Monday, February 29, 2016

From the Playwright and Director: Julia Cho and Neel Keller Talk About "Office Hour"

Playwright Julia Cho.  Photo by Jennie Warren.
Betsy Brandt and Leo Marks in SCR's 2010 world premiere production of The Language Archive.
Linda Gehringer and Toi Perkins in SCR's 2007 world premiere of The Piano Teacher.
Office Hour is the third Julia Cho play to premiere at South Coast Repertory, after The Piano Teacher (2007) and The Language Archive (2010). Her new work, an SCR commission, is the story of a college teacher dealing with a student who frightens her. The cast includes Sandra Oh, Raymond Lee, Corey Brill and Sola Bamis. In this conversation, Cho and director Neel Keller talk about the play’s genesis and more.

What inspired you to write Office Hour?

JULIA CHO: The subject had been on my mind ever since the [2007] Virginia Tech shootings, which stuck with me, in part, because the shooter was Korean. I did not want to write a play about it, but I wanted somebody to write about it. Nothing came out, so I thought, well maybe I should write it.

I felt that the most responsible thing to do would be to write it as nonfiction, maybe interview people who were there and explore it like a documentary. I quickly learned that was not my forte, so I put it away for a few years.

Then I read an essay by a university teacher who had a student that scared her. That really clicked with me because, as a graduate student, I had spent time teaching undergrads. I remembered that time of my life very easily and could completely see the scenario. That was what got me to write the play.

How did you choose the structure when you wrote Office Hour?

JC: I wanted this to be a classic, two-person, one-set drama, but I couldn’t write it. In the story, once the student sat down with the teacher, I would write a little bit of dialogue, but it felt contrived, like I was forcing them to say things to each other.

Increasingly, when I start to write, it’s like trying figure out where the water wants to flow. When I was younger and reached a wall while writing, I would power through it and break down that wall. Being an older writer now, I feel that if there’s a wall, it means I go a different way. In my attempt to write a traditional narrative for Office Hour, from A to Z, in linear fashion, I failed completely! But once I accepted the fact that the play could go a different way, it freed me up to keep writing.

NEEL KELLER: That point is interesting to me as a director, because I also let a play lead me like the water Julia talked about. By stumbling into this structure, Julia gives us a play about this contemporary subject matter and it lets us examine the issues the way a teacher would; it never feels like a play that was forced through a wall to be a straightforward narrative with one answer and one point of view.

What’s at the core of Office Hour?

JC: The play is about both race and culture, but more about alienation. There’s a story to be told when people fall through the cracks—who are disempowered—and you don’t need to be a minority to feel that way. It’s not unusual to find large numbers of disaffected people on college campuses and that may be the last place where we can reach them. So when you see someone who is troubled, what do you say? How do you connect? Do you even try?

NK: I also feel that it’s really about storytelling. It’s not an accident that all the characters are working in or taking a college class in creative writing. I think that part of what disaffected people do is to write their story through action.

Office Hour is on the Julianne Argyros Stage April 10-30, 2016.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mortality That Makes You Laugh

by Kimberly Colburn
Going to a Place where you Already Are asks big questions—but it’s so firmly based in character-driven humor that it is anything but didactic. The characters are grappling with their own troubles navigating their relationships with one another, due to their opposing viewpoints. 

First, we meet Joe and Roberta. They’re a lively older couple whom we first see at a funeral for Joe’s co-worker. Since he barely knew her, Joe and Roberta attend more out of a sense of social obligation than anything else. They’re avowed atheists, especially Joe, and attending church service is not part of their regular life—mostly weddings and funerals, and these days it’s more often the latter. The play opens with them in a pew, lightly commenting on the action around them. The setting makes Roberta begin to realize their mortality and the conversation turns to the question of what might happen to people when they die. Roberta used to be a believer, and there are some things she can’t dismiss as easily as Joe can.

Next, we meet Ellie and Jonas. They met yesterday by chance, and surprisingly they have quickly wound up in bed together. In contrast to Joe and Roberta’s longstanding relationship, Ellie and Jonas are just beginning to feel their way towards each other. They have an instant connection and are so comfortable with one another—if only there weren’t the hurdles of life (and Ellie’s overwhelming questions and insecurities) to get in their way…mid-conversation, Ellie dismisses a call from her step-Grandmother Roberta, but briefly wonders what she’s calling about.

Roberta has been complaining about back pain, probably from bending over to weed the dandelions last week, but Joe thinks she must have pinched a nerve. When the pain doesn’t subside after a few days, Roberta is sent for what is intended to be a routine MRI, until an allergic reaction causes her heart to stop momentarily. While Joe sits at her bedside, Roberta sees herself in a foreign place she doesn’t understand, being greeted by someone she doesn’t know but who feels terribly familiar. Suddenly, she returns to consciousness, and Joe tells her what happened, that she had a brief scare but she’s fine now. Roberta doesn’t need his explanation; she knows exactly where she went—to heaven. Joe gently ignores her passionate descriptions as a dream, but their attention is grabbed when the doctor returns and tells them the MRI showed bad news. Roberta’s full of tumors, and it’s not looking good for her. Her experience in heaven doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all, but Joe refuses to focus on anything except finding an impossible and non-existent cure. Roberta’s more interested in the larger philosophical question, and accepts her fate because she already knows where she’s going to go next. 

Rebecca Mozo, Christopher Thornton, Linda Gehringer and Hal Landon Jr. in Going to a Place where you Already Are.
Going to a Place where you Already Are was first heard by SCR audiences in a NewSCRipts reading, followed later that season by a reading as part of the Pacific Playwrights Festival. Anyone who attended either of those readings will discover that the character’s trajectories have changed significantly. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter explains that this is a normal part of her process, that she finds herself constantly writing and re-writing, including changing the fates of the characters.

Artistic Director Marc Masterson was impressed by Brunstetter’s skill as a writer and was drawn to directing the project himself. “What struck me first about Going to a Place was the sense that ‘I’m in the hands of a writer who has this vivid idea of who these people are and is able to bring them to life for me in a very short span of time.’” Brunstetter is highly collaborative, and needs the feedback from the cast to fine-tune what she wants to say. Masterson has convened a top-notch cast: SCR favorites Linda Gehringer, Hal Landon, Jr. and Rebecca Mozo, who are joined by two people making their SCR debut, Stephen Ellis and Christopher Thornton (though both have been with the play throughout its stages of development).

Brunstetter creates characters like Joe, Roberta, Ellie, and Jonas with great skill and empathy, placing them carefully in awkward situations and then using humor and heart to have them stumble their way through. They can’t always control their fates, but to have questions amid the daily struggles is a fact of humanity. Roberta’s impending mortality is hard for everyone, but her brief near-death experience of heaven which she finds comforting makes Joe irrational. How can you adapt when something occurs that is outside of your belief system? What does it mean to have faith—and what does it mean for those around you?

Learn more and buy tickets.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Plays of My Life: Eliza Clark

Playwright Eliza Clark

Since Eliza Clark's play Future Thinking will be making its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in just a few weeks, she shared with us some of her inspirations and a few of her top literary picks.

My favorite childhood book.
The Hobbit.

The first theatrical production I saw.
The Secret Garden.

The story I read in secret. 
One time I found a journal my father kept when I was a kid. I read a few pages—which were mostly lists of things he was worried about at the time. I felt terrible for reading it, but it was fascinating. It was one of the first moments of my life where I had seen my parents as people. My dad had honest anxieties, and somehow I never caught on. My childhood felt magical in spite of the things he was worried about. I think about this a lot now that I have a child of my own.

What made me know I wanted to be a playwright.
I grew up in the theatre as a child actor. I loved being a part of the family created through working on a show. I loved audiences and live mistakes. I loved the energy and pace of performances. But, I think the first time I sat in the back of a theater in college and heard people laugh at words I had written, I was hooked. At that point, there was no going back. Getting to sit invisibly amongst the audience at your own show is one of the truest pleasures I've experienced. It's the moment when the play jumps out of your head and becomes something entirely different that no longer belongs to you but belongs to whatever room it's in. Every night it's different depending on the people in that room. There is nothing else like it.

My literary hero(es).
Julie Orringer. Liz Meriwether. George Saunders. Toni Morrison. Jonathan Franzen. Martin McDonagh. Aaron Sorkin.

Something I wish I’d written.
The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. It's the best. It's so dark, so funny, so sad, so beautiful. It has everything I want from a night in the theater—dark twisted laughter followed by regret and sadness followed by more laughter.

The play that changed my life.
At age six, Les Miserables. In my early twenties, The Pillowman. More recently, Hamilton.

The first time I saw one of my plays produced.
In high school, I wrote and directed a terrible play called Talk of Pleasant Things. I had been reading a lot of Eugene O'Neill and decided to rip him off badly. It was about alcoholism and dysfunctional families and AIDS and homelessness and a whole host of other issues I knew very little about. But the experience of hearing my (melodramatic) words in a theatre in front of an audience was electrifying.

The last play that made me laugh out loud.
Hand to God by Rob Askins

The play I would take with me to a desert island.
August, Osage County. Because it's so good. And it's long, so it could sustain me for awhile.

My perfect day.
My son sleeps until 7:30, then wants to snuggle for an absurdly long time. He's well rested and happy. He tells me a bunch of funny things, insists I tickle his back, screams "All Aboard!" over and over. My husband and I take him to the beach and we swim and we don't feel like we have anything weighing on us. I hold my son in the water and he kicks his legs against me like I'm a horse, urging me to go deeper in, because he loves the water. We sit on the beach and eat cheese and bread and laugh and I feel present and never look at my phone. In the afternoon we take a long family nap. I write something because I want to and then we watch something excellent on television and I fall asleep early, reliving what we did that day instead of focusing on something I have to do tomorrow.

I realize that as a parent of an 18-month-old, "my perfect day" has a lot of sleeping in it. And that is by design.

Find out more about her play Future Thinking.

See more SCR stories, videos and interviews.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Six Degrees of Hal Landon Jr.

SCR’s 2007 production of Hamlet is the last time that favorites Hal Landon Jr. and Linda Gehringer were on stage together. Of course, they’ve been in numerous plays at SCR before and since. Now, in 2016, they lead the five-member cast for the world premiere of Bekah Brunstetter’s Going to a Place where you Already Are—as the loving, long-term couple, Joe and Roberta. Check out their “six degrees of separation,” along with that of Rebecca Mozo, who plays their granddaughter, Ellie. And check out the rest of the cast.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Plays of My Life: Bekah Brunstetter

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter.
To mark the world premiere of her upcoming play, Going to a Place where you Already Are, Brunstetter shares her thoughts about her literary picks and what inspires her.

My favorite childhood book.
Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

The story I read in secret.
I was really into this series of Christian books by Lurlene McDaniel. They were little books about beautiful girls dying of liver cancer and the boys who loved them. 

What made me know I wanted to be a playwright.
When I realized that writing plays was a combination of being alone and in your head while writing, and then collaborating with others. 

A classic play that I’ve never seen.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 

The best literary adaptation (play or book into movie).
Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. 

My literary hero.
Sarah Ruhl. I’ll never forget when I read her Melancholy Play, in which a character turns into an almond. I just thought that was the weirdest and most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. Even more recently, her book 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater is an incredible reflection of plays and life and motherhood. 

The play that is my touchstone.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. 

The latest play that made me cry.
I am sad to admit that plays do not really make me cry. They make me think and turn inward, but not cry. However, commercials make me cry. Cell phone commercials, in which a grandparent is waiting by the phone for their grandkid to call them and, finally, the kid does. Also, and this really surprised me: Lady Gaga singing the national anthem made me well up with an odd mixture of fear, regret and pride. 

The latest play that made me laugh.
I just saw Barcelona by Bess Wohl at the Geffen. I laughed in a cringe-y sort of way, like, “Oh God, I have definitely said some of those things.” 

The first time I saw one of my plays produced.
When I was 18, my first year of college, I wrote my first play and the theater department (at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) produced it in the gorgeous and haunted Old Playmakers Theater. It was called Age in Spanish. I’m still not totally sure why it was called Age in Spanish. 

Something I wish I’d written.
Ohhhhh, man—sore subject. I am STILL mad that I didn’t write the movie Enchanted, in which Amy Adams plays a Disney Princess that gets transported to the real world. 

The play I would take with me to a desert island.
I would take every play Sam Hunter has written and will write, in a big leather-bound bible-esque book. 

My perfect day.
It’s basically exactly like this. But at the end of the day, I eat an entire family sized frozen lasagna and swallow it down with a bottle or rosè, then drift off to the Amelie soundtrack.

Find out more about Brunstetter’s Going to a Place and purchase tickets.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Send in the Clowns: Five Questions with Dave Honigman

The cast of Pinocchio in a light-hearted moment: (L to R) Joe DeSoto, Jennifer Carroll, Dave Honigman, Kevin Klein and Tyler Bremer.

The Theatre for Young Audiences production of Pinocchio follows the naughty puppet as he learns what it takes to be a real boy. Like most coming-of-age stories, Pinocchio goes on a journey, learns lessons and reaches his full potential.

Cast member Dave Honigman brings his own acting journey full circle by returning to South Coast Repertory for this production. Honigman started down the road to acting at SCR's Young Conservatory and later went to Los Angeles, where he became a member of the clown troupe, Four Clowns, and continued his studies at iO West. Later this year, he will join Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a traveling clown.

As he headed into Pinocchio performances, Honigman took some time to look back at his early years with SCR.

What drew you into acting?
I started acting because I wanted to become a spy! The films Ace Ventura and Mission: Impossible inspired me to take on fun, active characters. But, it turns out that theatre and film are much safer for playing pretend than in the actual fields of espionage.

Honigman in the 2004 Junior Players production of 1212
What brought you to SCR's Theatre Conservatory?
Though I enjoyed gymnastics and music as a child, I found those skills were best used in performance. So, my mom enrolled me in SCR's Young Conservatory, which lead to being a part of both the Junior and Teen Players productions.

What were some of your take-aways from the Conservatory?
SCR taught me how to use my body, voice and mind as tools so that I could be larger-than-life on stage. I came to learn that art imitates life and vice versa, so theatre can be used for any aspect of life. Any time I get nervous or have a task at hand, I remember lessons I learned here: listen, react on impulse, focus on your breath, be here now, you and the group are equally essential and everyone wants you to succeed!

What's a highlight from your early years at SCR?
I was honored to play Ebenezer as a boy in SCR's annual production of A Christmas Carol. I hope someday to play Ebenezer as a Young Man—and maybe even Scrooge himself one day!

What has been the best part about working on Pinocchio?Pinocchio has been so fun! SCR chose such an adventurous show to produce! We've had plenty of fun under the direction of Jeremy Aluma. As clowns, we love to incorporate the audience as much as possible into our shows. In a way, it has been a challenge not to goof off and make each other laugh too much! I think that kids—and everyone—will love this because they'll be able to see what a little imagination can do.

Learn more about Pinocchio

Monday, February 1, 2016

Party Play: Seeing (and Applauding) "Red"

On January 29, First Night of Red on the Segerstrom Stage, the immediate and rousing standing ovation was led by Individual Honorary Producers Sophie and Larry Cripe and Jean and Tim Weiss.  When the applause died down, First Nighters and their guests made their way to the Cast Party, hosted by Room & Board at its South Coast Village store.

Nibbling hors d’oeuvres as they waited for the artists to arrive, guests took advantage of the opportunity to browse the store, which is now featuring the 2016 collection of American-made furniture and accessories, prior to The New Collection Open House held on Saturday and Sunday. 

On the central stairway, young painters, from the mural painting and design classes in Santa Ana College’s Fine and Performing Arts Division, created a painting in tribute to Rothko. As guests admired the work, Professor Darren Hostetter explained that the students had spent the past week painting in the style of the great abstract impressionist—arranged by Room & Board, just for this occasion.

Midway through the party, the Rothko painting was peeled back to reveal another work of art, the students’ painting of Mark Harelik and Paul David Story, who portrayed Rothko and his assistant, Ken.

The party took on an extra jubilance, as guests surrounded the actors and their director, SCR Founding Artistic Director David Emmes, to offer words of praise, led by the Cripes, who said that the eloquent script, masterful directing and dynamic acting captured the tension between an artist and his work to “create a beautiful shade of Red.”

Rothko—and the art scene in general—was what impressed Tim Weiss.  “It seems to me that Rothko was looking for relevance in an ever-changing world. The fact that Rothko's work ultimately became amazingly important and popular seems to have a certain irony, but a good reminder that you just never know what impact, small or large, you have on the world… Red serves as a great reminder that change is important and good.”

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.