels the world and, instead of dying or going mad, finds happiness in Bali with a Brazilian lover. 

Here’s the catch: every one of these women blows up her life in the process of redefining her identity, and they never go back. If the stereotype of the male midlife crisis involves banging an intern and buying a Harley, the female stereotype involves the total destruction of one’s marriage, family life and stability. With a very few exceptions (Fried Green Tomatoes, anyone?), we simply do not get popular stories of women who navigate a midlife crisis without throwing away the life they had. 

Enter Sandra Tsing Loh. At 46, she, too, has blown up her life. I won’t give away the details here, but it involves a trip to Burning Man (picture a neo-hippie Woodstock populated by pyromaniac artists), a freak sandstorm, an unexpected affair, the onset of menopause and a lot of questionable advice. As the mother of two young daughters, moving to Bali isn’t exactly an option for her—but neither is going back to the way things were.

Unlike the women in most pop cultural representations of crisis, Loh does not try to leave behind the smoking ashes of her old life. She stays to deal with the fallout, piece by painful piece, and sometimes the wreckage is not pretty. The Madwoman in the Volvo, which both challenges and embraces the stereotype of the female midlife crisis, is the story of living with your scars and loving the person who emerges from the flames.

Southern California audiences are already familiar with Sandra Tsing Loh as a celebrated writer and radio personality. Her radio shows include The Loh Life on KPCC and The Loh Down on Science, and she has been a regular contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's This American Life and American Public Media's Marketplace. The New York Times review of her 2008 memoir Mother on Fire described her writing as “no less than a feat of genius.” A graduate of Cal Tech and USC, she currently teaches visual art and science communication at UC Irvine.

Loh breathed fresh life into the female midlife crisis genre with her 2014 memoir, The Madwoman in the Volvo, which was named to that year’s New York Times list of 100 Notable Books. The memoir became the basis for an interactive solo show that she performed at New York’s Public Theatre. Now, Orange County has a chance to catch a reimagined version of Loh’s hilarious, heartbreaking performance. Loh performs as herself, and she's joined by Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt, who populate many characters in this theatrical imagining premiering at South Coast Repertory.

Loh teams up with director Lisa Peterson, a longtime LA resident, to tell her story. Before moving to New York, Peterson was the associate director at La Jolla Playhouse and resident director at Mark Taper Forum. She directs new work around the country and has received Obie and Lortel Awards for An Iliad, which she directed and co-wrote with Dennis O’Hare. Rachel Hauck’s set, Candice Cain’s costumes, Geoff Korf’s lighting and Lindsay Jones’ music and sound designs round out the experience.

So how does Loh miraculously transform her tale of tragedy into a hilariously frank discussion of midlife, menopause and moving on? There’s no magic formula, but persistence, friends, and an enduring sense of humor are a big help. So is a willingness to speak publically about one’s imperfections, embarrassments and heartaches. The fact that there are no easy answers is part of what makes Loh’s story so affecting. The solutions are just as messy as the problems—which are just as messy as real life.

When your life goes down in flames, sometimes all that’s left is to make art from the ashes.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Hand That Guides "Madwoman"

Director Lisa Peterson during the first read through of The Madwoman in the Volvo.
Director Lisa Peterson has worked with The Madwoman in the Volvo since the script’s early days and brought what playwright Sandra Tsing Loh calls a dramaturgical sense to directing—helping the play’s development through readings and workshops, ahead of the world premiere at South Coast Repertory. We caught up with her ahead of rehearsals for a quick conversation.

How did you get involved with The Madwoman in the Volvo?
I was put together with Sandra and this play in 2013 at the Sundance Institute Theatre Program’s Theatre Lab at MASS MoCA [editor’s note: the Sundance program fosters the production of new art through workshops that support playwrights, directors, composers and librettists]. She had submitted to them the idea of turning her book (The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones) into a play.

At that point, she really hadn’t begun the adaptation, so the first few weeks I worked with her to see if the book felt like it wanted to make the transfer to stage and to find what was dramatic in it. Then we just continued working on it, including a workshop at the Ojai Playwrights Conference and a reading at the 92nd Street Y.

What excites you most about the play?
I love how frank, honest and funny it is! It’s rare to find a female midlife crisis story, but she’s so relatable when she talks about what it’s like to fall in love, leave your family and husband and move off in another direction. When Sandra exposes this part of her life to us, she doesn’t mince words and doesn’t try to make herself look good—but she is very, very funny!

There is also a standup element to it—maybe even a rock ‘n’ roll feel—because it’s got a lot of energy.

How has the play developed?
This actually is the first time that Sandra has written a piece where other actors will work with her, like an improvised jam session. While she’s out front, the actors help tell the story and portray men, women, older people and kids. Sandra has audiences in the palm of her hand through her wry, self-effacing wit.  

A key part of this play is Burning Man. She told me that she blew up her life there and that sounded hilarious and wild. The festival is where people take the things they want to get rid of in life and burn them up in “The Man.”

On stage, we have created a visual world that includes Burning Man elements, like metal trusses that reference festival sculptures. Sandra spends a lot of time out front by a stool and microphone telling her story, so it’s a kind of pub-like performance space that meets Burning Man.

What’s it like working with a performer-playwright?
It can be hard to wear both a writer’s hat and a performer’s hat. When you’re writing a book, you use a literary voice; when writing a play, you need things to feel more like an improvisation. We worked to carve out time out for Sandra during rehearsal so that she could be the writer and then time when she could be an actor.

What do you hope the audience will come away with after the show?
There’s a lot of fun and surprise in this play and I hope audiences can enjoy, empathize, commiserate and identify with the story. I think everybody will have a good time and come away with a new perspective on what menopause might be. But this story also is about a midlife crisis because Sandra follows her radical impulses. I hope that people will see what positive things can come out of the fire. 

What three words describe The Madwoman in the Volvo?
Funny. Honest. Frank. Clear-eyed. Okay, that’s more than three.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Behind-the-Scenes: Lights Up, Backstage

Andrew Stephens, SCR's Segerstrom Stage Lighting Technician.

It's all in the lighting. From photography to concerts and plays, lighting can set the mood and tone of any art piece or performance. In Red, the character Ken observes, "To keep it mysterious, to let the pictures pulsate. Turn on bright lights and the stage effect is ruined—suddenly it's nothing but a bare stage with a bunch of fake walls."

Stephens in the Segerstrom booth, at the console.
As Ken points out, lighting can make or break how people see art. And on the Segerstrom Stage, there's an SCR staff member who is an important part of making sure the lighting equipment is set up and ready for each production. Alongside the master electrician and crew, lighting technician Andrew makes sure the right lighting instruments are in place high above the audience, works with the designers to program each cue for every "look" of the show and is up in the booth for every performance running the lighting console.

Stephens grew up splitting his time between two countries: the United States (Kansas City, Kan.) and Australia (Brisbane). At a young age, his interest in lighting sparked when he attended concerts. Stephens was fascinated by the lights and the people behind them. He recalls, "I would find myself spending more time watching the lighting operators and less time watching the shows themselves."

Late in high school, Stephens found himself with a budding interest in theatre. When he attended the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, his appreciation for theatrical lighting only deepened. SCR also happened to ping on Stephens' radar during his college years, and while visiting family in Orange County, he noticed SCR when attending a concert next door at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. As soon as a job was available, he applied, made the move and has been with SCR for three seasons now.

As he watches every performance on the Segerstrom Stage, he finds that he can agree with Ken's observation in Red.

"I feel like lighting becomes another character on stage," says Stephens. "In any given cue, the intensity, color or angle of light can change the mood or shift the way the audience perceives what's happening on stage."

Monday, December 21, 2015

Something RED

Learn more about Red

Bonfire or Festival? What is Burning Man?

Burning Man in Black Rock, Nevada
In The Madwoman in the Volvo, Sandra Tsing Loh takes the audience on a journey through her midlife crisis. Menopause, an affair, divorce and more all converge on stage as she hilariously recounts a time of rediscovery. The catalyst for it all? Burning Man.

Burning Man all began with a San Francisco beach, one phone call and three men, sort of. Two friends, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, decided to go burn another man—a wooden one—for the 1986 summer solstice. Throwing some scrap lumber together, they assembled the first “burning man,” invited a few more friends and then set their man ablaze. As the fire brilliantly lit the shore, a small group of onlookers gathered and, with that moment, Burning Man was born.

Ariel shot of "Black Rock City" where Burning Man is currently held
The gathering grew as the years went on. Much like the wooden man—dubbed simply “The Man” by participants—the event has continued to grow and doesn’t show much sign of slowing down. Following the first burning, the second burning man was 15-feet tall and the community had a “population” of 80. By 2015, Burning Man had a towering 105-foot man and a population of 65,922. But what continues to draw thousands of people to the event? Is it just about starting a fire and watching it burn?

It’s not exactly a festival, but more of an event that reinforces the idea that everyone gathered are not just witnesses but an active participant to the event. As people gather in a dry lake bed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and set up camps, they work to create the temporary Black Rock City, where art, self-expression and self-reliance are a must. The city and event last for about a week and participants are required to bring their own survival supplies. Think camping, but with some extreme conditions like sudden sand storms, extreme heat and arctic-like nights. There’s a reason Burning Man organizers provide a survival guide and checklist of what to bring.
From 2013's Burning Man event

Black Rock City is designed to be a safe, fun and positive environment. More importantly, Burning Man has become a place for people to get away from society including its rules and structure and find a sense of freedom, inspiration and community. The event operates from 10 principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. Taken together, these create a different sense of community and society outside of the normalcy of life that many participants are seeking to take a break from.

Art piece featured at Burning Man
Artistic expression is a huge component to Burning Man, as giant art sculptures, installations and pieces are set up all over Black Rock City. Through the art, music and interactions, many past Burning Man-goers have found future spouses, partners, roommates and long-time friends. Theme camps and villages also make up the city and provide different places for participants to interact through classes, lectures, lounges, music and more. For example, at the “Flattery Camp,” you can sign up and be showered in, well, flattery that is both sincere, humorous and comforting to help cheer up any downtrodden Black Rock City dweller.

Sandra Tsing Loh was not immune to the effects of Burning Man: she had a life-changing realization there, in the midst of a sporadic sandstorm. While highly unconventional, the event has become a gathering place for many that provides new perspectives and experiences.

It’s a perfect place to spark a midlife crisis.

Learn more about Burning Man
A Burning Man Timeline
Learn more about The Madwoman in the Volvo

Monday, December 14, 2015

Behind-the-Scenes: Managing “Christmas” at SCR

Members of A Christmas Carol's stage management team: (L to R) Mariann Papadopoulos, Talia Krispel and Becca Sharpe
It’s the holiday season again and—trying to navigate through shopping lists, work and perhaps the worst of all, traffic—it can be a stressful time. Now imagine managing a production that is 36 years old, a holiday tradition for countless families and there’s only about two weeks for the show to come together.

Some of the lucky few in charge of stage managing A Christmas Carol took time to explain just what a stage manager does and what it’s like to jump onto SCR’s annual production while getting into the holiday spirit.

Talia Krispel, Stage Manager

How long have you been with this production and what are your main duties? 

This is my second year with the show. I joined the stage management team last year for the 35th anniversary. I manage the rehearsals, create the daily schedule with the director, arrange costume fittings, provide support to the actors and stage crew, and I call the show during performances. There's a lot to call—more than 300 cues!

What was it like for you to join a production that’s been going on for move than three decades? 

It's a very fast process. We say it's like running to catch a freight train. There's a lot of information to take in! The atmosphere is wonderful, warm and generous. Everyone loves doing this production so the room is always filled with joy. One of my favorite days is when all the adults come together for the first time. There's just so much love and happiness to be back in the room working together again.

How do you describe what a stage manager does?

We have a bit of a unique function because we serve as the assistant to the director and production staff during rehearsals. We provide and maintain all communication within all the departments—including director, designers, front of house, staff and actors.

During performances, we arein charge and help maintain the director’s artistic vision of the show. We “call” the show, making sure all the lights, sound and scenery happen when they're supposed to.

How do you get into the holiday spirit? 

By working on A Christmas Carol!  I grew up in Southern California, but live in New York City. This production has brought me back to SoCal and has allowed me to be with my family during Christmas.

What’s a favorite holiday memory?

 It was years ago when Phantom of the Opera was in Los Angeles. My mom had seen it multiple times and I was just dying to go. I knew all the songs by heart! I remember my mom handing me a card at Christmas and in my child brain, I thought, "Well this is going to be a boring present." Little did I know, Phantom tickets were sitting inside. I was so thrilled! To this day, I still remember watching that chandelier fall for the first time.

Mariann Papadopoulos, Stage Management Intern

How long have you been with this production and what are your main duties? 

This is my first time with SCR's A Christmas Carol and I couldn't be more excited about it! My main duty for this show is moving Scrooge’s bedchamber. I also assist in making sure actors are in place, setting props, resetting scenery and helping everything run smoothly.

What was it like to join this production as a fresh face?

The way it was explained to me was that it's like a Mack truck chasing a train that has already left the station—and that is entirely accurate. Everyone has been helpful and supportive through the process of learning this production, even though I felt like I was so far behind. It felt like walking into a big part of your family you didn't know you had.

How do you describe what a stage manager does?

My quick answer is simply that we create magic. Yes, you need the actors. Yes, you need costumes, scenery and lights, but you need someone to put all those things together in that way that makes theatre so magical. Sure, a stage manager isn't alone in that task, but they are a huge factor in it.

How do you get into the holiday spirit? 

It doesn't take me too much to get into the holiday spirit! Let me listen to some Christmas music, watch some Christmas movies, with hot chocolate and get my nails done all festive-like and I'm ready!

What’s a favorite holiday memory?

It’s something that still happens every year. My parents always told me and my brother that if we didn't believe in Santa, we wouldn't get presents. So, you bet we believed—and still do—in Santa, or the spirit of him, at least.

And every year on Christmas Eve, we download the Santa tracker app to watch him fly around the world and see where he has been and where he will go to next. It definitely keeps the spirit of the season alive for me.

Becca Sharpe, Stage Management Intern

How long have you been with this production and what are your main duties? 

This is my first season with SCR and therefore my first experience with A Christmas Carol. As an intern, my responsibilities consist of following and updating the previous year's paperwork and keeping up with everything in the rehearsal room. I help set up for rehearsals and make sure everyone has everything they need to get the show back in their bodies in the short time we have during rehearsals.

Then, when we get into technical rehearsals and the run of the show, I help make sure the show happens safely and effectively for everyone involved.

What’s special about being part of a show that’s been running this long?

From the first day of rehearsal, everyone who has done the show at least once was ready to go and excited to help teach us the ropes. Everyone involved is incredibly kind and helpful; it's a fun show to be on.

How do you describe what a stage manager does?

Stage management is a team of people who are responsible in ensuring that the artistic integrity of what the designers and directors dream up is maintained. It's our job to make sure each and every little part of the show comes together to create and complete the big idea.

How do you get into the holiday spirit? 

It always takes me a little while to get into the holiday spirit. And that usually involves snow. This is my first winter on the west coast. I moved here from Virginia Beach, by way of St. Louis, four years ago. It wasn't until the Christmas lights were hung in the backstage hallways that I finally felt like it was time. Christmas lights will get me every time.

What’s a favorite holiday memory?

Last Christmas, I worked a show in St. Louis and couldn't go home to see my family. Everyone on the show—cast, crew and band—all came to my house and we cooked together, had a fire pit, played music and spent Christmas together as a family. It never ceases to amaze me how we find family through each other.

Find out more about A Christmas Carol

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Behind-the-Scenes: A Fascination for Detail Work

The more detailed, the better for John Gaddis IV. In his role as assistant technical director, he assists Technical Director Jon Lagerquist and Master Carpenter Amanda Horak by tracking and managing the flow of materials that apply to the physical makeup of the set. Gaddis also helps find solutions to problems ranging from how to make it “rain” to repairing broken tools. Another responsibility is “over hire”—the extra people often needed to supplement the staff with assembling or taking down a set or when a show needs assistance to be built within the given time frame. A major part of Gaddis’ job involves making sure the scenery is set up at SCR’s support facility in a manner helpful to the scenic artists so that it will look great for each show and then expediting the flow of scenery to and from the facility efficiently.

All of this requires an aptitude for detail, and his comes naturally—his father is a gifted wood craftsman and his grandfather was a sign painter in the years before pre-printed or pre-programmed art adorned things such as billboards, buildings or trucks.

For 28 years at SCR—and through more than 300 productions—Gaddis has put his natural talent and skills to work.

“I’m always learning and getting to work with a variety of materials such as wood, foam, steel, paint, plastic, plumbing, electrical and water for such things as rain,” he says. “I also fill in the gaps wherever needed to keep things moving. The attention that we pay to all of these details means that the quality of what we do is very good.”

His interest in the technical side of theatre started early—in high school—with productions such as My Fair Lady and Flowers for Algernon. He always has been drawn to the look of the sets. His first professional production, Dracula at the Ahmanson Theatre, caught his attention because of its specific style: done in black and white, except for a red rose and a few other small red elements.

SCR's 1987 production of Glengarry Glen Ross with Richard Doyle,
Don Took and Hal Landon Jr.
In his youth, Gaddis saw shows at SCR including Volpone by Ben Johnson (1978, with Hal Landon Jr., who made a great impression on him), A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet (1980) and The Merchant of Venice (1981). His interest and work in theatre continued through junior college and then at the University of Oklahoma where he earned his BA in technical theatre.

“Theatre has a certain quality that reflects the human condition and it’s done in a way that is easy for people to relate to,” he says. “Not many other things can do it that well.”

After joining the SCR staff, Gaddis’ first production was Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet (1987). He counts a number of productions as memorable, including:

  • A Christmas Carol (1987-now): “I’m most proud of this production; I think it’s one of the best shows we do.”
  • Pirates by Mark W. Lee (1991): “It’s my favorite—the set looked like the back of a ship.”
  • The Ballad of Yachiyo by Philip Kan Gotanda (1996): “The style, which used puppetry, was unique and beautiful to watch.”
  • Theatre for Young Audiences series: “These shows are a good way for kids and their families to have an exposure to theatre. I hope they continue coming to see plays as they grow up, and become our next generation of audiences.”

Through the years, the variety of work and creativity have kept things interesting for Gaddis, along with the “numerous friendships and the opportunity to work with great designers.”

Director’s Notes: David Emmes Talks "Red"

Actor Mark Harelik and director David Emmes.
Mark Rothko.
Playwright John Logan opens Red with a question that abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko poses to Ken, his new assistant. As they look at a painting. Rothko says, “What do you see?” as they look at a painting. Then, “Engage with it.”

It could also go to what Logan seems to ask the audience to do during the performance: engage with the play, respond to it, let it wrap its theatrical arms around you.

Red is set in 1958, when Rothko is at the height of his glory and has begun work on the biggest commission in the history of modern art. It’s a pivotal point in the art world: abstract expressionism has stomped out cubism, but pop art looms threateningly on the horizon. This Tony Award-winning play looks at the nature of art and artists.

South Coast Repertory Founding Artistic Director David Emmes will direct Red on the Segerstrom Stage. In a recent conversation about the play, Emmes talked broadly about Red and some of the issues it raises.

What about this play attracted you?
I absolutely am a strong admirer of Mark Rothko! I also am interested in the issues of art and the idea of how one finds a way to pursue art and, at the same time, pay the bills. When we first started SCR, actor John Arthur Davis quipped that ‘Well, if we just stay in a garage and don’t change anything, then we could do what we wanted without worrying about things like the rent.’ That is a situation of complete liberation. He was kidding, but right. When you pursue the arts professionally, it can become a struggle as to what your art can be or it may limit the time or choices that you have.

I also know that a good play can be made all the more compelling if you have the right cast. Early on, I knew I could do Red if Mark Harelik would do it. He’s an actor who in the top-most ranks of American theatre actors. We also have a design team that includes Ralph Funicello, whom I regard as one of the finest designers in American theatre. So we were off to a strong start.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities in a two-character play?
Of course the challenge is that you only have two people out there! (laughs). But Red really supports that with the interesting argument it poses. The way John Logan has written it, it is a story that is accessible and understandable; in other words, you don’t need an advanced degree in art or art history to appreciate it.

What are some of the ways that you are preparing?
Rothko was a brilliant guy.  I have been reading from an art textbook that he was writing at the time of his death—and that his heirs later finished. His writing is intellectually amazing from an expository point of view alone. I’ve also been reading from a biography that is very interesting. In the end, though, even with all the research you do, what you put on stage is the text of the play. The truth is in the dialogue—it just doesn’t exist anywhere else.

What do you want audiences to come away with once they see the play?
I hope they come away with a deeper insight into how hard is it to make your way in the world. Rothko was this giant of 20th-century art—a mega-star in the visual arts world—but still faced a struggle. It’s still hard today for artists to make their way—composer, visual artist, actor, playwright, whomever—so what do you have to do? I think people can relate to it, whatever they do. The themes are universal.

If Rothko was a playwright, who would he be?
That’s an interesting question. Rothko believed that 90 percent of painting is thinking, waiting, studying and learning; 10 percent is putting it on the canvas. Rothko was a brilliant intellect. I think that he would be Henrik Ibsen, because he plotted everything out and thought things through intellectually. Or, Rothko might be like Edward Albee in a way, in terms of pure intellect.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Inside SCR: Learning to Embrace Change

Kat Zukaitis, South Coast Repertory Literary Associate

Life is unpredictable and, often, moments of unexpected change can have the biggest impact on the course of our lives. Sandra Tsing Loh details one of her own upheavals in The Madwoman in the Volvo—a trip to Burning Man and a midlife crisis which sends her life up in flames.

Everyone tackles change differently. For Kat Zukaitis, SCR’s literary associate and assistant dramaturg for The Madwoman in the Volvo, it’s about embracing that change. Just a few months ago, she took a big leap and accepted her current position at SCR, relocating to Southern California from Chicago.

What’s your background before SCR?
I grew up in the great state of Nebraska and never really wanted to leave home. But I did, and then I kept on moving. I majored in comparative literature at Haverford College and went on to get a master’s in religion and literature at Yale Divinity School.

I also spent a couple of delightful years teaching high school English classes in France and Austria. Finally, I decided that I could best combine my interests in literature, performance, culture, and language through a career in dramaturgy and literary management.

I spent the last few years in Chicago and Louisville, balancing literary internships, freelance dramaturgy work, dance rehearsals and a variety of day jobs (including stints as a cathedral administrator, server, ballet teacher, babysitter and orthodontic equipment sterilizer).

What first drew you into theatre? 
I started performing in local musicals as a kid and never really grew out of the habit. The problem was that I got “hooked” on just about everything growing up—I was equally enthusiastic about ballet, fencing, student council, chemistry, church, tennis, reading and the list goes on.

I have incredibly fond memories of choreographing summer shows during college and dragging my friends to foreign language improv classes, but I knew that I wanted a career that involved some kind of research or literary analysis, rather than performance.

It wasn’t until I was in divinity school that I first heard of dramaturgy and realized that theatre might be more than a beloved hobby for me. Dramaturgy affords me the chance to participate in the collective life of texts and to collaborate on the creation and analysis of new additions to the theatrical canon.

Kat leading a post-show discussion for Abundance
What do you like best about working as SCR's literary associate?
I get paid to read plays, which is miraculous! I particularly appreciate how often we get to work with living playwrights at SCR. Playwrights, as a rule, are the best.

What was it like to make a big move for the job at SCR? 
Full-time literary positions are few and far between, so I always knew that moving was a strong possibility if I wanted to work in this field. SCR has been on my radar for several years because of the Pacific Playwrights Festival—if you work in new play development, this is one of the best places to be.

I only had about three weeks to quit my job in Chicago, pack my bags, drive across the country and settle in, so it was a bit of a whirlwind departure. I was teaching dance in Chicago at the time and convinced my sister to take over my classes for the rest of the summer—and it turns out that the younger students couldn’t tell the difference between us anyway!

Were you nervous about the move?
In the last 10 years, I’ve lived in 10 different cities, spread across four countries (that adds up to 16 apartments and about 27 roommates). When I arrived in Germany, I didn’t even speak the language! I could say “the cat is on the table” and sing a drinking song, and that was it. So after that move, all the rest have seemed pretty easy.

What has settling in been like? 
I’ve got moving down to an art form. Basically, you need a long game and a short game, and the short game is easy. Find entertainment, find artistic or athletic fulfillment and find friends.

In my case, this boils down to finding a ballet studio, a trivia team, a language class or discussion group and a swing & blues dancing venue. Once those elements are in place, I have a solid base from which to branch out socially and creatively, and work on the long game.

My other rule is to shrug and seize the moment. You’re at your most vulnerable during big changes, but that also means that you’re uniquely willing to meet new people and try new things. I treat moving like improv. Unless you’ve got a solid reason to say no, try starting with “yes, and…?”

How do you suggest approaching big decisions that can change your life? 
I grew up hating change and never wanting to leave Nebraska. But each move got easier, and each time I had to leave something I loved behind, I realized that there was something else I could grow to love ahead of me—and that if there wasn’t, it was in my power to change my life again. Your life is going to go through big changes no matter what you do, so you might as well embrace that potential.

But, it’s worth acknowledging that I’ve been extremely fortunate to be in a position where I’m able to take risks. I can’t overstate what a gift it is to get to ask myself, over and over, what opportunities I would regret passing up. That’s a degree of freedom that is rare, and I try to recognize it and cherish the opportunities I have, realizing that they are a product of youth, able-bodiedness, economic stability, family support and relative independence.

Most big changes are not ones that we get to choose: they’re a death in the family or a mass layoff, an unexpected child or the onset of age… and it seems to me that the real test in life is not taking a leap, but getting back to your feet after the unexpected fall.

And that ability to get back up on your feet after the fall factors heavily in the storyline of The Madwoman in the Volvo. Whether it's uprooting your life in Kat's case or a midlife crisis in Sandra's, change is just another part of life that everyone can conquer.

Learn more about The Madwoman in the Volvo

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Sandra Tsing Loh Starter Kit

How do you know Sandra Tsing Loh? As a writer, radio personality, teacher or actor? She's everywhere and now she's coming to SCR with her play, The Madwoman in the Volvo (world premiere on the Julianne Argyros Stage, Jan. 3-24, 2015). Here's the gist of just what Tsing Loh does and is known for...

A New York Times best-selling author of the books Mother on Fire, A Year in Van Nuys and The Madwoman in the Volvo, among others. The Madwoman in the Volvo was selected as one of the New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books.

Named by Variety one of America’s 50 most influential comedians, Tsing Loh is also an accomplished solo performer. Her solo shows have been performed across the country and include: Aliens in America and Bad Sex With Bud Kemp (both off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre), Sugar Plum Fairy (Geffen Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre), I Worry (The Kennedy Center, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville) and, most recently, The Bitch Is Back (Broad Stage).

Sandra Tsing Loh onstage in Aliens in America (1996).
She also is a regular contributor for The Atlantic on topics that include parenting and feminism. Her essay, "The Bitch is Back," which appeared in The Atlantic, was selected a Best American Essay for the 2012 edition of the Best American Essays series. Read her articles in The Atlantic here.

Her essay "The Bitch is Back" also inspired her one-woman show of the same name that premiered this summer at The Broad Stage in Los Angeles.

A radio personality, Tsing Loh has been a regular commentator on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and on PRI’s “This American Life” and “Marketplace.” Her own radio shows, "The Loh Life" and "The Loh Down on Science," can be heard weekly on KPCC.

Learn more.

Friday, November 20, 2015

How a Phantom (Tollbooth) and Spirits Led to Acting Success

Alex Knox in Euyrdice.
Molly Gutman and Knox in the 1995 Theatre Conservatory Players production of Mother Goose on Trial.
For Alex Knox, a stopover at a tollbooth started his path to an acting career, and it began at South Coast Repertory. He was nine years old when bounded onto the stage as Tock the Watchdog in SCR’s Young Conservatory Players’* production of The Phantom Tollbooth. He took his acting lessons to heart and now enjoys a lively career in theatre, film and television.

Knox initially sought out theatre as an opportunity to be part of an ensemble, something he readily found through acting classes in SCR’s Theatre Conservatory.

“We were a team, but without having to compete against other students,” he recalls. “We focused on listening to each other. That was very useful as I started my career and, I have to admit, I loved the group warm up games. That’s where we could jump around, make noise and not get into trouble!”

In 1995, he auditioned for SCR and was cast as Peter Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, a seminal experience for him because he workedworking with founding company members like Hal Landon Jr. as Scrooge, Richard Doyle as the Spirit of Christmas Past and others.

“I remember watching the ‘grownup’ performers waiting backstage quietly for their cues and seeing how sacred each performance was for them,” he remembers. “That taught me what a privilege it was to perform onstage. I still feel that way.”

In 2013, he played Orpheus in SCR’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice—a performance that earned raves from StageSceneLA, which called him and co-star Carmela Corbett, “two talented, charismatic young actors we are sure to be hearing much more from.”

The 1995 production of A Christmas Carol with Knox, third from left, Hal Landon Jr., John Ellington and Laurie Woolery.
Knox is a member of Antaeus Theatre Company, where he has performed in shows from Macbeth to the hit radio play, “The Thin Man.” He received kudos on both coasts for his one-man show, No Static at All, and he played Freddy in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion at the Pasadena Playhouse. He earned a BFA in acting from the University of California Santa Barbara and his graduate degree from the Yale School of Drama. 

In 2013, he returned to A Christmas Carol as a ‘grownup’—Ebenezer as a Young Man—a role he has again in 2015.

“It’s amazing now to be an example for the young actors. I try to set the tone with a reverence for the theatre, the play and my fellow performers. I also love bonding with the kids. When there’s a sense of fun and trust backstage, that shows up in the play onstage. Being with them all is a great reminder that working in the theatre is fun. There’s a reason it’s called a ‘play.’”

Check out current acting classes at SCR.

*Now called Summer Players

Monday, November 16, 2015

An "A Christmas Carol" Kid All Grown Up

Sanaz Toossi first came to South Coast Repertory as a curious teen in the Theatre Conservatory. There she found her love for theatre—and a home. As a conservatory student, Toossi performed in many Players' productions and twice in A Christmas Carol.

Toossi (far right) in a Teen Players production.
These days, she's now one of the conservatory assistants and also has worked in the Literary Department as festival assistant for the Pacific Playwrights Festival; she also recently completed a literary internship. In November and December, she is adding another SCR credit to her resume as she returns to A Christmas Carol in an entirely new role—child wrangler. What is a child wrangler? Toossi explains and recounts some of her favorite SCR and A Christmas Carol memories.

What exactly is a child wrangler?
It sounds like I herd horses, but in general, a child wrangler basically keeps track of the child actors backstage. In A Christmas Carol, the wrangler leads a pre-show warm-up, assists with quick changes and makeup...most importantly, does not lose the kids. This might involve herding.

You practically grew up at SCR. When and how did you first get involved?
I did! I could not hold down an extracurricular activity. I tried everything, and I was either terrible or completely uninterested. When I took ice-skating lessons, everyone in my group—except for me—kept getting bumped to the next level. We played this game in which we were supposed to skate through the teacher's legs, and I found that game absurd and had a breakdown on the ice (which is hilarious to me now). So I went home and told my mom that I hated ice-skating. She said, "You hate everything; you have to find something". I thought I might like acting, so I Googled "acting classes orange county" and guess what I found...

Toossi in A Christmas Carol in 2006,
with Jennifer Parsons.
What is your history with A Christmas Carol?
I played Martha Cratchit twice when I was a student in the conservatory when I was 14 and then 16. Martha is the oldest of the Cratchit bunch, and she's awesome. I know the show and many of the actors in it very well, so my mom and I go see the show every year. We like to discuss little changes after.

What’s your favorite A Christmas Carol memory?
I can't think of anything specific, but what has stuck with me all these years is how fun it was being onstage with Danny Blinkoff and Jennifer Parsons, who play Bob and Mrs. Cratchit. After all these years, I still have dreams where I'm onstage, Jenny's looking at me, and I cannot remember my lines.

What are you looking forward to the most this time around?
I'm looking forward to working on the show while not being a hormonal teenager with homework! Also, this show really gets you in the Christmas spirit—I'm going full Christmas this year. Hats, tinsel, all of it. I'm going to be a Christmas terror. Get ready, friends and co-workers.

You work in many aspects of theatre—is there a favorite part of theatre to work in?
That's tough because I've been fortunate enough to work with really great people who have made each job enjoyable. But a few things...I will tell you that it'd be a tough sell to get me to act on a stage again (to no fault of anyone's). Acting is hard and scary and I'm getting lazier with each year. The responsibility of stage management would probably send me into cardiac arrest. I've loved working in literary—seeing playwrights' brains work, witnessing a new work develop, seeing a director's take on things. But I think working in our conservatory has been very rewarding for me. Giving kids a place to be themselves—the same place where I got to be weird—is important to me.

Sanaz with playwright Dipika Guha during her literary internship.
You’re also a playwright; can you tell us more about that?
I grew up in the conservatory and I loved acting here. But I always secretly knew I didn't want to be an actor, and yet I knew I loved theatre. I realized what I loved about the theatre were the words, the page coming to life. It was more fun for me to imagine what the actors would say in my head than it was to say it myself. So now I write plays! Some are funny and some are really not funny. I always try to include inappropriate jokes. I love writing more than anything. Maybe it'll be something I pursue, maybe it won't. And some days everything I write is stupid and pointless, but it's still what I love most in the world.

What has been your favorite show at SCR?
Vietgone by Qui Nguyen. Hands down, 100 percent, I have never seen a show so impactful and bright and important. My parents, like Nguyen's, immigrated to this country from a conflicted area, and as a writer, it's been really important to me to tell their story. Until I saw Vietgone, I had never seen a story like that treated with such passion, and humor and sincerity. It changed how I think about my own writing.

Sanaz in rehearsal for her play Nobody's Child.
Have you had a mentor who has provided you with guidance on theatre issues?
I met Theatre Conservatory director Hisa Takakuwa when I was 13 and I knew immediately that I wanted to be friends with her. Aren't those the best friendships? The ones where you sort of pick each other? She cast me as an evil troll in a Summer Players and we've been friends ever since. She has supported me through everything. I have come to her with every rash decision and crazy idea and she talks me through it, always truthfully and always with love. She's the reason why I'm in theatre; she encouraged me to write. I cannot imagine what my life would have been without her. While she's been my best teacher and best director, what's been really cool for me is how I've gotten to know her as a friend. Because she's brilliant and sharp, of course, but Hisa is hilarious and just so fun to be around. And one of my favorite things to do is just kick it with her in her office and make weird jokes. There are lots of people who can shape you as an artist, but it's so cool, I think, to be able to call that person your friend.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Slideshow From "A Year with Frog and Toad"

Oh, what fun—check out this slideshow from the delightful musical A Year with Frog and Toad.

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Unwrapping "A Christmas Carol"

For 11 months out of the year, the sets, costumes and props for A Christmas Carol are carefully packed away, waiting for their time to shine in the spotlight. Now they’re out of storage and waiting patiently to be used in rehearsals and be loaded onto the Segerstrom Stage for performances that run Nov. 27-Dec. 27. View the slideshow to see the set pieces as they wait in SCR’s scene shop.

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Snowy Night at SCR: Auditioning For "A Christmas Carol"

The kids of A Christmas Carol from left to right, Lauren Lyons, Rachel Bailey, Catherine Mitchell, Aoife McEvoy, Jamie Ostmann, Kennedy Haynes, Carissa Diller, J.T. Casey, Colin Root, Jack Matthews, Sean Kato, Hudson Mattingly Stefanello and Louis Alvarez Tonkovich (missing: Rachel Charny, Kiana Kamm and Nick Trafton.)
“It’s Christmas Eve. Imagine what’s around you—a snowy night, crowded streets, festive decorations. It’s just you and your imagination. Have fun!”

That’s Theatre Conservatory Director Hisa Takakuwa, inspiring young actors as they take part in an improvisational pantomime (a street scene in 19th-century London), the first step in auditions for A Christmas Carol.

As many as 75 students in the Kids and Teen Acting Programs try out, and 16 are chosen (double-cast in eight roles). Auditions are open to all students in the third year of training and above and second-year students recommended by their instructors. (First year students may audition for the role of Tiny Tim, which is cast separately.)

In class, they’ve been taught the importance of process over product and reminded that auditions should be a learning experience. “I encourage them to listen, be flexible, try new things and show a positive attitude,” Takakuwa says. “If they do all that, they’ll feel really good— no matter the outcome.”

During step two of the audition, the young actors read scenes from A Christmas Carol. They’re called in groups that represent the ages of the characters they’ll portray—from the youngest Cratchit daughter, Belinda, to the oldest boys, Peter Cratchit and Ebenezer as a student.

A week later, everything is repeated—in front of a larger crowd. (Takakuwa is joined by Director John-David Keller, Casting Director Joanne DeNaut and Casting Assistant Stephanie Marick for “callbacks”).

Within a few days, Takakuwa sends personal letters to those who didn’t make it. “I remind them to be proud of doing their best and most confident work. They’ve learned how to audition!”

But if the phone rings—you’re in!

Those who made it range from first-timers to more experienced young actors.

Nick Trafton and J.T. Casey
Kennedy Haynes
Colin Root and Hudson Stefanello
Carissa Diller and Kiana Kamm
J.T. Casey and Nick Trafton, who alternate in as Boy Ebenezer, are “old pros,” having been in the Summer Players production of Mary Poppins. In that audition, J.T. learned, “You have to be prepared. I was expecting the unexpected this time, and the first audition felt good. I thought I nailed it in the callback, but there were a lot of kids who were really good.”

Nick had been nervous at the Mary Poppins audition because it was his first play. “I was a little more relaxed this time since I knew what to expect,” he recalls. “After the first audition, I was hopeful. When I walked into the callbacks and saw Mr. Keller I thought to myself, ‘stand up straight and look professional.’”

Kennedy Haynes is a third-year student, who has been waiting for the chance to audition for A Christmas Carol since she was eight years old. “I felt confident about my improv,” she says. “But I walked out of the callback thinking there was no way I would get a role—it was so quick, and I thought quick usually wasn’t good!”

Hudson Stefanello and Colin Root alternate as Turkey Boy. Hudson is in his second year and was recommended by his instructor. “It was an honor to be chosen,” he said. “I was excited about auditioning because I love the play and was dying to meet the man who plays Scrooge.* I wasn’t nervous because I blocked out everyone to focus on the character and the improv.”

This is Colin’s second time auditioning for A Christmas Carol. “Looking back on last year, I realize that I wasn’t ready,” he admits. “But this time I felt I would get a role because I took the director’s advice and applied it to the audition. I made better decisions and was more open.”

Second-year students Carissa Diller and Kiana Kamm were recommended by their instructors. Kiana, who likes sewing, pantomimed making beautiful dresses in a tailor’s shop. “I felt confident doing the pantomime again in callbacks, but I didn’t think I would get a part. This was my first audition, and I was just very happy to have the experience.”

Carissa thought she might have made it to the callback. “SCR has a very good audition process because they treat you well and make you feel comfortable. I learned to be calm and listen to instructions. I felt like I did a good job, but didn’t expect to get a role because so few kids get chosen.”

How did they react when the phone rang?

Carissa: Super happy.
Hudson: Screaming, “I’m Turkey Boy—I get to meet Scrooge!”*
Kennedy: This is completely RAD.
J.T. It was like a dream come true.
Kiana: So excited—I was ready to pass out.
Nick: Excited—and relieved. It’s going to be great working with professional actors.
Colin: Beside myself with joy—excited to meet the cast.*

*And, of course, they’ll all get to meet the cast, led by SCR’s Scrooge—Hal Landon Jr., playing the role for his 36th season.


A Christmas Carol runs on the Segerstrom Stage Nov. 27-Dec. 27, 2015. 

Children’s roles are double cast. Actors with † appear Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at noon. Others appear in balance of performances.
FAN, the sister of Ebenezer:
J.T. Casey, Nick Trafton†
Sean Kato, Louis Alvarez Tonkovich†
Carissa Diller, Aoife McEvoy†
Kiana Kamm, Kennedy Haynes†
Jamie Ostmann, Lauren Lyons†
Hudson Mattingly Stefanello, Colin Root†
J.T. Casey, Nick Trafton†
Jamie Ostmann, Lauren Lyons†
Jack Matthews, Catherine Mitchell†
Carissa Diller, Aoife McEvoy†
Sean Kato, Louis Alvarez Tonkovich†
Rachel Bailey, Rachel Charny†
Kiana Kamm, Kennedy Haynes†
J.T. Casey, Nick Trafton†
Hudson Mattingly Stefanello, Colin Root†
Learn more and buy tickets.

Monday, November 9, 2015

You’re Never Too Old for Acting Classes at SCR

Acting student Ginger Nelson (on lap) works on an improv piece with other students and teacher Greg Atkins (standing).
Who are the Instructors?

When SCR touts its Adult Acting Program as being taught by working professional actors, some might be inclined to say, “prove it!”

Gladly! Take the program’s newest instructor—and Nelson’s Act II teacher—Emily Heebner. Her career has taken her from L.A. to New York and in between, as an actor, director and instructor.

Emily Heebner
Heebner had a leading role in the first national tour of the Broadway hit, Noises Off and has worked at regional theatres across the country. (The New York Times called her Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival “fascinatingly foxy”). She was a resident artist at LA’s A Noise Within, where she won Drama-Logue Awards for her roles as Belinda in Engaged and Belise in The Learned Ladies.

But in a way, Heebner’s career began when she made her Equity debut as Jennie Mae in SCR’s production of The Diviners, directed by Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson. “I had just completed my first regional show—as Maggie in After the Fall at Berkeley Rep—and I used a piece from that show when I auditioned for The Diviners,” she recalls. The actor Randy Oglesby and I drove down from L.A. for the open call—and Martin cast us both! I learned a great deal during that show, and just a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to direct The Diviners at Antelope Valley College. That was a thrill—to come full circle.”

Which she’s doing again—as an SCR instructor.

BTW, Nelson’s first season as a student was Emily’s first as an SCR instructor, which worked out well for them both.

“That class was a great introduction to the Adult Acting Program for me," Heebner says. "Everyone was very close and supportive of each other, and Ginger worked so hard and grew so much. It was a pleasure having her with us. I think having students of multiple ages is a gift. Everyone benefits, including the instructor!”
Who are the Students?

SCR’s Theatre Conservatory includes a variety of acting classes for ages 8 and up. The littlest students attend the Kids and Teen Program, and the most serious/career-minded adults opt for the seven-week Acting Intensive Program.

Who falls in between? Everyone else! If you’re 18 years of age or over and interested in personal growth and development, meeting new people, polishing communication skills, developing spontaneity or all the above, the Adult Acting Program has a class for you.

Ginger, left, works with more students and teacher, Greg.
Thinking about an acting career but need a solid program to polish up your skills? There’s an advanced classes for you.

Just as there’s no age limit on enjoying life, SCR knows that you’re never too old for the Adult Acting Program. “Senior citizens” prove that year after year. Take Ginger Nelson. At age 77, she worried about being the oldest student—and not being great at memorizing dialogue. What made her decide to take the plunge?

“I told Di and Emily about my nerves, but haven’t told Greg yet. I plan to grit my teeth and simply do it.” (Uh-oh…now he knows!)
“I’d been thinking about it for a long time,” she says. “My husband and I are subscribers and I’ve seen the signs for acting classes in the lobby. I finally figured that I might as well do it while I can. After all, I’m not getting any younger!”

When she first signed up for Act I (Basic Skills), she was a little nervous. Well, more than a little. “I was scared to death!” she admits. “And I still get nervous. But the instructors have been very supportive, starting with Di Bubano, my first teacher.”

When Nelson completed the Act I, a couple of her classmates suggested she take Act II. “I automatically said ‘no way,’ but after I thought about it, I figured I had nothing to lose. And I loved it,” she recalls, “even though there was more memorization and my memory stinks!”

Again, her instructor made all the difference. “Emily Heebner took up where Di left off. She treats every student with the same kind of importance, respect and interest. I feel very fortunate to have been in her class.”

And that wasn’t the end for Nelson. She’s now in Greg Atkins’ Improvisation I class. “Improv is so much fun. It’s challenging but in a different way.”

Learn more about SCR's Theatre Conservatory classes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Five Questions with Paige Lindsey White

Beth Henley's Abundance is an epic tale of two women in the Wild West and their friendship that spans a quarter of a century. Paige Lindsey White portrays one of those women—the spunky Macon Hill. White, a favorite on numerous Los Angeles stages, makes her SCR debut in Abundance and answers our five questions.

Tell us about the character you play.
I play Macon Hill, a mail-order bride who travels west to seek her share of adventure. She's confident, eager and headstrong. And though the west is untamable, it never defeats her.

What are three words you would use to describe Abundance?
Epic. Tall. Tale.

Lily Holleman and Paige Lindsey White in Abundance.
How do you approach creating a character? 
Read the script multiple times. Question what the character wants. How do they pursue that objective (with what words and/or actions)? Who or what in script is preventing them from achieving or helping them achieve what they want? What do they ultimately get?

What first drew you to performing? 
Shel Silverstein poetry. His reading of it. My teacher played us a tape, and I loved how it made everyone laugh. I wanted to do that. It was a great escape.

What do you love most about Macon?
I love her flaws and contradictions. She is full of them. And unaware of most—like all of us.

Fun fact: This isn't White's first time in a production of Abundance! In college as an undergraduate, she portrayed Bess Johnson—Macon's best friend.

Learn more and buy tickets now.