The story of Translationsis a snapshot of a 22-year event known as the “Irish Survey” (1824-1846), a process in which thousands of English soldiers crawled across the entirety of Ireland to make a new map of the country. England had long established colonial rule over Ireland, and tension between the two cultures was boiling just below the surface. Practically no English soldiers spoke any Irish, yet their instructions were to create an English-language map of a Gaelic-language region.
Ryan Wagner. Photo by Laura Crow
In Translations, playwright Brian Friel turns this set of circumstances into an engaging story. He uses the concept of a language barrier to paint an entire spectrum of emotions — it’s a story made of moments that border on farce with their delightful absurdity, only to give way to unique and deeply moving perspectives. As a director, I consider the chance to explore this brilliant and mature work as an unending gift.
My work with Translations, as it always does, began with research. This time, however, I had the opportunity to take my study beyond the normal Amazon shipment of books that consumes my life for a week or two. I was fortunate enough to take a trip to the New York Public Library, where I spent a day in a reading room that could double as the Sistine Chapel. I read original accounts from the Irish Survey and viewed the original maps, photocopying like a madman for my actors back home. Friel’s characters are based in such a specific reality that my intellectual understanding of the situation was what unleashed my emotional understanding as well. My comprehension of these people and their sights, sounds, hopes, and fears began to materialize, and I returned to my actors a director equally educated and inspired.
Kurt Quinn, Peter Weidman. Photo by Laura Crow
The word I keep coming back to for Translations is “lyrical.” The best definition I’ve found of the word (ironically, from my iPhone’s built-in dictionary) describes it as “[the expression of] emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way.” While I understand this as a fundamental goal of most art, I have to tip my hat a little further to the writers who are able to successfully apply this imaginative and beautiful style to subject matters that can, to the layman, risk seeming particularly pedestrian or academic. I’ve come to respect Friel as a master of this feat. This material stimulates intellect and emotion all at once, challenging the mind to listen and rewarding the heart for doing so.
Appreciators of Chekhov will immediately recognize that trademark blend of humor and pathos. (Fun fact: Friel himself was working on a translation of Chekhov’s Three Sistersas he prepared to write Translations. It shows.) Friel himself has said the play is about “language and only language,” but I disagree. I don’t believe the man gives his own work or those who see it enough credit with this statement. Translations encompasses the themes of dignity, responsibility, hope, identity, and above all, loyalty.
Peter Weidman, TJ Marchbank. Photo by Laura Crow
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the work is that while Friel has made his own opinion of the Survey’s lasting effects clear through his external writings, in Translations he actually presents opposing perspectives on the topic, allowing his characters to present their conflicting viewpoints with equal clarity and elegance. I think it’s a wonderful gesture of respect to blur the line for the audience and let us draw our own conclusions. We are allowed to listen in on a debate rather than endure a sermon.
Beyond that, it remains only to say how proud I am of my actors. Working with such a mature group of artists feels like opening up a sports car on the Autobahn. It’s been an exhilarating, surprising ride. They will never know the depth of my appreciation for their work, because no amount of gratitude could adequately express it.
Translations, presented by Coeurage Theatre Company at Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Blvd., LA, 90036. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through June 23. Tickets: Pay What You Want. https://coeurage.secure.force.com/ticket. 323-944-2165.
Ryan Wagner is the associate artistic director of Coeurage Theatre Company. He has worked with Coeurage for three years acting, directing, and serving as the company’s resident graphic designer. Also a performer, his credits include mainstage and workshop productions at La Jolla Playhouse, Under Milk Wood, The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love Suicide, Assassins, Is He Dead?, and The Trouble With Words.
Jared Taylor Wilson, John Sperry Sisk, Ashley Snyder, Tor Jensen Brown. Photo by Bree Pavey.
I’ve been known to be rather, shall we say, long-winded. I’ve always seen it as a double-edged sword — either you’re super into what I’m saying, or I’m boring you to death. But there is something to be said about a really good story, you know? It’s the kind of story that you want to take with you and tell someone else. It’s those kinds of stories that last forever, and the kind of stories you wish you were a part of. Stories that in time, become legend or even myth, like a fairy tale…
Mitch Rosander. Photo by Phillip Holbrook
The Princes’ Charming started out as a one-act play I wrote for a friend as a school project, the fall after I graduated high school. I had written some in high school, to marginal success and even won a few awards, so I figured, why not? It went over splendidly and won several awards itself. So I thought to myself, maybe I’ve got something here…
Flash forward two years: I was a three-time community college dropout who worked for the weekend and basically had given up my dreams of acting, writing, and directing. Sure, I had talked about writing the play into a full length, and even asked people if they would be interested in being a part of it, but secretly I had done nothing to make it happen. I was lying to my friends, my family, and myself. Before I knew it, I magically found myself kicked out of my house because of my growing drug and alcohol problems. So in true dramatic fashion, I packed my things into my tiny Honda Civic and moved to the state of Washington.
Jared Taylor Wilson and Lauren Sperling. Photo by Bree Pavey.
After the move, I got my act together and cleaned up. That’s when it happened — my good friend, Josh Sharp, called and asked how things were going and if I’d been working on the show. Naturally, I lied and said yes, but it got me thinking; could I actually write the show into a full length? Eight months later, I moved back to San Diego and had written the show. With some help from friends, I soon had the means to stage the show and it was welcomed with a warm reception. I thought I’d made it.
Flash forward another six months: I had auditioned and gotten accepted to AMDA, a performing arts school, here in Los Angeles. Throughout the course of my first semester, I had become roommates with a Mr. Tor Jenson Brown. He would later be the key to getting The Princes’ Charming produced yet again, only this time at a growing theater company here in Los Angeles – Loft Ensemble. It would be another two years before we started production at Loft, and without Mr. Brown, this would not have been possible.
Jared Taylor Wilson and John Sperry Sisk. Photo by Tor Jensen Brown
The Princes’ Charming is a show that speaks to my inner child. I say this because I grew up watching and being infatuated with Disney films and the enduring works of Mel Brooks. It reminds me of a time when it was okay to not understand the seriousness of issues because they were in some way funny, and because everything always worked out in the end, a time when my imagination could counteract any injustice the world could throw at me. I believe it’s that sense of naivete that makes The Princes’ Charming so close to me.
Something about comedy speaks to all of us – a sense of pure entertainment that I believe we all need in order to maintain an even balance in our expanding lives. That being said, The Princes’ Charming is, at its core, a true satire. It’s an homage to the stories and films that influenced the way that I thought things should be, when I was a child. As an adult, I realized that things can’t always be the way they are in fairy tales, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still hope.
Bree Pavey. Photo by Tor Jensen Brown.
All in all, my wish for this show is that it brings you joy, laughter, and entertainment. This show has saved my life, my sense of spirit, and my hope. Without people like Josh Sharp, Tor Jenson Brown, Adam Chambers, my cast, and everyone at Loft who has made this dream a reality, it wouldn’t be possible. And I wouldn’t have the honor of sharing it with you — I’d be dead in a ditch somewhere.
The Princes’ Charming, Loft Ensemble, 929 E. 2nd St.LA 90012. OpensMay 25. Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through June 30. Tickets: $20.www.loftensemble.com.213-680-0392.
Mitch Rosander was born in White Salmon, WA and grew up in San Diego. He graduated AMDA’s Studio conservatory in 2011. Credits include: Jeff in The Homecoming written and directed by Joseph Konigsberg, Dr. Scott in The Rocky Horror Picture Show directed by John Tirado, and John Lennon and Me directed by Luke Benning. The Princes’ Charming is Mitch’s directorial debut. He lives in North Hollywood.
LA STAGE Times garnered two nominations today for the 55th annual Southern California Journalism Awards sponsored by the Los Angeles Press Club. The awards will be presented at the club’s centennial celebration gala held June 23 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.
Columnist Don Shirley was cited in the category of best online entertainment commentary/review for his weekly LA STAGE Watch column. Other entries nominated in that category include commentary or reviews from The Hollywood Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Reason.
Contributor Jessica Koslow was nominated in the best online personality profile category for her “Mikhail Baryshnikov: A Russian in Paris,” in which the dance icon discusses the US premiere of In Paris at Broad Stage as well as what his 64-year-old body wants to express now. Other nominees include articles from The Hollywood Reporter, People.com, 89.3 FM-KPCC and Streetsblog.com.
The SoCal Journalism Awards recognize Los Angeles-based journalists in print, television and radio while promoting excellence in new and emerging media. This year’s President’s Award will be presented to Hollywood legend Carl Reiner.
LA Stage Day – Terence McFarland. Photo by Katie Gould
Does LA have one “theater community” or many? Often the latter notion seems more plausible. When we define communities within an area as far-flung as Greater LA, geography or ethnicity or race can create boundaries. So can the many varieties of theater and the sizes and budgets of theater companies.
Often, theater practitioners are likely to meet some of their colleagues who work outside their particular spheres of interest only by attending awards events. Of course, on these occasions, most of the time isn’t spent talking to each other but rather in wondering whether you or your own particular theater tribe will win. And most of those who attend theater awards ceremonies don’t win those awards, so potential disappointment is always waiting in the wings.
LA STAGE Alliance has recently been sponsoring one-night panel discussions on various subjects, in various locations, under the LA STAGE Talks banner. But this year it also decided to revive a former tradition of holding an annual one-day gathering for extended talk about LA theater, with no awards distractions. The result, LA STAGE Day, was on display Saturday at Cal State Los Angeles.
Let’s get this out of the way at first — a lot of the major players within LA theater did not attend LA STAGE Day. I spotted no more than a handful of artistic directors of high-profile companies, mostly on the 99-seat level. I certainly can’t say that every subset of LA theater was represented.
LA Stage Day – Anna B. Scott, Ph.D. Photo by Katie Gould
Panel discussions, which might have attracted some of those absent artistic directors as participants, weren’t the chosen format at LA STAGE Day. Instead, the day began and ended with short Ted Talks-like presentations by individuals, usually abetted by visual aids. In between these were concurrent small-group presentations and discussions on a wide range of subjects.
Total attendance was between 350 and 400 — which seemed somewhat more manageable and intimate than a larger conference. Enough people attended to fill the house at the final session of the day, but more people might have required extra seating outside the room. Enough points of view were represented to instigate some lively conversations.
That final session was not only the best-attended but also the most provocative session I attended. Essentially, most of the speakers — except one — were making the case that certain groups aren’t visible enough on the stages of our remarkably diverse city.
LA Stage Day – Evelina Fernandez. Photo by Katie Gould
First up was Evelina Fernandez representing Latino Theater Company and the complex it manages, Los Angeles Theatre Center. Of course, she was primarily there to argue that in a city that is likely to eventually become majority-Latino, the number of Latino faces and stories on most of our stages is still strikingly small.
However, in a conversation with me before she spoke, Fernandez said that members and supporters of Latino Theater Company also hold discussions about its own diversity. It recently presented a Canadian play, Habitat, which didn’t do well at the box office, at least in part because a lot of the company’s usual Latino supporters didn’t show up.
The subject of diversity in our theaters is wide open to the possibility of paradox. If every theater company in LA followed Fernandez’s advice and started programming more Latino material and using more Latino talent, would the loyal Latino audience start diversifying too, going to other theaters so much that there would eventually be less of a reason for the ethnically-specific Latino Theater Company to exist?
Among those who followed Fernandez, also representing particular constituencies, were DJ Kurs of Deaf West Theatre and Tim Carpenter of the EngAGE nonprofit, which develops arts programs at senior housing communities.
Then there were two speakers from the world of opera, defying the stereotype that opera is stuffy and ossified. Opera director and sometime arts administrator Thor Steingraber argued for reaching younger and less conventional audiences — “we have to be willing to meet our users where they’re at” and “expand our idea of who our supporters are” through unorthodox technology, among other avenues.
Yuval Sharon of the experimental opera company The Industry said “LA has the most open-minded audiences in the country” and advocated for every company to get “a brand-new point of view.”
LA Stage Day – Erin Quill. Photo by Katie Gould
The parade of appeals to open the doors for more participation by underrepresented groups culminated with lacerating remarks from Erin Quill about the “theatrical ethnic cleansing” she discerns in recent controversies over the casting of some Asian roles with non-Asians, at La Jolla Playhouse and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She mixed mordant humor — “Maybe I’m being too polite…damn those genes!” — with statistics on underrepresentation of Asian Americans in American theater with ringing rallying cries such as “yellowface is off the table!” and “there’s no reason to skin us and wear us culturally like a coat.” In her closing moments, she became visibly choked up in her fervor. It was LA STAGE Day’s most striking display of raw emotion.
Then there was Mark Seldis, Ghost Road Company’s producing director, who — alone among the speakers — spoke not about reaching wider audiences by opening up theater to new players or new methods. Instead, he spoke about the “pure artistic impulse” that his seven-member ensemble tries to honor, about the importance of the “process” more than the product. The company decided not to worry about establishing a home base at a theater, because it considers itself “more like an indie rock band than a theater company…the rock band doesn’t think about how to attract people who don’t like rock music or how to change the industry.” They and the members of Ghost Road “just do the art.”
LA Stage Day – Mark Seldis. Photo by Katie Gould
In the context of this program of speakers, Seldis sounded like an outlier — someone whose company probably wouldn’t do well in the competition for grants that are based on sociological as well as artistic factors and the ability to reach wider audiences. On the other hand, you’ve probably heard that creating “devised theater” is actually quite fashionable these days, and Ghost Road certainly falls into most definitions of that phrase. Yet Ghost Road — and many of these “devised” companies — are fairly homogeneous, at least by the standards of race, ethnicity, age and disability that are also sometimes factored into grants decisions.
Will grants givers have to choose between these two impulses? Will audiences? Or are audiences primarily interested in who’s going to get them to laugh, cry and/or think – more or less in that order?
LA Stage Day – Outdoor bazaar. Photo by Katie Gould
Every resident of LA should be able to find at least one theater company (and preferably more than one) that engages him or her on a very personal level. For many people, that is more easily achieved if at least some of the people on stage look or sound more like themselves than many of the actors currently occupying the stage. On the other hand, a much smaller group of people is at least occasionally interested in examining characters or milieus that do not remind them of home, that introduce them to others.
I wonder if LA is diverse enough that it can be the home for both extremely diverse companies and for companies such as Ghost Road that appear to have little interest in the usual definitions of diversity. A city as big and as eclectic and with as much talent as LA should be able to accommodate all theatrical tastes. But not every company should have to serve every taste.
Fresh labbies – Sheldon Epps session. Photo by Evita Castine
LA STAGE Times will run several dispatches from the annual Directors Lab West Lab, which began Saturday and will continue until next Saturday. On the first day, after gathering at the Lab’s home base at Pasadena Playhouse, most of the Lab participants joined other theater practitioners at LA STAGE Day, sponsored by LA STAGE Alliance on the campus of Cal State LA. Today’s report includes two perspectives on that event. But the activities moved back to Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, and those activities are also covered today.
Saturday, May 18
Check-in and Orientation, by Cindy Marie Jenkins
Kappy Kilburn, Sheldon Epps. Photo by Evita Castine
“I don’t know any theater that does anything new without the hope that it has a future life” — Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps.
A quiet morning greeted us in the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse. It’s rare to see so many directors and choreographers in the same place at the same time. We usually work as the only person in our specific role. It’s also rare that strangers strike up conversation so early in the lab, but that’s what happened. Steering committee members Kappy Kilburn, Che’Rae Adams, Jessica Bard, Ernest Figueroa and I gave the basic information on signing up for shows, how we communicate during the lab and a little history. Erny encouraged everyone to make the lab their lab. Even though the steering committee and alumni curated these sessions around a theme (2013 is “Diverge and Converge”), the participants steer the conversations.
Directors Lab West is hosted most years by the Pasadena Playhouse. This year the Playhouse grounds are exceptionally busy — 30 directors and choreographers travel in packs while staff simultaneously runs technical rehearsals for Sleepless in Seattle, the musical that opens at the playhouse on June 2. The theater’s artistic director (and Sleepless director) Sheldon Epps took time to greet the lab and offer his perspective on the playhouse’s recent history. It did seem funny at first to begin a week of inspiration with a tale of the playhouse’s recent but brief bankruptcy, but ultimately we all found lessons to learn from the journey. Epps is always very candid with the lab, giving professionals insight into how an artistic director makes decisions.
LA STAGE Day by Megan Kosmoski
LA STAGE Day. Photo by Evita Castine
“Now that you know better, do better” — Erin Quill
Fresh and new to LA, I got out of the cab to Cal State LA and followed the black and silver balloons into a small world of artists. Everyone seemed to know each other, buzzing around asking each other about upcoming projects, laughing about longstanding jokes. Through the day we scattered into dark lobbies, fluorescent classrooms, and large theaters. Every event seemed to focus on one thing — approach theater better.
The opening session, before we split into smaller groups, was filled with ideas and inspirational thoughts to get the ‘do theater better’ conversation started. Michelle Ramos-Burkhart brought up the need for change in how we approach and represent theater, citing the common stereotype that “theater is elite. Theater is culture…. And [that perception] is just not working for us anymore.” Tomas Benitez asked for a revolution within Western theater to expand beyond the traditional canon. Yosi Sergant opened our eyes to new ways to engage and involve the community.
LA STAGE Day – Craig Fleming. Photo by Katie Gould
My first small-group session was “Spreading the Love: How to Convince Anyone to Support the Arts” hosted by Arts For LA. It was about arming an artist on how to change misconceptions when involved in discussions about the importance of the arts. Next session was “Unpacking Engagement.” After briefly introducing ourselves we started a roundtable discussion around what the buzz word “engagement” means and how it’s utilized by theaters and artists. My last session was “Writing is Hard and Other Excuses,” in which Che’Rae Adams gave useful tips on dealing with writers block as well as a standard language when talking to playwrights in play development.
In the closing session, as the entire group re-united, we heard Deaf West Theatre’s DJ Kurs pledge, via signing and with a voice interpreter, “My goal is to bring together people from different cultures, different languages and see what happens.” Mark Seldis of Ghost Road Company reminded us to “just do the art.” Finally Erin Quill stole the show with an unbelievably powerful speech on the recent controversies over the lack of Asian-American actors in plays focusing on Asian stories.
Every room was a safe space, an environment excited and interested in discussion and feedback. Every session seemed to start with who are we, what are we doing, and how can it be better! It was a great way to kick off the lab.
LA STAGE Day by John R. Lacey
Upon arrival at the Cal State LA campus, we were greeted by volunteers from the LA STAGE Alliance, which did a wonderful job organizing the event under the leadership of Terence McFarland.
LA STAGE Day – Jonathan Dorf. Photo by Katie Gould
There were simultaneous seminars around topics such as diversity on the LA stage, support for the arts, dialects, artistic disciplines, writing and marketing plays, acting, community, new media, puppetry, engagement, jazz dance, “Blue Sky” sessions (articulate your biggest hopes), social selling, grand guignol, Shakespeare, African dance, stage management and house dance.
I was instantly attracted by the Alliance of LA Playwrights’ “PLAY!” session (the 60 minute-everything-you-need-to-know-about-playwriting-in-L.A.-marathon) moderated by Jonathan Dorf and Dan Berkowitz with presentations from Ron House and my friend Dale Griffith Stamos.
I also attended an informative discussion on our “Community and Big Data” moderated by IT wizard Mark Doerr (who is responsible for LA STAGE’s Arts census), who recommended Theatre Bay Area’s book Counting New Beans, edited by Clayton Lord, which presented the findings of the 2012 report on the two-year WolfBrown study about how to measure the intrinsic impact of theater on audiences, by Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin.
From there it was on to Cindy Marie Jenkins’ “The Social Sell: 10 Ways We Can Use Social Media for Audience Development” — and who doesn’t need a larger audience in LA? If you get a chance to participate in one of her seminars next year, don’t miss it- even if it’s to promote yourself!
LA STAGE Day – Erin Quill. Photo by Katie Gould
Then I ran down to “Writing is Hard and Other Excuses” by Che’Rae Adams, producing artistic director of the LA Writers Center, who has a great back-to-basics approach on author intent, concept sentences and character development — invaluable for any writer at any stage of their development.
The day culminated in the final large-group session, with inspirational remarks by Evelina Fernandez of Latino Theater Company, DJ Kurs of Deaf West, Tim Carpenter on revitalizing art for the aging, Yuval Sharon on re-imagining the opera industry, Thor Steingraber on reaching new audiences through new media, Mark Seldis of Ghost Theatre Co. on respecting the “pure artistic impulse” and Erin Quill — who gave us all a real lesson on diversity and made anyone who was ever in a production of South Pacific, Flower Drum Song or The King and I think again about Asian American casting.
LA STAGE Day. Photo by Evita Castine
And, as if that weren’t enough, there was an outdoor bazaar with tables where we could meet representatives of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, Sacred Fools Theater, Theatre of NOTE, LA Writers Center, Rogue Machine Theatre, Road Theatre, Actors’ Gang, Theatre @Boston Court, A Noise Within, Ghost Road, Loft Ensemble, Skypilot Theatre, Son of Semele Ensemble, 24th St. Theatre, LA Theatre Works, DOMA Theatre Co., Contra-Tiempo Dance Theatre, Cornerstone Theater, Emerging Arts Leaders, East West Players, Bootleg Theater, the great guys from Company of Angels, Center Theatre Group, Santa Monica Playhouse, Edgemar Center, Pacific Resident Theatre, La Mirada Theatre, Musical Theatre West, 2Cent Theatre Group, Theatre West Arts for L.A., California Lawyers for the Arts.
Even my union — Stage Directors & Choreographers Society — sent out the contract folks Mauro Melleno and Randy Anderson from New York. They don’t mess around when you need help!
Sunday, May 19
Bagels, Coffee & Contracts with SDC (Stage Directors & Choreographers Union) by John R. Lacey
SDC – Randy Anderson, Mauro Melleno. Photo by Evita Castine
Day two started with a one-on-one conversation with Mauro Melleno and Randy Anderson from the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society on compensation, subsidiary rights and collaborative agreements, right of first refusal, dispute resolution, arbitration and property rights (with some great true stories where the names had been changed to protect the innocent!) These guys mean business!
Dreamscape in KRUMP by Cindy Marie Jenkins
“I create theater for people who don’t go to the theater….I create theater because I want to change the world” — Rickerby Hinds
Alum Carrie Klewin Lawrence suggested that we listen to Rickerby Hinds and his KRUMP dance theater. A professor at UC Riverside, Hinds integrated hip hop into his work at first to encourage friends and non-practictioners to consider theater a viable form of entertainment. He dissected four performative hip hop elements (the DJ, MC, break dancers and graffiti) plus one informative element (knowledge) and how their origins in the culture sparked a theme to explore in performance. Hinds explained how hip hop informed culture and vice-versa. But what is KRUMP dancing? It began in the hip hop culture with people simply “releasing frustration creatively”, and evolved into an acronym, standing for “Kingdom radically uplifting mighty praise”. They demonstrated Dreamscape, a work in progress, which begins with a coroner’s report of the multiple bullet wounds inflicted by police on a 19-year-old African-American girl while asleep in her car. We journey through parts of her body as she gets shot with just the aid of voice, beat box and movement.. An astonishing meld of organic and trained movement not only attracts new audiences to theater, but opens the eyes of seasoned artists — that is, if the enthusiastic reaction of the lab is any indication.
Krump - John "Faahz" Merchant, Rhaechyl I. Walker. Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins
Krump - Carrie Mikuls, Rhaechyl I. Walker, John "Faahz" Merchant. Photo by Evita Castine
So, the Stones Could Talk? by Cindy Marie Jenkins
“Nothing builds community like rep” – Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
A Noise Within Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins
After seeing the last performance of Eurydice at A Noise Within, we had a talkback with artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. While we started, Geoff Elliott (who directed Eurydice) was pulled aside by an audience member who thought casting an African-American man as the “villain” perpetuated a stereotype. They left on good terms, but it sparked an interesting conversation about diversity (still on our minds from LA STAGE Day), not only on stages but in artistic leadership. Why aren’t there more non-white faces at A Noise Within? Beyond race and ethnicity, how does a married couple co-direct? How do they give notes to guest directors and how can directors collaborate without losing their vision? Most of us left with more questions than answers. A Noise Within’s dedication to perform shows in repertory, which Elliott believes is part of the company’s DNA, allows much more time (eleven months) for word of mouth to build. And we were told that when three companies create different material at the same time, it feeds the energy of the building as well, including the theater’s welcoming house staff.
How Do You.. Part 1
“We are ‘othering’ this person” – Mary Spence, DLW ’13
Round Table Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins
Round-tables are scattered throughout the week for unpacking the lab’s theme and questions that arise from sessions. It was no surprise that on Sunday, diversity was topic number one. During dinner, most groups large and small had discussed it, and all the ideas converged in one room for a rousing two-hour conversation on diversity, responsibility, and audience development. This session also marked the first time that all the lab participants — also known as “labbies” — got a chance to really talk to one another. Once we started, the questions flew. What do you need for authentic story-telling? Is it color-blind or color-intentional casting? How can we be aware of blind spots that unexpectedly create barriers to entry? Know why you seek diversity; don’t just do it out of obligation. We all agreed the topic can be tricky, but we simply made a pact that we would listen to understand and not listen just to reply. We all firmly believe there is a bigger danger in not talking about it.
Round Table Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins
There are many different ways to welcome diversity, too. One labbie told of her Othello with a Desmond instead of a Desdemona — and how the switch to a gay couple offended a lot of people, resulting in that theater losing its space. Others recounted tales of new audience members who were energized to see characters who look like themselves on stage. The question became: do we care about those people who are offended or focus on welcoming the new faces?
Later I saw that intern Allegra Breedlove had tweeted “Feeling very hopeful about the future of American theater after today’s round table discussion on diversity”
To which Kara Goldberg replied “We ARE the future of American theatre!”
And it’s only Day 2!
Directors Lab West is modeled after the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab in New York City. Like its NY counterpart, the Lab is a series of discussions, working sessions, panels and symposia with some of the nation’s and region’s leading directors, playwrights, designers and other theater practitioners. DirectorsLabWest.com . Follow #dirlabw
Golden participated in a Chicago Dramatists workshop in early 2009 in which each playwright would write a play for five provided actors, he says. During one early class, Golden was chatting with one of the actors, Cecil Burroughs, whom he had previously met. When he realized that Burroughs was from Los Angeles and a Dodgers fan, Golden commented on his own admiration for Jackie Robinson. Burroughs’ response, however, was less than enthusiastic.
“It was something like, ‘Eh, what’s the big deal?’” Golden remembers. “Here was me, on some level, as a white guy trying to connect with an African American and being like, ‘Certainly we will share the same opinion on this crucial historical figure’ — and we couldn’t.”
Golden says now that it was “dumb of him” to assume that he and Burroughs would be able to connect over Jackie Robinson, but out of that interaction was born an idea to write a play examining why someone like Burroughs might feel indifferent toward Robinson, and how those feelings could be justified.
That play became Cooperstown, which premiered in December 2009 at Theatre Seven of Chicago, where Golden is managing artistic director. Cooperstown will make its West Coast debut with Road Theatre Company beginning Friday at the new NoHo Senior Arts Colony, directed by Darryl Johnson.
The play is set in a diner in Cooperstown, New York, in 1962, when Robinson is about to become the first black man to enter the Hall of Fame. The historic moment and other civil rights issues of the day underscore the trials of each of the five characters: Junior, the diner’s hardworking manager who can’t get a promotion; Sharree, his activist-leaning little sister; Dylan, a waitress obsessed with Bob Dylan; the diner owner’s wife Grace; and Huck, an Ohio minor league pitcher who comes into town for the induction ceremony.
Burroughs played Junior in the original Chicago production and will reprise the role for Road’s production.
Golden says Cooperstown is more of an exploration of the characters and how their lives are affected — or not affected — by Robinson’s achievement than a rigidly historical piece. As with many watershed moments in history, Robinson’s induction into the Hall of Fame may not have had as much of an immediate, positive influence on people’s lives as we might assume, Golden says.
“There’s certainly a historical moment that has happened but that doesn’t necessarily make Junior and Sharree’s lives any better,” Golden says. “Those things are really monumental and should be celebrated, but it’s kind of folly to think that, in itself, makes everything better.”
Jackie Robinson, c. 1945.
Johnson, the director, says he immediately connected to Golden’s writing style when Road company member Alexa Shoemaker gave him Cooperstown to potentially include in the company’s annual Summer Playwrights Festival. The response to the staged reading of Cooperstown was so positive at the festival that it turned into a full-fledged production.
Although Johnson held an open casting after the reading, all five actors who performed the reading ended up keeping their roles for the play.
Cooperstown is “old-fashioned” storytelling, Johnson says, which he appreciates. “There’s just about every kind of love relationship in the story — a great brother-sister relationship, a budding young romance between two young people that are just cute as all get-out together, and then there’s a more bittersweet, deep love affair at the heart of it,” Johnson says. “Junior’s ultimate choice at the end of the day, with all the things he’s trying to do and all the ambitions he has, is ‘My place in the world is making sure my family is taken care of and that’s where I belong.’ I love that about it.”
The opening night of Cooperstown will mark the official gala opening of NoHo Senior Arts Colony’s new theater(although The Baby Project was the first professional production in the space, last February). Johnson excitedly points out the detail currently being put into Cooperstown’s set. A neon sign, jukebox and pastel-colored booths help to create an authentic ‘60s diner atmosphere, and the walls will soon be covered with baseball memorabilia. Johnson credits the design team, including set designer Desma Murphy, with bringing all the small details to life.
Cecil Burroughs and Ann Hu.
“By the time [Murphy] is done, I really think people are going to walk in here and ask for a menu,” Johnson says. “We want to brew coffee backstage so the room has a little of that scent of a diner when you walk in.”
Though Johnson and Golden have yet to meet in person, they’ve already bonded over baseball — Johnson is an Angels and Dodgers fan, Golden is a Reds fan — and Johnson thinks Golden will be pleased with the production when he comes to see it.
Johnson agrees that Cooperstown raises important questions about how much these great historical moments really affect people’s everyday lives. It also speaks to contemporary themes of race and the definition of family, he points out.
And it’s just a good story, told in a refreshingly simple and honest way, he adds.
“It’s just people with integrity,” he says. “Trying to figure it out and trying to work with each other and do their best.”
Cooperstown, The Road on Magnolia, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, 91601. Opens tonight. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through July 20. Tickets $34. www.roadtheatre.org. 818-761-8838.
Ensemble of “A Fried Octopus.” Photo by Justin Zsebe.
A Fried Octopus is about to open — an abstract dream that tries to tangle up the artistic minds of the present with those of the past, within a surreal night at the Bootleg Theater. Inspired by the women dancing in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec and other performers of the time, A Fried Octopus leaps into a pool of absinthe to find the divine feminine bubbling up. The male ideal of art surrenders. It’s an assemblage of text and movement that serves as a canvas, reminding us all of the beauty that can be found in ugly places.
Collaboration. Union. I am asked to describe my process in the first person and I instantly stumble for words. The team creating A Fried Octopus is in its final push toward opening night. We are short on sleep and constantly juggling schedules to find time where we can all meet and fall into a dream that welcomes the artists of the past into our current world.
Justin Zsebe. Photo by CURAphotography.com.
However, this process is far from a first person-narrative. This play is a dream slipping into and out of shared realities, realities formed and expanded by surrealists and performers — who, over decades and decades, slowly found partnerships next to each other, within one another’s writing. Those of the present day welcomed those of the past. And then they asked for more. They asked for actors and performers, dreamers and singers. This nascent Octopus wanted another arm.
So now there was a dream and actors meeting to play and imagine. Games. Jokes. Songs. Dances. Stories. Emotions. Images of the past reminded us about our current time and place, our moment of now…. Moments spent at the Bootleg Theater. And now… And now the words started to swirl and the actors took on greater and greater challenges and then there was something more. The young Octopus again asked for another arm.
It asked for space. Then light. It wanted clothes. It asked for sound. All swirling around a dream that was inspired by a painting, which was painted by a man who was inspired by a woman, who was actually a girl who simply wanted to dance and feel free. Freedom inspires love. And again we arrive at our moment of now and if ears perk up perhaps there is one last ask… the ask for an audience to come and share this surreal wild dream bent on absinthe and love.
That’s the amazing thing about theater, I think. So many arms coming together to create a wiggly living thing that is fascinating to watch. However, to avoid sentimentality, let’s cook that baby up and see what we’ve got. And after so much asking, A Fried Octopus just might have something to give.
Please join us at the Bootleg Theater during the limited run of A Fried Octopus.
A Fried Octopus, Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd, LA 90057. Opens tonight. Plays Thurs-Sat. 7:30 pm. Through June 8. Tickets: $20. www.bootlegtheater.org.
Justin Zsebe lives in Los Angeles and enjoys telling stories with passionate artists. He holds an MFA from UCLA’s department of theater, film and television. Zsebe’s past productions at the Bootleg include Nine Circles, The Fun Family Festival of Tragedy and the annual Janky Christmas Spectacular.
PREMIERES…Geffen Playhouse in Westwood is completing its 2013-2014 season with the debut of a solo work starring Annette Bening, performing a selection of monologues created and first performed by solo performance pioneer Ruth Draper, opening Apr 16, 2014. The title and director are yet to be revealed. This completes the previously announced nine-play Geffen season, performing in the Gil Cates and Audrey Skirball Kenis Theaters…BootlegTheater in Los Angeles is offering A Fried Octopus, “an original dream play that links the world of women in Toulouse-Lautrec‘s paintings to the men who loved them,” conceived and helmed by Justin Zsebe, based on research by artistic director Alicia Adams, created by the Bootleg ensemble, opening tomorrow…Also debuting Friday, at Celebration Theatre in Hollywood, is the LA premiere of At the Flash, “a fast-paced journey that juxtaposes five different decades whose stories collide and blend, bringing them all together on one night,” scripted by Sean Chandler and David Leeper, helmed by David Zak…Valley Village-based Luminario Balletis highlighting its fourth rep season with two premieres, performing May 31-June 2 at El Portal in NoHo. The new works include Brace…yourself, “an unforgettable travel dance theatre trip,” choreographed by Debra Lynne Brown; and Firebird Rising, a Stravinsky/electronica ballet/aerial multimedia showcase, helmed by Stephen Hues…
TUNER FARE…Broad Stage and LA Opera have united to co-produce the premiere of Dulce Rosa, wrought by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks, based on the Isabel Allende short story “Una Venganza” (“An Act of Vengeance”). With LA Opera general director Plácido Domingo conducting, the production opens tomorrow at Broad. It’s the inaugural project of the LA Opera Off Grand series, “devoted to new and eclectic operatic works presented in venues away from the company’s home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.”…Tony winner Lillias White (The Life),currently co-starring in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come And Gone at the Mark Taper Forum, is debuting her new cabaret show, A Woman On Love, at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, Mondays only, June 3 and 10, joined by power tenor Jake Simpson, accompanied by music director Abdul Hamid…While we’re focusing on cabaret, singer/dancer/thesp Neile Adams premieres her new song-and-story-fest, One Hell of a Ride, June 11, at Upstairs at Vitello’s in Studio City, helmed by Ted Sprague, accompanied by pianist/music director Andy Howe…2Cents Theatre Group is offering Jonathan Larson’s landmark rock tuner, Rent, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, helmed by Kristen Boulé, with musical direction by Morgan Fitch, opening May 24. It will run in repertory with Private Eyes by Steven Dietz, helmed by Shaunessy Quinn, opening May 30, running through June 30 at the Hudson Theatre Mainstage in Hollywood…
Ian Ruskin as Thomas Paine On Religion
AROUND TOWN… Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica is hosting two performances only of Amy Tofte’s FleshEatingTiger, helmed by director/choreographer Vincent Paterson, June 21 and 22. The surrealistic two-hander, featuring Sam Breen and Gabriela Trigo, “chronicles an affair under the influence.”…In Pasadena, A Noise Within (ANW) continues this season’s Words Within Wednesday night play reading series with four free, one-night-only readings this summer: The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz (June 5); August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata (June 17); Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, which originally premiered in 1947 at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, starring Charles Laughton (July 24); and Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill (Aug 14)…Long Beach Playhouse is offering Vigils, focusing on a widow’s reluctance to let go of her deceased husband’s soul, scripted by Noah Haidle, helmed by Olivia Trevino , opening June 15…Scripter/thesp Ian Ruskin is offering a pair of biographical solo outings at a pair of spaces. Ruskin’s From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks — inspired by the life of labor leader Harry Bridges – opens May 23 at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood, closing May 30. Then it moves to Electric Lodge in Venice, opening June 20, closing June 27. His second bio spotlight, To Begin The World Over Again: The Life Of Thomas Paine, opens May 24 at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood, closing June 2. Then it re-opens at Electric Lodge in Venice on June 21, closing June 30…
EXTENDING…No sooner had Burbank-based Colony Theatre confirmed the May 19 closing of its successful Rodgers and Hart bio tuner, Falling For Make Believe — book by Mark Saltzman, helmed by Jim Fall – than it announced that it is bringing it back, re-opening June 6, reaching out until June 30…Do Lord Remember Me, a look at the past through the words of ex-slaves, scripted by James de Jongh, helmed by Wilson Bell, continues at Chromolume Theatre on Washington Blvd, through May 26…In Hollywood, Blank Theatre is extending Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, based on Peter and Wendy by JM Barrie and scripted by Michael Lluberes, helmed by Michael Matthews, through June 16…
INSIDE LA STAGE HISTORY…On July 20, 1945, I celebrate my seventh birthday by attending the matinee show at the Gayety Theatre, located at 523 S. Main Street in downtown LA. The Gayety is a dedicated burlesque house, headlining stripper Ann Corio and featuring actor/baggy pants comic Joe Yule, father of Joe Yule Jr (also known as Mickey Rooney). I am sitting in the first row, a guest of Mr. Yule, who is a friend of my dad. I don’t quite get the relevance of Miss Corio’s talents but I think Joe Yule is the funniest man on earth. After the show, Yule escorts me back to my dad’s restaurant, located a half block away in the Pacific Electric Building at 6th and Main. Along the way, Yule spouts, “The Gayety has been called a lot of names over the years and I’ve worked every one of them.” Indeed. When it is constructed in 1905 as the main floor of the Waldorf Hotel, the theater is called the Novelty, changing to New Peoples in 1906 and just Peoples by 1909. It features second-tier vaudeville acts and silent film shorts. In 1913, it is operated by Charles Alphin who renames it the Olympic, then changing it to the Alphin in 1914. Later that year, it is taken over by Mr. J.A. Quinn who titles it Quinn’s Century. It continues as the Century after Quinn’s tenure until 1916, evolving away from vaudeville and into burlesque, while continuing to have a matinee and evening slate of films, mostly lighthearted comedies. Over the years the name changes continue, from the Omar(1917-22) to the Moon (1923-36). It becomes the Gayety from 1938 onward, featuring the country’s most famed strippers and burlesque acts. By 1960, the Waldorf Hotel continues to operate, but the Gayety closes. In 1980, Mickey Rooney reveals, “If you want to see me dad’s routines, you’re going to have to catch Sugar Babies on Broadway. Ann (Miller) and I do ‘em all.”…
Julio Martinez-produced and hosted Arts in Review celebrates the best in LA-area theater and cabaret, Fridays (2 to 2:30 pm) on KPFK Radio (90.7FM).
Michael Peretzian directs Laurie Okin in “Dying City.” Photo by John Flynn.
Award-winning stage director Michael Peretzian is happily giving his undivided attention to staging the LA premiere of Obie winner Christopher Shinn’s two-characterDying City, starring Burt Grinstead and Laurie Okin, opening Saturday at Rogue Machine on Pico Boulevard. Taking a break in Rogue’s prop-littered lobby prior to resuming rehearsals, Peretzian remarks, with an accompanying chuckle, “I don’t have a day job I have to go back to anymore. This is great.”
Although few audience members who might have attended a Peretzian-directed play during the last 30-plus years and looked up his bio in a theater program would have known it, Peretzian was one of the most successful literary agents in the US, rising to the position of senior vice president at William Morris before moving to Creative Artists Agency in 2000. “I’ve always kept the agency career out of my bios and credits,” he affirms. “I didn’t want that stereotype of agent as flesh peddler to any way be influencing peoples’ feelings about my work. So, I’ve always kept that to the side.”
Peretzian does admit that the huge plus side of his agency career was the company he kept. During his agency tenures he has represented such notable playwrights as Mark Medoff, Beth Henley, Terrence McNally, Christopher Hampton, Michael Cristofer, Hugh Leonard, Steven Sater, Zach Helm, John Madden, Alexander Dinelaris, Christopher Shinn and many more. “Of course, I loved working with some of the most talented writers in the world. But by 2008, I knew it was time for me to leave.
Laurie Okin and Burt Grinstead in “Dying City.”
“The agency business had changed so completely. When you work at a big talent agency, eight hours of your work week are spent in these very big meetings. I remember one meeting focused on the idea that if we could represent the writers who write the sequel to the movie Transformers, we could make a lot of money. I realized that after 38 years, I didn’t care. I was getting bored and feeling restless and I left. I had a successful career for over three decades. I did very well and I felt I could afford it. And now, I can do the things I want to do, direct the plays I want to direct. I am really looking forward to living out this next chapter in my life.”
At this moment, he is happily wrapped around Dying City, which came to him — as did many of his past directorial efforts — because of his agency connections. “When I was still an agent, CAA asked me to become involved with Christopher Shinn’s career, in terms of film and television. So, I went to see this play, Dying City, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York [in 2007]. It made such an impression on me, I thought, ‘Wow’.”
According to the program, this one-act work plays out “as a psychological showdown of wits when, unannounced, Peter [Grinstead] shows up at the apartment of his sister-in-law [Okin]. Having not spoken since the funeral of her husband, Peter’s twin brother, the two now face-off as more questions surrounding the suspicious death resurface through flashbacks and old letters.”
“It was one of those situations where, after the play was over, I just thought about it for days. It offers no easy answers but it just resonates. And a lot of it is — the text is not the play. The dialogue is not the play. It is what they’re not talking about that makes the play. Christopher is a great student of psychology, having gone to psychotherapy five times a week. But this is not a psychological study. It is very natural, very real, but it has all these implications. It is like a mystery that plays out in the conversation between these two people who know each other well — intensely revealing as it goes but never indicating or relying on exposition. Their degree of empathy and sensitivity to one another is so strong, they see each other in three dimensions.”
Once Shinn gave Peretzian the go-ahead to stage his work (subject to casting), the director began his journey to find a house in which to stage it. “I wanted to try the Mark Taper Forum, but that wasn’t available. So, I went to Gil Cates at the Geffen and they had it for about six months. When I hadn’t heard anything from Gil, I decided to do a reading of the play at Pacific Resident Theatre. It was a nice reading and they were kind of interested in producing it. So, I wrote to Gil Cates, informing him that I had interest from another theater and I’d like to pursue it. Well, Gil called a couple of days later and left a message on my voicemail, stating he wanted to meet me for a drink. He wanted to talk about the play. Then, a few days after that, he died suddenly of a heart attack.
“Then I found Rogue Machine. In this production, I am coming out of the agency closet, because it is really those clients I’ve worked with who have won Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards and Oscars — being with them and watch their process and read their scripts – that has taught me a lot. I owe them thanks for letting me be part of their wonderful careers and for leading me to being a stage director.”
Peretzian didn’t become a literary agent so he could abscond with his clients’ literary goodies, but he certainly let many know he was available and quite able to represent their work on stage. “When I first launched myself into directing, Michael Cristofer was a very important client of mine. After The Shadow Box — which was originally produced by the CTG in 1975 — won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award , I asked Michael if I could direct the first Equity Waiver production of the play and bring it back to Los Angeles. He said OK and I staged it at Theatre 40 [in 1979].
“Happily, we got some really nice reviews. Michael, who wasn’t in LA at the time, read the reviews and asked Gordon Davidson to check out the production. Gordon came with Madeline Puzo to see it. Later, out in the parking lot, Gordon — God bless him — said, ‘You know, you had something we didn’t have in our production [which Davidson had directed]. How would you like to start directing some stuff at the Mark Taper Forum?’ My first job for Gordon was A Christmas Memory at the Itchey Foot — a CTG developmental outlet [in the recently demolished restaurant on the northwest corner of Temple and Figueroa]. That led [in 1984] to Talking With by Jane Martin at Taper Too [which occupied what is now Inside the Ford, in Hollywood] That was a very important nod and it encouraged me to do more of this.”
Laurie Okin and Burt Grinstead.
Peretzian continued to balance his enormous responsibilities as a literary agent for some of the world’s most talented writing talent with his increasing desire to direct worthy stage works. For his 1983 staging of Hugh Leonard’s A Life at Theatre 40, he received a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. He had earlier staged Leonard’s Summer there. “Sylvie Drake of the Los Angeles Times was most supportive, suggesting I stage both Leonard plays in repertory. I would love to do that.”
Peretzian feels he got his love for the theater organically, since his father was an actor in Armenian theater in New York. The Peretzian family moved to New Jersey when he was six months old. His father died of a heart attack when Michael was 15. Since his mother’s two daughters from a previous marriage were living in Hollywood, California, Michael soon found himself on the West Coast. “I went to Le Conte Junior High, Hollywood High and then UCLA for seven years. I got a bachelor’s degree in motion picture production because I thought I wanted to be an actor. This was in 1959. Then I got a masters degree in the history of theater. During this time, I was acting a lot in school productions. Then I got an MFA in directing for the theater. I subsequently taught at Pasadena Playhouse while it still had a credited conservatory. Of course, the Playhouse went bankrupt and I had to get a job.
“That’s when I landed in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. I fantasized I could then leap to a job at one of the studios like Warner Brothers or Columbia, working in the story department. One day, I saw Steve McQueen walking down a hall at William Morris. I was surprised how short he was. Shortly after that, a check arrived in the mailroom for McQueen. It was his profits from the film Bullitt in the second year. Now, the procedure was to get the check to Mr. McQueen’s accountant, because William Morris couldn’t take its 10 percent directly from McQueen’s check. The accountant got the check and then issued the agency its check.
“So, my supervisor told me to take McQueen’s check in this envelope and walk it to his accountant’s office down Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills and then come back. I got about two blocks before I carefully peeled back the scotch tape that was loosely holding the envelope closed so I could see how much it was. It was a check for $1,200,000. Here I was, 28 years old, walking down Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills with over a million dollars in a pocket next to my heart, which started to beat very fast now. That’s when the penny dropped and I thought, ‘Maybe I should stick around here.’ And because I was interested in writers and not glamorous movie stars, I was promoted very quickly and that’s how it all started.”
Burt Grinstead and Laurie Okin.
Peretzian has no complaints about William Morris or CAA, which he feels were always appreciative of his efforts as an agent. “Creative Artists Agency was very generous when I left and paid for me to travel to New York and London so I could have one-on-one dinners and lunches with each one of the clients I was involved with, so I could tell them personally. So, at the Palm in New York, I was having drinks with Alex Dinelaris and told him I wanted to leave and direct plays. He told me I had to direct Red Dog Howl — centered on the Armenian genocide. Within 15 minutes, I had the job directing Red Dog Howl with Kathleen Chalfant, which we ended up staging at El Portal in North Hollywood.
“I know the world of theater is not the same as it was 38 years ago,” Peretzian affirms. “But during that time I endeavored to elevate the craft of playwriting in the minds of my clients. Anytime I signed a playwright, I would always say, ‘I’ll represent you and try to get you work writing for film and television, but you must write at least one play a year.’ I also worked worked very hard to establish some rapport with literary agents in New York and to give them a sense that Los Angeles has some small theaters that are worth their clients’ while, maybe not in terms of money but in terms of exposing the work to people who potentially might want to hire them for film or television.
“I know it is not easy. I am on the advisory board of the Ojai Playwrights Conference and I volunteered to be on the reading committee. We read over 500 plays for this next festival. I discovered a lot of emerging playwrights are writing about the internet. There is also a lot of whining about aging parents and Alzheimer’s. Many of these plays read as if they were showcases for getting a job writing for Lifetime TV. Dying City is not one of those plays. I am proud to be able to bring it to LA.”
Dying City, Rogue Machine, 5041 Pico Blvd., LA 90019. Opens Saturday at 5 pm. Sat 5 pm, Sun 7 pm, Mon 8 pm, through July 8. Memorial Day weekend schedule: Thu May 23 8 pm, Sun May 26 7 pm. Dark on June 24. Tickets: $30. www.roguemachinetheatre.com. 855-585-5185.
Alexandra Goodman and Bo Foxworth of the “Putnum” cast in “The Crucible.” Photo by FacetPhotography.com.
Actors, more than directors, are sometimes recognized on the street. But in this case, two of those actors are directing.
Armin Shimerman is known as the Ferengi bartender Quark on the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series (along with two others). And Geoffrey Wade pops up regularly on television series, including The Bold and the Beautiful and Law & Order. They have now happily stepped off stage to co-helm The Cruciblefor the Antaeus Company in North Hollywood (and to co-star in an Antaeus promotional video in which they mock their own co-directing — see the link at the end of the article).
“Every theater company should have a signature style,” says Shimerman, sitting across from Wade in the theater’s well-stacked library, walled on two sides by shelves stuffed with play scripts and research material to support every text there. “And in our case we are doing Crucible as presentational theater.”
Armin Shimerman and Geoffrey Wade
Company members commonly suggest plays to study, read and perform at Antaeus. In this case, Arthur Miller’s 1953 story of the 1692 Salem witch trials, which he wrote as a metaphor for the witch hunts in the search for Communists in Hollywood, first appeared in last year’s Antaeus ClassicsFest in July. The artistic team asked Shimerman, who had helmed readings but not full productions yet, to direct the reading.
“Sadly one of my friends died,” Shimerman says. “She lived in New York. I felt compelled to attend her memorial service, but that was going to conflict with the last days of rehearsal for the reading and the first couple days of performance. I looked around the room very quickly and saw Geoff. I approached him and said I had to go and I’d like to make him the co-director.”
Wade, who had recently directed productions of Harold Pinter’s 40-minute Celebration by Antaeus’ A2 Ensemble and Joe Orton’s Ruffian on the Stair at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center around the corner, agreed. Shimerman took his leave and says he was gob-smacked upon his return. “The reading was in a much better place than I had envisioned it. He brought such wonderful characterizations and theatrics and an understanding of the play.”
Later, when the artistic directors told Shimerman they’d like him to direct a full production, he recalls that he told them, “‘Look, what you saw was a combination of what I did and what Geoff did. So if you’re going to hire me, you need to hire us both.’ Geoff readily agreed; well, maybe not readily, but he agreed.” They laugh.
Wade says, “It was an interesting bit of serendipity. Armin had the original concept and did the blocking, and he very generously said to feel free to work on it. I didn’t change any structure or anything like that. We were able to do some detail work and everyone seemed to be happy with it.”
Devon Sorvari and Christopher Guilmet (top) and Kimiko Gelman and Bo Foxworth (bottom) as Elizabeth and John Proctor. Photos by Geoffrey Wade.
He remembers that in a Cincinnati production of Stepping Out he was in, the director had to leave for a couple days toward the end of the rehearsal process. “His wife was having a baby. So the artistic director came in and completely re-directed it. He literally flipped all the staging 180 degrees and did all kinds of stuff — I felt so sorry for that guy! I certainly didn’t do that, but I made some contributions.” And he improved some of the blocking, says Shimerman.
Shimerman adds, “If we have two casts and two stage managers for every show [as Antaeus does], why not have two directors? Geoff and I think as one. Early on we said to the cast there will be no differences of opinion. If Geoff says this is so, then Armin says this is so. And so far that’s 99% true.”
What about the one percent?
Wade says, “Just the other day I told Armin I thought he should do X and he said ‘No! I’ve always seen it as Y!’”
“And he was very nice about it,” Shimerman says. “We’re reasonable men and we listen to each other’s point of view.”
Presenting The Crucible
“One of the things the artistic directors said when they saw the reading last year,” Shimerman notes, “was that they wanted that presentational style in the production as well. We have tried to maintain that. When you go to Public Theater in New York, there’s a type of theater you expect to see. If you go to the Mime Troupe in San Francisco, there’s a style you expect to see. I’m not trying to create an Antaeus style; I’m just trying to incorporate this style into our readings.”
The result, he says, is seeing The Crucible through a different facet of the prism.
As Wade puts it, “You may see this presentational style in readings in particular when you have the performers facing straight forward instead of facing each other. It’s as if you’re talking to someone in a mirror. I think whenever we do this, someone says, oh, that’s Frank Dwyer‘s style, one of the original founders of this company. The actor tends not to get lost in the script or in each other.”
It’s a little easier in a reading, he admits, because the actors stand and hold scripts, much as they would in radio theater, standing before a mic. “When you translate it to actual scene work, it’s a little different, but the audience reaction to the reading we did was,’ oh, I never got the story so clearly before’.”
Ann Noble and Saundra McClain of the “Putnam” cast.
Shimerman chimes in, “There’s also something classical theater-oriented in this style. It is not unusual for a Shakespearean actor to stand on stage with a group of actors around him and present a speech as though it’s a monologue or soliloquy. In that you talk to the audience, but in this case you’re talking to another character through the audience. In a sense, we are a classical theater and we are using this classical approach, but this time, for Miller.”
“It actually involves the audience even more,” says Wade. “That’s the reaction we got to the Classicsfest audience in July. In a more traditional presentation, it’s like you’re watching the scene like a fly on the wall, the invisible fourth wall. But there’s no denying that to connect with another character an actor has to send his energy and emotions and intentions out through the audience, and it comes back around like a boomerang.”
Explaining The Crucible
The directors agree The Crucible is a wonderfully enduring play. Its themes are many and varied. Wade says, “It’s not just about the historical incident of the witchcraft trials in Salem in 1692. It’s not just about a reaction to the Communist witch hunts of 1953; he’s acknowledged he wrote this in reaction to them. But as often happens as art, it became larger than its inspiration.”
It’s among Miller’s most produced plays — Theatre Banshee produced it two years ago in Burbank, just two miles east of the current Antaeus rendition. Shimerman performed it in high school. But Wade admits he is probably the only actor in America who has never been in it. “It deals with broadly human, but particularly American, themes,” Wade says. “They never go away. They’re as much a part of the fiber that makes us up as anything else. It’s why you can read [19th century philosopher and historian] de Tocqueville and find things that still apply to our society.”
Shimerman nods. “The mix of church of state, the debate all of us in this country are debating every day, is a part of The Crucible, and the play echoes those debates even though it was written half a century ago.”
John Prosky, Steve Hofvendahl and Aaron Lyons of the “Proctor” cast.
Miller wrote it in a manner unlike that of his other significant works. “It is not the Arthur Miller we are used to hearing in Death of a Salesman or All My Sons. There is a sense of historical language in the play. But it is amazing, because we have such good actors, and we are being true to Mr. Miller, there is less of that [old language sound] every day; it becomes more modern. I seem to remember that he did, indeed, depend on someone who was doing research in the King James Bible.
That style gives the work an iambic pentameter. Wade recently was listening to an actor and hearing the ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum speech pattern. “It’s the rhythm of the King James Bible and Shakespeare and Lincoln. It was a wonderful flow to it.”
And the characters so earnestly reflect the times. “The scenes between Proctor and Elizabeth or Proctor and Abigail are wonderful in outlining what a litigious, contentious society this was. Americans, even when they were colonists, loved to sue each other, bickering over property lines and whose cow was this — that’s who we come from. Many of those scenes have the same kind of passion and human nuance that Miller is so good at.”
He shows us people dealing with difficult, knotty problems. “None of these people is perfect. They all have feet of clay at some point. John Proctor is a moral failure in his own eyes. Elizabeth Proctor is a good, upright woman, but maybe she’s too rigid and cold. Miller’s characters are appealing to us because their nuances and quirks make them so human to us.”
“That’s what we’re going for,” adds Shimerman, “the humanity in our characters. We have no desire to have heroes on the stage. We have a desire to show humanity as it is and one man in particular being put through a crucible, a trial by fire, and coming through the other side.”
While Wade has never acted in the play, he did see one and a half performances of it. He caught a friend’s performance in drama school in England and the last half of one at a well-respected American theater that he declines to identify. “I was unimpressed with it. They did it with pilgrim hats and buckle shoes and we are not doing pilgrim hats and buckle shoes.”
William C. Mitchell and Philip Proctor of the “Putnam” cast.
This version takes place in modern times, allowing the directing duo to change the gender of some of the characters and place them in clothing that simply reflects people suppressed or restricted by their religion.
Says Shimerman, “We take elements from the Mennonites or Amish or Hasids, communities where God is present in every moment of their lives. One of the reasons we are not [using 17th century dress] is we believe the arguments in The Crucible are today’s arguments, not merely something that happened in 1692. By putting it in modern times, we are definitely saying, no, these issues are just as current as anything in the news today.”
Directing The Crucible
Antaeus has usually hired outside directors. But it used one of its own actors, Gigi Bermingham, to direct You Can’t Take It With You in 2012. “Who better?” asks Shimerman. “We know the strengths our actors can bring.”
“Directors often come out of a literary tradition,” Wade says. “They sometimes don’t quite understand the actors’ problems. An example — I was in a production of Much Ado About Nothing in a regional theater and I was Dogberry. It’s a very good theater and the director had written a lot of books and was the head of theater department at a big Midwestern university and knew his stuff. He could tell you wonderful stories about what the characters would’ve done once they left the stage: they’d go to an inn and eaten this and sung these songs, but it was completely useless in terms of figuring out what to do in a scene. He was fascinating and erudite and completely useless as a director.”
The pair has managed to endure, with each of the directors complementing the other’s talents. It doesn’t hurt, says Wade, that it’s a “cracking good story.”
The Crucible, Antaeus Theatre Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601. Opens May 16 and 17. Through July 7. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. Through July 7. Tickets $30-34. www.antaeus.org. 818-506-1983.
**All “Proctor” cast photos by Karianne Flaathen, all “Putnam” cast photos by FacetPhotography.com
Orlando Chavez and Michelle Ramos in “Long Way Go Down.” Photo by Johnny Patrick Yoder.
During the 2008 presidential race, GOP veep hopeful Sarah Palin snidely quipped that candidate Barack Obama “palled around with domestic terrorists.” Now a play by the son of those revolutionaries Palin alluded to is having a West Coast premiere — and its ripped-from-the-headlines subject deals with an issue President Obama and Congress are currently grappling with.
Set in the Southwestern desert, Long Way Go Down is an immigration-themed four-hander by Zayd Dohrn, whose parents, Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers, belonged to the ultra-left Weather Underground (aka the Weathermen), the notorious ’60s/’70s militants, who advocated — and carried out — armed struggle against the U.S. government. (Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon play former members of this radical organization in the recently released movie The Company You Keep.)
Zayd Dorhn & Don K. Williams
Long Way Go Down is being presented in LA by a stage venue with a lofty leftist lineage, the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company at the Art of Acting Studio. This is the West Coast branch of Manhattan’s Stella Adler Studio of Acting, which was founded in 1949 and mounted LongWay Go Down in 2010. The artistic director of this bi-coastal theater operation is Tom Oppenheim, grandson of Stella Adler, the fabled acting teacher and Stanislavsky Method apostle.
Harold Clurman and Adler co-founded the legendary Group Theatre, which presented the 1935 Broadway premiere of that proletarian theater classic, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. It’s a long march from the pro-union Lefty to the pro-immigrants’ rights Long Way Go Down.
According to the latter’s director, Don K. Williams, “One of the things we try to do here with the Studio and Harold Clurman Lab Theater is do plays that are sociologically relevant. The first play we ever did here was Waiting for Lefty [in 2011]. Our first production was speaking to not only the time it was done, not only to the history of our Studio, but to the union strike going on in Wisconsin. Long Way Go Down speaks eloquently and personally — and violently — to the struggle for people involved in illegal immigration and the smuggling of [undocumented] immigrants across the border and people trying to have a better life.”
Although not all of the Clurman Lab’s productions are explicitly political, Williams, who is also associate artistic director of the bi-coastal Adler outfit, goes on to say, “The whole concept Tom took from Stella and infused in the theater companies is that we have to grow as human beings and entertain at the same time. As opposed to the 1920s and the early ’30s, a lot of the theater they were seeing was entertainment only. The well-made play, the cocktail and witty banter.” But Oppenheim and Adler before him “saw a need for a social consciousness,” and for asking “what do we have to say about the world around us? — that being a driving force behind what we do.”
Johnny Yoder, who is Long Way Go Down’s producer and director of the Art of Acting Studio’s school, adds: “We try to instill in all of our actors that they’re socially involved, that they’re socially conscious, that they are actors who are living, breathing and aware of the world going on around them. That’s our focus. Harold Clurman wanted that too,” as did Adler — Clurman’s wife from 1940 to 1960.
Dan Evans and Michael Keith Allen
Dohrn is proud to belong to this tradition of a theater of conscience. “I like the connection. I think it’s a continuum that’s fascinating for me as somebody interested in theater history and also to be a part of. Tom Oppenheim… is most definitely carrying on socially conscious theater that the Group Theatre pioneered in New York a generation ago. So Tom has been very supportive of my work and very interested in work in the tradition of Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre that tries to say something about the political state of our society.
“Clifford Odets is a big influence for me and this play. In the same way that he was writing about class and work issues of his time, I’m trying to write a similar thing about our moment. It just happens that right now the underclass is immigrant… and English is not their native language. Odets’ pioneering of a kind of naturalistic speech was considered revolutionary at the time and was an attempt to bring onstage voices that hadn’t been heard before. This play, which is partly in English, partly in Spanish, and mostly in a hybrid of the two, is also an attempt to show characters onstage who maybe haven’t been seen onstage that much. They’re certainly not characters you’d find in a drawing room comedy; they’re people the average theatergoing audience might not have come in contact with.”
Dohrn says that while the multi-national coyote and Mexican characters have language barriers, “there’s lots of action onstage, it’s very intense… there’s plenty of sex and violence going on onstage that doesn’t require translation.”
The origins of this ongoing immigration imbroglio can be traced back to the Mexican-American War, which — 120 years before Bernardine Dohrn, William Ayers and millions of others in the “flower power” generation opposed the Vietnam War — was the first widely unpopular war in U.S. history that generated protests. Philosopher Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay a war tax, and on the floor of the House Congressman Abraham Lincoln denounced President Polk for perpetrating a war of aggression.
“I don’t know that this was at the top of my mind, but certainly in the play some characters talk about some of the historical resonance,” Dohrn says. “They talk about Ulysses Grant and his role in Mexican-American relations…There was a time when North and South America were populated entirely by indigenous people and there was a time colonists came and changed those identities to these new national identities, and suddenly you had an idea of Mexicans versus Americans…I didn’t think about the particular parallel with my family, but I am certainly always interested in how these kinds of dynamics arise historically and how conflicts framed in different guises come back to haunt them.”
The younger Dohrn was born in 1977 while Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers were fugitives hiding out from the FBI and other authorities. “I was born at home in an apartment in New York; there was no hospital because we were living underground at the time,” says Dohrn, adding with a laugh, “I don’t remember the details.”
He was named after a friend of his parents, Zayd Malik Shakur, who had a Black Panther Party pedigree and “died before I was born” in a May 1973 shoot-out on the New Jersey Turnpike with state troopers. This gunfight was recently in the news, when the FBI observed the incident’s 40th anniversary by making another Black Panther named Shakur, Assata Olugbala Shakur, the first woman on its most wanted terrorist list. She had been convicted of the first degree murder of N.J. State Trooper Werner Foerster in the shoot-out but subsequently escaped from prison and fled to Cuba, where Fidel Castro granted her political asylum. (Dohrn’s mother had been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for three years.) Shakur, aka Joanne Chesimard, was reportedly the step-aunt of the late gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur.
William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, December 3, 1980. Photo by KNOBLOCK / AP.
Dohrn says he never met the hip-hop icon or Assata, but just as Tupac’s genealogical connections helped forge his “thug life” aesthetic, Zayd’s family background, growing up on the lam, shaped his awareness and artistry. Nevertheless, his unusual childhood “all felt, for me, very normal. Most people who grow up even in strange circumstances, it’s hard when you’re a kid to have anything to compare it to and to be able to know that it’s strange. For me — I knew we were hiding out from the authorities, but I didn’t know much about why, except that I knew that my parents had been against the Vietnam War…We had a family, I went to school, my parents worked, so there was nothing in our day-to-day life that was especially strange, except maybe for the fact that my parents were deeply, politically committed, and there was a lot of talk about politics in my house,” recalls Dohrn.
In 1970, during the Vietnam War, Bernardine Dohrn issued “a declaration of a State of War” against the US government, and the Weather Underground bombed official property that symbolized the powers-that-be, including the US Capitol Building, Pentagon, military recruiting stations and NYPD police stations. Zayd was about four or five when his fugitive folks decided to turn themselves in. William and Bernardine did not “serve long prison sentences. Most of the charges were dropped due to FBI misconduct and the statute of limitations. A few years later, my mother did about a year in jail for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigation… Former members of their organization [as well as Tupac’s stepfather, BLA member Mutulu Shakur] were involved in the Brinks [armored car] robbery in upstate New York, and the prosecutor tried to compel my mother to cooperate with the investigation of her friends, and she refused,” recounts Zayd. He grew up mostly in Harlem until the age of 13, when the family moved to Chicago because his father got a job at the University of Illinois.
Instead of becoming, literally, a bomb thrower, Zayd — whose lightning-rod mother had issued communiqués — turned to the theater as a means of communications. “I’ve always known I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid, of books or movies,” Dohrn recalls. “I was always interested in theater and going to Shakespeare plays and things like that when I was a kid. But the first time I thought of it as a potential career was probably in college, when I took some playwriting classes at Brown. I went to graduate school; I got my MFA in playwriting at NYU, and then went on to be writer in residence at the Juilliard School for a couple of years.”
Dohrn’s website reveals details of nine of his plays. “They’ve all been produced, around the country: New York, Off-Broadway, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, New Orleans…They’re published by Samuel French…I started doing it right after college. Wrote my first play, Shameless, when I was 22 and it was produced first in Boston, then in New York…They’re all dramas and they’ve all got dark comedy in them. They’re all political dramas and fairly dark in tone…The unifying theme is a dark look at the political and social forces that make people do the things they do.”
This, of course, also applies to artists. Even when they tackle topical matters, playwrights bring the baggage of their own selves to the work at hand and see the world through the prism of their own subjectivity. Dohrn’s oeuvre is arguably a case study wherein the political is fused with the personal.
Consider Sick, which won the Kennedy Center’s Jean Kennedy Smith Playwrighting Award and Dallas-Fort Worth Critics Award for best new play, 2008 (not to be confused with Erik Patterson’s play of the same name, which played LATC in 2010). Dohrn describes his Sick as being “about a family of allergy sufferers who never leave their house because they’re afraid of environmental collapse. It’s about family, paranoia and the environment.” A blurb at his website states Sick “toys with post-9/11 phobias.” Perhaps — but the way Dohrn relates the plot during this interview, it also sounds strikingly like how a child whose parents are the subject of an intense manhunt might metaphorically view the world.
Outlining Long Way Go Down’s border-crossing plot, Dohrn says, “the desperation at certain moment leads to outbursts of violence” — which can also describe how his militant parents allegedly turned to armed struggle in their reaction to the devastation in Vietnam and racial injustice at home.
“Artists mine their own experience and history for what they write,” Dohrn muses. “But I don’t do it particularly consciously. So yes, it’s true that the play in some ways is about being underground and hiding and a lot of my plays have those themes, but it’s not something I go to as a conscious source of inspiration. It’s more that I’m trying to write about what these people might feel, and the only way I can access that is by putting some of my own experience into it… Certainly, a lot of my work is inspired by the way I grew up. But I think that’s true of all artists. Everybody has to deal with and define their legacy.”
Michelle Ramos and Dan Evans
In early May William Ayers was embroiled in yet another controversy when he delivered the keynote address at a Kent State commemoration of the “four dead in Ohio,” the students shot and killed by National Guardsmen during the 1970 campus antiwar protest referred to by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in the song “Ohio.” Ayers denied that the Weather Underground’s bombing campaign, which generally targeted property, was comparable to the Boston marathon bombing, which struck unarmed civilians.
The prolific playwright’s new Muckrakers, inspired by the WikiLeaks controversy, will open in June at the Barrington Stage in the Berkshires — his tenth full-length play. Zayd Dohrn says he does not know if his name — celebrated in some circles but reviled from Washington to Wasilla — is more of a hindrance or a help in his theatrical career. But as many aspirants following in their parents’ famous footsteps have found out, even if a prominent moniker opens doors, the proof, as Brecht reminded us, is in the pudding of their performance as artists.
Long Way Go Down, Art of Acting Studio, 1017 N. Orange Drive, LA 90038. Opens May 17. Thu-Sat 8 pm. (Plus Sunday, May 19 at 3 pm). Through June 7. www.artofactingstudio.com. 323-601-5310.
**All Long Way Go Down production photos by Johnny Patrick Yoder.
When the musical Chess opens at the David Henry Hwang Theater tomorrow night, it will look a lot different from the original production, which premiered in London’s West End in 1986 and ran for three years. It also will stray from the ill-fated Broadway version, which opened in 1988 and lasted only two months — and from a third version that served as the Los Angeles County premiere, produced by Long Beach Civic Light Opera in 1990.
Director Tim Dang, who is also East West Players’ (EWP) producing artistic director, decided to re-imagine Chess for the 21st century with a multicultural cast. Elijah Rock, who is African American, stars as Russian chess player Anatoly. Joan Almedilla, who is a Filipina immigrant, plays his American love interest. Victor E. Chan, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent, portrays his American competitor Freddy. Four of the 15 Chess cast members are of mixed race.
“As artistic directors, we have a responsibility for what happens on our own stages,” says Dang, who hopes to lead in the campaign for more multicultural casting by example with Chess.
Dang’s philosophy stems from his three decades-plus years of experience working in Los Angeles theater. He has been artistic director of EWP for 20 years and a part of it for 33 years. He usually directs one show a year, minus a few years when he spent more time fundraising. He estimates he has directed a total of 16 plays.
He’s attempting to push American theater, and more specifically Los Angeles theater to reflect 21st century society in casting choices. EWP has presented multicultural casts in the past when the script demanded it, as in its revival of M. Butterfly in 2004. But for Chess, the casting was completely colorblind. The usual number of submissions received when East West is casting all-Asian performances is 300, but with Chess it doubled to 600.
“I wanted to present a multicultural cast and show there’s no lack of talent in any community,” says Dang. “[I have spoken to] other people of color who wish they had a theater like East West in their community.” Not only Asian Americans but also African Americans “never get an opportunity to do Chess. They feel like they can’t audition for Chess because historically it’s perceived as an all-white cast.”
Dang saw the musical Chess as a perfect opportunity to feature a multicultural cast because of its international backdrop. “You have the U.S. versus U.S.S.R. Act one [in this version] takes place in Merano, Italy, and act two in Bangkok, Thailand.”
Last year, the lack of Asian-descent actors in casts led to two controversies cited by Dang. In La Jolla Playhouse’s workshop of The Nightingale, which was set in ancientChina, the cast of 12 had only two actors of Asian descent. Also last year, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged the 13th century Chinese revenge drama The Orphan of Zhaowith a mostly white cast.
“There is a lack of opportunity for Asian Americans on all fronts: acting, writing, directing,” says Dang. “We [also] find that other people of color are looking for the same amount of opportunities, too.”
Chess is not only EWP’s first production utilizing colorblind casting, it’s also the company’s first rock opera. The score by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, formerly of ABBA, with lyrics by Tim Rice, is sometimes performed solely as a concert.
Jasmine Ejan, Ryan Castellino and Shay Louise.
“I have never seen a production of Chess,” admits Dang. “I have seen a concert version. I told the creative team and cast, there has to be a reason why we’re doing a production of Chess and not a concert. Chess is a metaphor for life. Our lives have specific strategic moves, and each move that we make in life influences what happens with our next move, and that’s exactly how Chess is. I don’t think you get that from a concert.”
During the rehearsal process, Dang and his creative team discovered that their production of Chess explores ideas of spirituality or religion.
“One act takes place in Merano, Italy, a Catholic culture. People are judged by a Supreme Being. How much of the things that happen to you do you say is God’s will? It can’t be helped because a higher power has destined that this happen to you. Act two takes place in Bangkok, Thailand, which is basically Buddhist. There’s no judgment in terms of what you do. Everything is much more karmic-influenced. The amount of good you give out is the amount of good that will come back to you. Those philosophies make you think that the decisions you make in life, whether in Buddhist philosophy or Catholicism, how much of it is actually your doing instead of depending on a Supreme Being that’s causing you to do something? It’s an interesting way of thinking in terms of philosophy, and I hope that we’re able to touch upon that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in any of the productions, or read stories about [other productions of] Chess” that touch on these differing senses of spirituality.
The storyline of Chess follows an American and Russian player competing in a world tournament during the Cold War. Dang says he looked at the conflict between America and North Korea as a modern-day parallel.
“There’s lots of posturing,” he says. “[In Chess], the Russians are seen as darker, heavier, the bad guys, as opposed to the Americans. We’re doing it opposite. Americans can be seen by the rest of the world as bad guys. We tried to temper scenes so the Americans also look like they’re the bad guys. Both of them [Russians and Americans] have valid points in terms of what it is they’re fighting for.”
Elijah Rock and Joan Almedilla.
EWP’s Chess also adds more humor to the production than previous incarnations, Dang hopes. “Our first number ‘Merano’ takes place on the border of Italy and Germany. It has a Sound of Music kind of feel. Everyone has infectious smiles. It almost looks like The Stepford Wives. I hope people will get that.”
Ultimately, Dang tried to stick to the original script. “One of the things Tim Rice has in the book of Chess is, ‘whenever in doubt, go back to the beginning.’ We licensed the UK version of Chess. We have permission for slight variations, but it’s basically the original version we’re doing.”
The original version — but with a 21st century cast, that is. Dang hopes EWP’s audience is ready for it. “At our first dress rehearsal on Sunday, there is a love triangle of an American woman who falls in love with a Russian. Our Anatoly is African American, and Florence is Filipina. For the first time, they actually kissed on stage. It’s such a riveting moment — an interracial kiss. You don’t see that a lot. It makes a statement outside of the story of Chess.”
Dang would like to see EWP continue in its leadership in breaking new ground for colorblind casting without sacrificing its mission of presenting Asian-American work. He’d like for the 50-year-old organization to be able to do both.
“Sometimes I facetiously think that the mission of East West Players is to eventually not exist because everyone’s doing Asian-American work, so there’s no need for us to be here,” says Dang. “But that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.”
Chess, David Henry Hwang Theater at Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., LA 90012. Opens Wednesday. Wed-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through June 9. Tickets: $51-$56. www.eastwestplayers.org. 213-625-7000.