Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Intricate Dialogue of the Everyday: Playwright Melissa Ross on "Of Good Stock"

THE STOCKTON SISTERS: Andrea Syglowski is Celia, Melanie Lora is Jess and Kat Foster is Amy.
Of Good Stock, an SCR commission now receiving its world premiere on the Segerstrom Stage, begins on a summer morning in the Stockton family’s Cape Cod home. There, Jess Stockton and her husband, Fred, prepare for a weekend visit from Jess’ younger sisters, Amy and Celia.

The Stockton sisters are the daughters of legendary novelist Mick Stockton, a man whose life was as infamous as his writing is famous. The Stockton sisters grew up relying on each other. As adults, however, the three women—with their distinctive and very different personalities—don’t always see eye-to-eye.

Melanie Lora (Jess) and Rob Nagle (Fred).
Celia, the youngest, is the first to arrive with a new man in tow.

Amy, the middle sister, arrives next, with her fiancé, Josh. She’s in the midst of planning her wedding, an extravagant affair, and it’s all that she can talk about—even when there are more important matters at hand.

Once the cast of characters is assembled, playwright Melissa Ross weaves together the comedy and drama of real life to tell a story full of surprises and revelations. With her compassionate writing and intricate dialogue that beautifully captures the rhythm and idiosyncrasies of everyday speech, Of Good Stock becomes a singular yet relatable and hilarious yet moving look at a family coming together to keep from falling apart.

Although Ross is making her South Coast Repertory debut with Of Good Stock, some SCR audiences may be familiar with her work from the 2012 Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF) reading of You Are Here—or even last year’s PPF reading of Of Good Stock. Her plays tell disparate stories, but are unified by their detailed and complex relationships—whether they’re within a family, like those at the center of Of Good Stock and Thinner Than Water (which premiered at New York’s Labyrinth Theater Company in 2011), or amongst a group of friends, like those found in You Are Here.

Her work has not only captured the attention of SCR, but also of theatres across the country—and her plays have been produced or developed by Labyrinth Theater Company, Chicago’s Gift Theatre and New York Stage and Film, among many others. After its world premiere at SCR, Of Good Stock will receive a production at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Playwright Melissa Ross
Q&A with Ross

Of Good Stock's Dramaturg Jerry Patch on the Musicality of Ross' Writing

It's become fashionable among playwrights to write characters who interrupt each other—this is an attempt to more closely resemble actual speech. Actors are asked to begin their line before the actor giving the previous speech has finished. 

 In my experience nobody uses this new tool better than Melissa. The overlapping dialogue she writes propels action in her characters and sets a quick pace for her audiences to follow—a good thing. It becomes musical: allegro, even presto, until it slows to andante or even holds—a fermata.
In the midst of her busy rehearsal schedule, Ross took some time to share a little bit about her style and writing process and her sources of inspiration.

What’s the very first play you remember seeing—and why does it still stay with you?
Growing up in a small town, a lot of my very early theatre experiences were televised—aside from my Christmas visit to the Boston Ballet's Nutcracker and an occasional touring production of Annie. I used to love to watch the old musical films with my grandmother when I was little—like West Side Story and My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. This segued to VHS tapes of the PBS Great Performances of the Sondheim musicals—Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George. My grandma also took me to my first Broadway play on a special trip to NYC that we did together. I wish I could remember which of these was the actual first—but they are all kind of swirled together into a blur of wonderful memories of my grandmother and her infectious love of music and theater that she so graciously shared with me.

What drew you to playwriting?
I wrote my first play when I was about eight years old. It was a sort of riff on fairy tales. Cinderella got married to the prince—and ironically still ended up doing housework. So she decided to get a divorce. I performed it as a one woman show by the pool at my grandparents' rental condo in Boca Raton. I have no idea why I felt compelled to write it—but I think it was a combo of my parents divorcing, Free to Be You and Me-infused feminism—and a strange awareness that Disney fairy tales were not terribly realistic.

I love the music and rhythm of people talking. I love figuring out how people use language. I love eavesdropping on conversations. And trying to figure out the score of every day speech. Writing dialogue for me is a little like writing music.

What gets a play idea started for you?
Most of my plays start with characters talking. Sometimes I hear snippets of dialogue floating in the ether, and I'll scribble them down just to save them until I know what it is. Sometimes I ruminate on things—like a certain era or location or theme—but I still don't know what's what till I know who is talking.

How would you describe your writing style or “voice”?
Oh gosh—I wish I had an articulate answer for that! I don't actually know. I would definitely say I write character-driven more than plot-driven plays. If someone were to do a parody of my writing—it would probably have way too much overlapping dialogue. And an overabundance of punctuation. I love punctuation. Almost to the point of ridiculousness. I love the grammatical incorrectness of real speech.

There are amazing sister dynamics in Of Good Stock. How do you create characters?
I was an actress for many years—and so some of my character work as a writer is informed by that background. As I'm writing a play, I'm acting out all of the parts as I write it. And so I think that some of the characters start to be influenced by choices I'd make if I were acting that part. When I get stuck in a play, I often leap out of it and approach it as an actor and ask myself what sorts of questions I'd be asking the playwright if I were in rehearsal.

I also tend to think that as unique as we all are as individuals—there are also large-scale human conditions that make us all almost frustratingly and heartbreakingly alike. And so sometimes it's just about thinking. If I were this particular person—living this particular life—at this particular time—feeling scared about this thing that I sometimes feel scared about too—what would that be. How would it be the same as me—and how would it be different.

If you could have lunch with any woman from theatre history, living or past (playwright, director, actor, etc.), who would that be and what would your conversation be about?
Can I have more than one? I'd love to have Wendy Wasserstein and Madeline Kahn and Gilda Radner over for cocktails. A couple bottles of Malbec. Maybe a charcuterie plate. And then I'd just like to hang out with them and talk about anything and everything.

What advice have you been given that has been very useful to you as a writer? Why does it work for you?
Write about things that scare you or once scared you. Write not necessarily about "what you know"—since we should always write about things outside of ourselves—but write from a place of your own personal truth. There's a beautiful quote from John Patrick Shanley that I particularly love—and have seen often cited by others over the years: "Writing is acting is directing is living your life." It's exquisite and vast in its simplicity and truth—and I think is so resonant to anyone who makes any kind of art.

Learn more and buy tickets

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Direct(or’s) Approach: "Of Good Stock"’s GT Upchurch

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Of Good Stock—the new play by Melissa Ross—focuses on the three Stockton sisters who gather, with the men in their lives, for a weekend birthday celebration at the family home on Cape Cod. As Women’s History Month concludes, it’s fitting to note that the play is written by a woman, features a strong trio of women actors and is directed by a woman.

In the director’s seat is Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who makes her South Coast Repertory debut with this production. Among the many productions she’s directed are Laura Marks’ Bethany (Women’s Project, Lucille Lortel nomination for Best New Play and Best Actress and at The Old Globe), Lucy Thurber’s Stay (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Obie Award for Hilltown Play Cycle) and Simon Stephens' Harper Regan (Atlantic Theater, The New York Times Top Ten Productions, 2012). Her work on new plays was a factor that led The New York Times to profile her in a story about the number of successful women directors off-Broadway. So what shaped her career? We caught up with her recently, just as Of Good Stock moved out of the rehearsal hall and onto the stage.

What’s the very first play you remember seeing?
I was visiting New York City for a weekend when I saw Christopher Shinn's Four at the Worth Street Theater Company, and it was the first time I was fully aware of the power of theatre. The intimacy of those performances was shattering for me. I had to walk around the block a few times after it was over to gather myself.

What drew you to directing?
Directing brings together many elements of my life from before I ever got into theatre. I have a background in dance, and I tend to view staging as a type of choreography that best reveals the tension in a scene—not unlike a dance piece. I also spent a fair amount of time studying art history and painting, which often figures into the initial impulses I have when beginning conversations with designers—always one of my favorite parts of the process. I also love working with actors and being surprised and excited by them, so that's a big draw to wanting to direct.

Who would you cite as your mentor?
I wouldn't be a director if it weren't for Gerald Freedman, the former dean of drama at North Carolina School of the Arts, and the first person to encourage me to pursue directing. I still think about his classes every time I work. Also, a big part of his directing curriculum was sending students to experience art in other disciplines and having us write about it—we wrote about how something affected us and how we thought the artist(s) accomplished that. It shaped my own taste for what I love in art, and thatt shaped my thinking about how to create.

What’s most attractive to you about Of Good Stock?
I love this play! Melissa Ross's writing is hilarious and tough, and is equally vulnerable. She's also accomplished the rhythms and dynamics of a family so beautifully, which has made it a joy to work on for me and the actors.

What did you know about South Coast Repertory before you came out to direct?
I know many people who have worked here and loved it. And, SCR has a fantastic reputation for being committed to new writing and producing world premieres.

If you could have lunch with any woman from theatre history, living or past, who would that be?
Martha Graham! 

Learn more and buy tickets to Of Good Stock.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Art of Tradition

Jully Lee, Lawarence Kao, Sab Shimono and Ryun Yu in tokyo fish story.
tokyo fish story is a tale of tradition, ambition and the art of sushi. With the story deeply rooted in Tokyo, Japan, the challenge for the cast is how to create a true representation of another country’s culture and practices. Luckily, South Coast Repertory benefitted with help from Jesse Hiraki of Japan Alliance. The alliance was formed to help bridge the gap between Japanese and Japanese-Americans through culture, events, seminars and collaboration with other non-profit entities.

Japan Alliance Board Members, from the left Bryan Shigekuni, Megumi Yuhara, Jesse Hiraki, Ryan Yamamoto.
That commitment to collaboration brought one of its leaders to SCR as a sushi consultant for tokyo fish story. Self-described as bicultural and bilingual, Hiraki was one of the original founders of Japan Alliance. He came into rehearsals to give his insight on the traditions, sushi and language called for in Kimber Lee’s script. Being a part of the production was a new experience for him.

“It was learning experience for me, but I hope that as much as I learned from the cast and crew about plays, that they were able to take a little something from us on Japanese culture,” Hiraki says. Sitting in on rehearsals, he provided the cast with context for the story, helping the actors find an authenticity for both their characters and the story.

“It was my first experience working with a theatre,” explains Hiraki. “I didn’t want to get too caught up on the right and wrong. My efforts were about providing feedback, and being able to talk to the cast and crew about my cultural perspective.”

Just as Japan Alliance was born out of a goal to overcome the language barrier that often divides communities, Hiraki was able to build an understanding of cultures and tradition between the cast and crew of tokyo fish story and the Japanese culture.

Find out more about Japan Alliance.

Get tickets to tokyo fish story now!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Lovely Play … And Sushi, at First Night of "tokyo fish story"

On Friday, March 13, First Nighters and their guests applauded the world premiere of Kimber Lee’s heart-felt play about generation and gender gaps in the changing world of a master chef. After marveling over the production—and the scenes of sushi preparation—playgoers strolled over to Scott’s Restaurant & Bar. There, they sampled scrumptious sushi selections, hand-rolled upon request.

Among the playgoers were the two couples whose generosity helped make tokyo fish story possible, Bill and Carolyn Klein and Samuel and Tammy Tang. According to the Tangs, “We found tokyo fish story to be a moving story of reconciliation. Nobu’s character was fascinating, and our perception of him changed during the course of the play. He brought out many eye-opening truths, but his wisdom came in such an unexpected package of youth and hip-hop colloquial poetry!”

Admiring the candle-lit setting as they sampled the evening’s signature drink (Cherry Blossomtini), everyone agreed with the underwriters. The next day, StageSceneLA gave the play its sought-after “wow!” rating, calling it “captivating, thought-provoking theater.”

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Meet the SCR Players

Last season's Summer Players production of Peter Pan with Christopher Huntley, Nika Aydin, Shane Iverson and Jaden Fogel.
Emme O'Toole in rehearsal for Myth Adventures. "The Players experience has been phenomenal. I've met and made some of my best friends here and learned so many things that are useful on stage and off."
Who are the SCR Players? Even for those attending their shows, the Players themselves can be something of a mystery. Let’s clear that mystery up!

SCR Players are ensemble groups of students from the Theatre Conservatory, who are chosen by audition and perform fully-produced plays during the spring session. Most Players attended the Summer Acting Workshop for beginners, got bitten by the acting bug and continued their training in year-round classes.

Then a smaller, more serious, group of students emerged, those who had decided to take their talent and enthusiasm to the next level—by auditioning for one of the two ensemble groups, Junior (grades 5-8) or Teen (grades 9-12) Players.

They are the dedicated ones, who have completed at least two full years in the program and are willing to make a year-long commitment. This includes attending one class during the week and another on Saturday—with extra hours during rehearsals and the run of their show.

Henry Ficcadenti at the "table read" for David Copperfield. "The Teen Players program has taught me about the process of putting together a production. After all, artists spend much more time creating their art than showing the final product"
According to Theatre Conservatory Director Hisa Takakuwa, “That’s asking a lot of kids whose weekends are usually filled with sports and other extracurricular activities. Giving up two hours every Saturday is a big commitment, and during rehearsals the commitment is even greater.”

How much greater? Lots! When the spring shows are chosen, three months of rehearsals begin, with regular class meetings extended and others added. The last week is called “tech” (when technical elements such as sound and lights are added), and Players rehearse every day from 4 until 9pm.

Lauren Cocroft at the "table read" for David Copperfield. "In Players, I like the way we feel and act like a family, challenging and allowing ourselves to get out there and get comfortable with the uncomfortable."
They’re ready for the challenge. They’ve been ready since the excitement began in June (with auditions), increased in July (with the news they’d been chosen) and peaked in September (when all the Players got together on the first day of class—to screams of delight as they greeted old friends and met new ones). And what about when the plays are selected and the roles cast? More excitement.

But that’s all just a precursor to the first day of rehearsals, reserved for the “table read,” when the cast members gather at a long table in a bare rehearsal room with no sets, no costumes, no props—only their scripts. Not too exciting?

Saul Richardson in rehearsal for Myth Adventures. "I wanted to pursue my passion for acting in a more intense way, and being a Player brought me into an environment of intensity, professionalism and a higher level of acting"
Players know better. This is the moment to leave outside distractions and concerns behind—and focus. It’s the moment to draw on the years of training that have led to their development as people, as well as actors. They’re prepared to create the best show possible, but they also understand that being an SCR Player is about process—the process of growing a show in rehearsal and deepening the production with an audience.

As they take their places at the table and open the scripts to page one, these Players are confident, knowing they’ll be ready when the time comes to step on stage.

For Hisa, that’s the reward. “After attending class and rehearsing so diligently, it’s wonderful to see these young actors perform before a live audience. They’ll feel the joy.”

And so will everyone in the audience.

Myth Adventures, Five Greek Classics
adapted by Eric Coble
directed by Mercy Vasquez
March 21-22, 28-29, Saturdays at 2 and 5 p.m., Sundays at 1 and 4 p.m.
Learn more and buy tickets here.

Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield
adapted for the stage by Thomas Hischak
Saturday, May 16 at 4 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 17 at 1:30 and 5:00 p.m.; Friday, May 22 at 7:30; Saturday, May 23 at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 24 at 1:30 and 5:00 p.m.

Mary Poppins
(For many students, the show goes on—as Summer Players, a larger group of actors, also chosen by audition, after only one year in the program.)
Saturday and Sunday, August 8, 9, 15, 16 at 1 and 5:00 p.m. and Friday, August 14 at 7:00 p.m.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Outside Influences on Japan

Tokyo's Shibuya district at night.
Nobu—the lackluster rap cusser move buster food fusser passing muster in Master Koji’s Tokyo kitchen—isn’t the hip-hop anomaly he might at first glance in baggy pants appear askance to American eyes.

In yet another example (like sushi!) of cultural globalization, hip-hop and rap have been present in Tokyo’s Shibuya district’s streets, parks and clubs for more than three decades. After the millennium,  it bloomed into a commercial entity that the music and clothing industries had ignored, and entered Japan’s cultural mainstream.

As with electronics, cars, sporting equipment, games, graphic arts (Disney has bought billions worth of rights to Japanese images and stories) and other products that have fueled their astonishing economic recovery since WWII, Japanese artists, craftsmen and engineers have repeatedly imported new ideas, trends and objects from less traditional, more innovative societies. They have mastered them, then improved them and finally made them their own.

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Hip-hop entered Japanese culture through the landmark film, Wild Style, in 1983. New York’s graffiti, subways, freestyle MCing, break dancing, and a segment of hip-hop godfather Grandmaster Flash putting out a revolutionary scratch-mix set on two archaic turntables were all to be seen, heard and marveled at. Scratching in clubs and break dancing in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park took hold immediately.

Simultaneously, recordings of old style rap by L.A. rappers were brought to Japan by men who became the earliest DJs/MCs in Tokyo. But rap took longer to catch on: it was in English; it was composed of melody, rhythm and rhyme, the latter two aspects being almost absent from spoken Japanese. The English pulse of the iamb (da-DAH) drives rap; Japanese accents all syllables equally (the spondee extended: dah-dah-dah-dah). Moreover, the auxiliary verb endings that often end sentences in Japanese are few in number, providing little opportunity for rhyme.

Early Japanese rappers began working in English, then began rapping their songs’ verses in Japanese and the bridges and choruses in English. Rhythm and rhyme, they recognized, were the staples of rap and hip-hop. Soon rappers began to rearrange their expressions outside the rules of Japanese, creating new strophes with more rhythm and rhyme. In effect, they were restructuring the traditional order of the language, something Japanese grammarians believed brought an additional maturity to its expression.

By the mid-1990s, two roads of rap diverged into Japan’s hip-hop world. One began to merge with Japanese mainstream pop: hip-hop pop. Its subject matter abandoned the violence-centric rap style of say, Public Enemy or NWA, in favor of lighter Japanese social concerns: romance, food, shopping and cell phones. The other path insisted on keeping in touch with rap’s African-American roots.

Japanese hip-hop fans.
Like almost all expressions that appear completely new and revolutionary, rap in fact had a firm foundation in what had gone before in black American culture. The “dozens”—a macho posturing rendered with verbal style, invention, rhythm and rhyme, and putdowns (“you so ugly you look like you been whipped wit’ a ugly stick”)—was a feature of street corner gatherings of black men and boys through the 1940s and ‘50s, and even found its way onto a few rhythm and blues recordings from that time.

Between 1960 and 1980, a strong current and necessity for individual expression emerged from black culture—for both genders. When this drive merged with a New York street culture that had homogenized the urban less well-to-do and poor into intersecting ‘hoods, hip-hop was born.

In Tokyo it found a home in the clubs frequented by black GIs, joining soul music as the preferred house musical fare. The more individual, rebellious and/or socially minded Japanese were club clientele who believed the black culture that had given rise to hip-hop and rap had to be respected. Some of these Japanese frequented tanning parlors and fitted themselves with bling, Afros or corn rows—and some performers worked in blackface.

Finally, this second strain of hip-hop took up Japanese social issues as subject matter for their songs: social welfare, jobs for youth, opposition to the American invasion of Iraq. But in both cases—hip-hop-pop and old-style rap—the globalization of that imported culture that had gone wide and come to Japan was localized and made personal by expressing Japanese concerns and tastes.

*  *  *  *  *

Thumpin' Camp 2014
A kind of hip-hop Woodstock called Thumpin’ Camp occurred in Japan in 1996, when more than 4,000 young Japanese, 80% male, attended a show featuring 30+ rappers, MCs and break dancers. There had been a couple of million-selling rap albums in the early ‘90s—not enough to engage the Japanese recording industry--but by 2003 hip-hop had proved to be one of the largest musical markets in Japan.

Not all young Japanese are in it for the raps. Many are ardent for the oversize shirts, baseball caps and Hilfiger jeans have proved an opportunity for unusual individual expression by Japanese youth—male and female. This clothing, too, has gone global: Japanese wear L.A. and NYC rags, and American rappers perform in Bathing Ape (or Bape) garb from Japan.

Hip-hop continues to evolve in the U.S.—even into theatre. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, one of the most unique and original musicals seen in decades, has just opened to wondrous reviews in NYC and is the city’s hottest ticket. It tells the story of the American Revolution in a rap/hip-hop/R&B/pop and even a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan through-sung musical with actors of color playing all the Founding Fathers.

We’re not in Kansas any more.

Learn more and buy tickets.