Tuesday, May 19, 2015

First Nighters Sail Away With "Peter and the Starcatcher"

On Friday, May 15, First Nighters and their guests went on an imaginary voyage. Joining a boy named Boy, they sailed the Seven Seas along with crafty villains, dancing mermaids, fighting prawns and … well, you name it.  The occasion was First Night of Peter and the Starcatcher, the final play of SCR’s 2014-15 Season, and what a night it was!

As Boy flew away (to began life anew as Peter Pan) the audience stood and cheered, the rain stopped and the party began—a tribute to the director, designers, actors and musicians who brought the fantastical play to life.

Ela’s Terrace gleamed with sky blue lights and shimmering sea blue linens amidst a nautical scene. The more adventurous were sighted wearing stick-on “staches” and sipping “Set Sail,” the evening’s signature cocktail (vodka, with cranberry and orange juices). 

Everyone enjoyed sampling fare from Sally Ann Catering and went back for seconds to the cart hosted by Mangiamo Gelato Café.

But the conversation was all about Peter and the Starcatcher, made possible in part by a large and enthusiastic support group that included four individual honorary producers, two associate corporate producers and a media partner.

And what did they have to say about the show?
  • Wylie Aitken, Honorary Producer with his wife, Bette: “Mesmerizing! Wonderful! Incredible directing and an extremely talented cast, working with a brilliant script. The whole package!”
  • Alan Slutzky, Honorary Producer with his wife, Olivia: “The story is fantastic; fast and funny. The cast looked like they were genuinely having fun up there. Also loved how imaginative the production was; it really allowed the crowd to go along for the ride. Can't wait to bring the kids!”
  • Rick Smetanka, representing Corporate Associate Producer Haskell & White LLP: “This was a great way to end a great season. I thought the script was very clever, and I loved how the production left so much to our own imaginations.”
  • Joan Kaloustian, representing Corporate Associate Producer MUFG Union Bank: “… A charming and beautifully produced night at the theatre.”
  • Mary Marcus, representing Media Partner KPCC:  “Superfun.”

Critics agree! LA Splash magazine called the production “Brilliant!” Read the full review.

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.

Monday, May 18, 2015

From Mermaids to Pirates: Costuming "Peter and the Starcatcher"

The cast of Peter and the Starcatcher in costumes by Angela Balogh Calin.
Smee costume rendering by Angela Balogh Calin.
She’s often found in the Costume Shop at South Coast Repertory—checking in and working on costumes for an upcoming show. Costume designer Angela Balogh Calin has worked on nearly 50 productions at SCR through the years—including set and costume design—and has earned accolades and honors for her work here and elsewhere.

To wrap up SCR’s 2014-15 season, Calin has designed the costumes for the Segerstrom Stage production of Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice (through June 7). It is a production that, according to director Art Manke, invites the audience to use its imagination. In designing the costumes—that are changed at lightning speed—Calin’s work ranges from street clothes to whimsical designs. We caught up with her just as the production moved from the rehearsal hall to the stage.

Do you remember the first play that you saw? Why did it have such a lasting impression?
When I was very little, my parents used to take me to the Children’s Theatre in Bucharest on a regular basis. Later on, as a teenager—I was 12 or 13 years old—I remember two productions that had a lasting impression: Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill and Rameau’s Nephew by Denis Diderot. Both of them taught me about the emotional impact that theatre can have on people

O’Neill’s play saddened me deeply. I was too young to understand in-depth the family conflict, but I could sense the anxiety, tension and desperation. Diderot’s play made me realize that two exceptional actors on a minimalist set can create magic with words and gestures. I learned then how a mirror and a shear can create an environment for events to unfold. And how sometimes less is more.

Mollusk costume rendering by Angela Balogh Calin.
Who has been a mentor in your career? 

My first mentors were my parents: my mom, Angela, is a graphic artist, and my father, Peter, is a sculptor. They inspired me to follow my dreams and my path, and never to wander too far from the artistic milieu I grew up in.

What originally attracted you to become a costume design?
I studied graphic art at the Fine Arts High school in Bucharest, Romania, and then decided to continue my higher education at the university in theatre design. I knew from an early age that my life will be spent in the theatre. I can’t think of a more magical, creative, exciting environment to work in.

Why is SCR such a special place for you?
Because it has been very good to me! I consider myself very lucky to have been part of this prestigious theatre for so long. I have felt valued and welcomed and I was given so many opportunities to collaborate with unique, talented, artists on a variety of productions over the years.

How did you approach the designs for Peter and the Starcatcher?
I’m trying to tell the story by introducing the actors in street clothes with a hint of the Victorian era and then gradually bringing in the whimsical world of mollusks, mermaids and pirates. One of my favorite times is the research phase of the design. For this project, I drew inspiration from a variety of sources—from street wear to the Victorian fashion, from nature photography to tribal art.

My job as a costume designer is to turn the story from the written word into 3D images on stage and to help actors define their characters.

Mermaid costume rendering by Angela Balogh Calin.
And how do they support other design elements in the production?
At times, the costumes and the other design elements work in perfect unison and harmony; and at other times, the costume designs support other design elements with contrasting and juxtaposing styles. Ultimately, the approach is the decision of our director, Art Manke.

How many costumes/costume pieces are you designing?
This show has about 80 partial and full costumes.

What’s been the most challenging part of the costume designs for this production?
The most challenging aspect is making sure the actors are able to make the quick changes required by the show and to keep them safe.

What’s been the most fun?
Designing the mermaids, mollusks and pirate costumes!

What kind of materials did you use?

We have used textiles and fabric, foam, plastic flowers and plants, yarn, raffia, fur, leather, feathers, beads, wire and paint. We’ve probably used many hundreds of yards of fabric in creating these costumes.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about your costume work or the play itself?
Yes, it’s been a wonderful ride and I’m looking forward to opening night.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Video Game is Setting For Rebooted Story of Oz

by John Glore

Munchkin costume rendering by designer
Sara Ryung Clement.
Fourteen-year-old Dee lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry on a farm in Kansas, until a tornado comes along to disrupt her ordinary life and transport her to a fantastic world.  You probably recognize that set-up—but what happens to Dee in Catherine Trieschmann’s OZ 2.5 is likely to seem both strangely familiar and familiarly strange to those who know its source, L. Frank Baum’s beloved book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

First of all, unlike the original Dorothy, Trieschmann’s Dee is a 21st-century girl, who finds life in rural Kansas all too unexciting.  She craves adventure and some real “life-and-death fun,” and since she can’t find it on the farm, she seeks it in her favorite video game, OZ 2.0.  Much to her Aunt Em’s consternation, Dee is forever glued to her tablet computer, playing her game and chatting with her on-line pal, TOTO_BALLERSHOTCALLER14. 

Lion costume rendering by designer
Sara Ryung Clement.
When that fateful tornado hits, rather than retreating to safety in the storm cellar, Dee stays outside to retrieve her tablet, which cost her two years’ worth of baby-sitting money.  The tornado descends on her and knocks her out, and when she wakes up, she finds herself inside her computer game.

With some help from a couple of munchkins—one friendly, the other not so much—she starts her journey on the yellow-brick road, thrilled to be finally having the adventure she’s been looking for.  Just as in Baum’s original story, Dee meets Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, and eventually has to defeat the Witch of the Western Realm—but every time she makes a mistake, she loses a life and the game resets to an earlier level. 

That would be fine if she were still playing the game on her tablet.  But Dee begins to wonder what will happen to her if she loses her last life while inside the game.  Is she trapped in a real life-and-death struggle?  If the witch destroys her … will she wake up back home in Kansas or will she meet a far unhappier and more permanent fate?

The challenges Dee faces become even more daunting when OZ 2.0 spontaneously updates to OZ 2.5 in the middle of her adventure—and the new, improved version proves to have a few nasty bugs.  As she finds herself doubting her ability to succeed—even with the help of Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion —Dee begins to appreciate more and more the comforts of the home and family she left behind.

Playwright IS in Kansas: Catherine Trieschmann's Hometown Inspires Oz Reboot

Playwright Catherine Trieschmann.
Playwright Catherine Trieschmann has something in common with the protagonist of her play.  Eight years ago, her husband’s new job required that she relocate to a small town in Kansas—which felt like the middle of nowhere to her.  When SCR commissioned her to write a new play for the Theatre for Young Audiences series, she reread L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the author’s description of Kansas struck a chord for her:  “When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side.  Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it.  Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere.”

While Dorothy’s tedium is relieved by a visit to the fantasy land of Oz —and Dee’s to its video-game equivalent—Catherine has found escape whenever her playwriting endeavors have taken her away from Kansas.  (This has happened with some frequency, since her many plays have been produced by some of the finest theatres in the nation and even in London, England.) But again like Dorothy, she’s always glad to get home again:  “I go away to somewhere bright and beautiful and perhaps a bit dangerous to make a play and then am happy as a pea in a pod to return to my ho-hum life in Kansas when it's all over.”

But unlike her character, Dee, Catherine has never been much interested in video games, so when she conceived her “reboot” of the Oz story for a technology-obsessed generation, she had to consult with her teenage nephew to get some insights into how such games work.

Why change the story in the first place?  “Adaptations don't work when they merely mimic the original,” she says. “You have to re-create the world, so it’s original and arresting, even to people already familiar with the story. You have to put your own spin on the characters and write new dialogue particular to those voices.  I doubt I used even three lines of dialogue from the book.”

OZ 2.5, which is having its world premiere at SCR, retains all the virtues of the story on which it is based—great characters, adventure, fantasy, humor, surprises—with a fresh approach that will speak directly to any 21st-century child (or adult) who has trouble unplugging from time to time.

The play also offers an important message, which the playwright sums up this way:  “I hope audiences remember that the best part of being alive takes place in communion with other human beings, not in front of a screen.”

Learn more and buy tickets.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Beginnings Found in the Endings

The cast of South Coast Repertory's Peter and the Starcatcher.
“It’s the kind of piece where the director’s imprint on the original production is such an integral part of the text, so I wondered what could I possible bring to this to make it as fresh as possible?”

Director Art Manke is talking about his decision to take on Peter and the Starcatcher, South Coast Repertory’s season finale Segerstrom Stage, through June 7. 

The play—a fun prequel to the story of Peter Pan—brought a creative challenge for Manke. The show had highly successful off- and on-Broadway productions, which spawned two national tours. But the more Manke thought about it, the more the creative challenge of directing the production grabbed him.

Kasey Mahaffy and Matt McGrath in Peter and the Starcatcher.
The story follows the orphan known as Boy who would become Peter Pan. But the story is told of Peter’s life before his adventures with the Darling children. It’s a show that appeals to children and adults and a tale fit for many generations to enjoy together.

“Like any great story there are universal truths and observations about humanity that can be received by both children and adults,” Manke says. “Just as with The Wizard of Oz or Into the Woods there is material that resonates with adults and makes children delightful with glee.”

So, with this all in mind, how does he bring a fresh take to this recent high-flying hit? Especially with audiences that may have seen it recently?

The answer: Aaron Posner and Teller’s The Tempest, which opened SCR’s current season. As Manke and Peter and the Starcatcher scenic designer Michael B. Raiford stepped onto the nearly empty Segerstrom Stage after The Tempest closed, an idea sparked.

“The entire stage was virtually bare, going all the way to the brick walls. There were only a few lights, a couple pieces of scaffolding, a hamper, a clothing rack—things left over from striking The Tempest set. I thought, well that’s the way we should do this,” he recalls.

And so the end of one show was the beginning for another. While looking more at the story, Manke was taken by its universal appeal. He also noticed that his cast could give the tale a sense a broader appeal, so he determined to seek out a more diverse and multi-cultural cast to enhance the universality of the story.

“It’s really important for young people to see reflections of themselves on stage, particularly in plays that are serving the needs of family. It empowers young people to know they can define a path toward their future, no matter whom or where they are,” Manke says.

And with that, Manke laid the foundation for his approach: a fresh visual take on the production that celebrates imagination and the magic of theatre. As well as a mix of 14 actors and musicians—some returning to SCR and many making their SCR debuts—who brought varying cultures and experience.

But that’s only half the battle. Peter and the Starcatcher is highly ensemble-driven, with cast members juggling multiple roles and, at times, physically creating different locations; Manke knew it was vital to jump-start their sense of being a close group. As they began rehearsals, they incorporated daily ensemble exercises to strengthen their trust and familiarity with each other.

That has been one of Manke’s favorite parts of working on this production: helping to build a sense of camaraderie and collaboration among the artists.

“The most joyful part of the experience has been watching the actors come together as an ensemble and work so organically and generously together,” Manke says. “This has led to greater creativity because we all ‘feed’ off of one another.”

Learn more about Manke’s background and his approach to directing in the third episode of our podcast.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Who Is America's Greatest Rock Critic?

How to Write a Rock Play

How to be a Rock Critic is a collaboration between husband-and-wife team, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen; they wrote it, she directs it and he acts in it. Inspired by Lester Bangs’ words, the couple spent two years creating this one-man play. They went through 50,000 pages of Bangs’ writings—both published and unpublished—and whittled it down to an 80-minute play that sheds light on his pioneering voice in music.

Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank

Jensen, an actor with notable roles in “The Walking Dead” and “CSI,” portrays Bangs. The couple's most notable work is The Exonerated, a play they co-wrote based on interviews with exonerated death row inmates. The Exonerated won the 2003 Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle awards and ran for more than 600 performances off-Broadway, toured nationally and was made into a TV-movie. How to be a Rock Critic is a Center Theatre Group commission, where it had a previous developmental workshop production.

Considered "America's Greatest Rock Critic," Lester Bangs was a pioneer—he put the “punk” in punk rock—and broke ground as the most influential voice in rock music. Bangs' story comes to life through the work of husband-and-wife team Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, shedding light on Bangs’ messy life and his revolutionary voice in music in How to be a Rock Critic.

Lester Bangs
Lester Bangs was a gonzo journalist who notably wrote music reviews for Rolling Stone and CREEM magazines. His reviews were known for their radical, take-no-prisoners style, “The reviews I did for [Rolling Stone] really stuck out like sore thumbs.” Bangs said about his time with Rolling Stone. He was fired from Rolling Stone in 1973, “[They] threw me out for being, quote, ‘Disrespectful to musicians,’ end quote. I wrote a review of Canned Heat…making fun of them. I guess you're not supposed to do that."

Bangs immersed himself into the subject of his writing—he lived the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and was considered a peer to the artists he wrote about. In turn, his writing was honest and matched the excesses, energy and passion of rock ‘n’ roll music. He is considered a visionary of rock writing—Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac rolled into one. His criticism often was filled with cultural references of music, literature and philosophy and his writing was brash, yet intellectual.

“The appeal of Lester shares a lot with Kerouac: that innocence and goodwill and drive to describe and be true to what matters in life. Lester, like Kerouac, reads like a real good friend to a lot of people.” Said punk rock pioneer Richard Hall in a 2003 Village Voice article.

Bangs became the editor the rock ‘n’ roll magazine CREEM in 1971. Under his leadership, the magazine led the punk rock movement and was the first to write about the then up-and-coming music scene. Many claim the magazine—with Bangs’ at the helm—helped conceptualize and invent punk rock. In the 70’s, Bangs was also one of the first—years before the mainstream press—to give massive exposure to artists who would become 1980's icons like David Bowie, Blondie, Kiss and Motörhead. Bangs left Creem Magazine in 1977 and moved to Manhattan, where he became a contributor to the Village Voice. He considered his writings from this period to be some of his finest work and he started researching and writing his book, "Rock Gomorrah."  He died from an accidental drug overdose at the age of 33—he was listening to Human League’s album Dare.