Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Finding Hope in "The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois"

Playwright Adam Rapp

Playwright Adam Rapp is a writer’s writer. One of the most prolific playwrights in the American theater, he’s also a novelist, a screenwriter, a director and a musician.

To say that he’s busy these days is an understatement.

Rapp’s newest play, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, is an SCR commission premiering during the 17th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival—April 25-27—the same week he screens his latest film Loitering with Intent at the Tribeca Film Festival.

And although he’s new to South Coast Repertory, Rapp has long-since established his reputation in the American theatre as one of the most daring, talented playwrights working today.

Theatrically, Rapp is renowned for the visceral style, edge and poetry of his plays, which are at turns beautiful, provocative, oddly funny, and intensely humanistic. He’s perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama Red Light Winter, awarded for a production he directed at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, where he lives.

His body of dramatic work is deep and includes the plays Nocturne, Stone Cold Dead Serious, Blackbird, Essential Self-Defense, Kindness, The Metal Children, The Hallway Trilogy, and Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling.

SCR’s Artistic Director Marc Masterson commissioned Adam shortly after arriving here from Actors Theatre of Louisville, where he premiered two of his plays—Finer Noble Gases (2002) and The Edge of Our Bodies (2011)—in the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

When asked what first drew him to Rapp’s work, Masterson says “I produced Finer Noble Gases because when I read it, it made me laugh and I thought it was interesting and challenging and theatrical.”

Their artistic collaboration resulted in a friendship, continued conversations and two commissions over the last twelve years.

“There’s often something dangerous in the circumstances of Adam’s plays” says Masterson, when asked what excites him most about his work. “There are often juveniles who are in potential danger, who find their own resilience and their own way of handling seemingly impossible situations. The worlds he investigates often contain people on the fringes of society, who are surviving in ways that point to the resiliency of the human spirit.”

“I find a lot of hope in his plays,” Masterson says, “and a kind of admiration for what people are capable of in difficult circumstances. Ultimately, they are affirming—and his new play is definitely full of hope.”

Rapp’s new play, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, is a powerful, cumulative drama about the transformative power of reconnection. It tells the story of Ellis Shook, a bipolar man who lives alone in a small duplex apartment in Paducah, Kentucky. Ellis works nights buffing floors, doesn’t have many friends—and always remembers to take his medication. But when two inquisitive teenage girls arrive at his doorstep, their visit forces him to confront a tragic past while offering him a glimpse of hope and a brighter future.

Asked about his inspiration for writing The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, Rapp said: “I wrote this play because I’m haunted by the notion of lost time—how years of our lives fall into black holes; holes in my own lives and others.”

Regarding the play’s protagonist, Ellis Shook, he says: “How does a man beset by early-adulthood madness reassemble his life after institutional regulation? What happens to the world 13 years after he’s left it, especially a world in which an analog culture has fallen away to digital dominance? How does one reassemble and reconnect the parts of one’s life after such a prolonged, misunderstood incarceration? Oddly enough, perhaps ironically, a major social media platform is what leads Ellis Shook to locate a 13-year-old girl of great importance to him. The modern world becomes the conduit to the scariest, but perhaps most important encounter he can imagine. I’m hoping the moments he shares with her in this play are far from digitally influenced, but rather ones that can be braved only with the muscles of the heart and the longing in the throat.”

Read more about Adam Rapp in this interview by playwright Marsha Norman, BOMB Magazine.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A 21st-Century Pandora Unleashes Questions

Julie Marie Myatt works as the resident playwright at South Coast Repertory, thanks to the grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation. Through the grant, Myatt and 13 other playwrights across the country are given the opportunity to develop new works (with regional theatres acting as their home base and resource) during a three-year process. One year in, Myatt’s curiosity has already revealed the fascinating stories of SCR’s own audience members.

Questions are the catalyst for Myatt’s project. Last season, she was found in the SCR lobby before shows by a sign that read, “Tell a Playwright.” Those most curious audience members approached her and shared stories about love, life and dreams. Myatt likened this process to speed dating. Simple questions began the short exchange, but by showing genuine interest she found she could get people to open up in an uninhibited way. “I’ve learned—and been reminded of in such amazing ways—just how very interesting people are, and the infinite number of stories there are in the world,” said Myatt.

Along with these personal stories, Myatt is using the ancient myth of Pandora and her box as a jumping off point for this project. She questions, “If Pandora, plagued by her curiosity, were to open the box of 'evils' of the world in 2014, what would be released? And if Hope, as the myth suggest, is the only remaining element in the box, what does that mean to us today?”

Still early in development, she has an idea of what she’d like to do, “It is my hope that the play will be like a tapestry or mosaic where bits and pieces of the audience members’ voices will be woven into the story, and only they will know what is theirs when they come to see the play. Like visiting a memorial wall.”

Myatt continues to collect stories and works to craft a play that features SCR and the community. She’d like audiences to take away from the project that they are vital to the art. She remarks, “I’ve learned so many wonderful details about the people who enter this theatre and come to see our plays. I often feel as if the stage should be turned around, and their lives should be the story, for that single moment.”

While the project has given her insight into daily theatre company operations and current theatre patrons, it also has led her to more questions about where theatre is going in the 21st century. In a sense, she’s opening her own box and unleashing the important questions of today: Why are we doing theatre? How are we engaging audiences? Is the community interested in theatre? How do we get newer audiences to attend?

The answers to these questions may lie within, just as Hope did for Pandora.

PPF Playwright Rajiv Joseph: Four Questions

Playwright Rajiv Joseph.  Photo by Mark Kitaoka
Earlier this season, South Coast Repertory’s NewSCRipts series presented a new work by Rajiv Joseph, Mr. Wolf. In the story, the only world that 17-year-old Theresa has ever know revolves around Mr. Wolf, who taught her the universe. When she is taken from him, she has to grapple with who she is and where she belongs in the world. That work has a second SCR reading on Saturday, April 26, at 10:30 a.m., as part of the Pacific Playwrights Festival.

Joseph’s works include Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a 2010 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Gruesome Playground Injuries, Animals Out of Paper, The North Pool and The Lake Effect. He is the book-writer and co-lyricist for the new Peter Pan musical, Fly, and the co-screenwriter of the just-released film, Draft Day.

SCR checked in with Rajiv Joseph recently, ahead of PFF, with four questions.

What drew you to writing?
I was 10 years old and my dad, who is from India, took us back to India to see his family. I was in the fifth grade at the time and I was going to miss three weeks of school. This was a huge experience for me and my biggest fear was having to make up all that schoolwork to cover the three weeks. My teachers agreed with my parents that the trip would be educational. One teacher said that instead of doing homework, I should keep a journal of my time in India. I did that and it set me off on the road to writing. I reconnected with that teacher a few years ago through Facebook, so we stay in touch now.

It wasn’t until college that I pursued writing as a “craft.” I was interested in being a novelist, then a film writer and finally a playwright and I had teachers along the who all influenced me.

Maria Thayer, Kira Sternbach, John de Lancie, Jason Butler Harner and Sue Cremin in the NewSCRipts reading of Mr. Wolf.
What goes through your mind during a play reading, like Mr. Wolf earlier this season at NewSCRipts?
I know [with a reading] that I’m not done with the play. Usually, I pay close attention to the audience. I try to “read” the audience as much as I can. I can sense when they’re engaged and not engaged; what they find funny or not funny; or what they find boring or not boring. Those are all useful to help me continue working on the script. I didn’t have a particular inspiration point for this play, except that I started thinking about how different people share a loss like this and how they might react to it. I also love working with great actors because they can help the piece grow.

Why is a South Coast Repertory important to you?
SCR is an incredible theatre for a number of reasons. One thing that jumps out at me is how SCR fosters community among artists. Especially with the Pacific Playwrights Festival! That is such a celebration each year—I’ve met so many actors, playwrights and directors each year through PPF. Also, SCR is special because of how it commissions playwrights and in that way, SCR is creating a wonderful community of writers.

Here’s your “Desert Island” question: If you were stranded on a desert island, what script would you want to have with you?

Wow, that’s a tough one! Most likely, the play I’d want with me is what inspired me to be a playwright in the first place—it’s what I saw in graduate school: Our Lady of 121st Street by Stephen Adly Guirgis.

Find out more about the Pacific Playwrights Festival and buy tickets. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Debut Time at SCR: Cast For "The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois" May Be New, But Known

THE CAST:  William Apps, Connor Barrett, Virginia Veale and Christina Elmore
It’s always exciting to welcome new actors to the South Coast Repertory “family.” That’s the case with four actors who all are making their SCR debut in Adam Rapp’s new work, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois. But you may recognize them from other places—television, film and stage. Meet the cast for Purple Lights.

William Apps (Ellis) is making his SCR debut. He is a professional actor based in New York City. His theatre credits include True West at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Bad and the Better at Playwrights Horizons, Hallway Trilogy at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Happy in the Poorhouse at PS 122, Ghosts in the Cottonwoods at Theater 80 St. Marks. His film credits include Regretting Fish (Cadillac Films).

Connor Barrett
(Barrett) is making his SCR debut. He previously worked with Adam Rapp off-Broadway, regionally and internationally on two of Rapp’s other plays: Finer Noble Gases at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company; Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre; Bush Theater, London; and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where the production won the Fringe First Award; and The Metal Children at Vineyard Theatre, NYC. Most recently, Barrett played Saul Kimmer in Adam Rapp’s production of the Sam Shepard play True West at Actors Theatre of Louisville. His other regional credits include the Geva Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center and Williamstown Theatre Festival. His other New York credits include the Summer Play Festival and the New York Fringe Festival. His film and television credits include “You’re Whole” (Adult Swim), “Parks and Recreation,” “CSI: NY,” “Harry’s Law,” Razzle Dazzle (Funny or Die), “Rita Rocks,” “Do Not Disturb,” “The Jury” and “Guiding Light.” Barrett received his BFA from Northwestern University and his MFA from New York University’s Graduate Acting Program.

Christina Elmore (Monique) is making her SCR debut. She is a recent graduate of American Conservatory Theater’s MFA program, where her favorite roles included Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Olga in Three Sisters, and Woman in Will Eno’s The Flu Season. Her regional credits include Belle in ACT’s A Christmas Carol, Marianne in Sacramento Theater Company’s Tartuffe and writer/ensemble member in the Guthrie Theater’s Going Live, part of the Guthrie Experience for actors in training. Now based in Los Angeles, she can be seen in last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning film, Fruitvale Station and as regular a on TNT’s new series, “The Last Ship,” which premieres on June 22.

Virginia Veale
(Catherine) is making her SCR debut. She is a Juilliard School graduate and recipient of the 2012 John Houseman Award for showing excellence in the classics. She appeared most recently in Five Very Pretty Girls (New York Theatre Workshop), Barefoot in the Park (Bucks County Playhouse), My Children! My Africa! and All My Sons. Her recent film credits include Harmony Hill, Hotline and Awkward Moments. Veale is the co-founder of the breakout sketch series “Don’t Talk In The Kitchen.” The series’ most recent episode was awarded as one of the top 25 videos of 2013 by Funny Or Die.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Inside "Five Mile Lake" with Daniella Topol and Rachel Bonds

Five Mile Lake Playwright Rachel Bonds and Director Daniella Topol
Five Mile Lake examines two sets of people from small town life: The people who have left home and the others who stayed. The lakeside town has a distinct hold over the characters and as the play unfolds, they come face to face with the paths they’ve chosen in life. Director Daniella Topol and playwright Rachel Bonds discuss their inspirations when approaching the play, the effects of leaving home and the relationships between the characters.

As a director, what sparked your interest when approaching Five Mile Lake?

Daniella Topol: I love the way Five Mile Lake captures the depth and complexity of human relationships and intimacy with honesty and humor. The characters speak in casual and familiar ways, but carry longing and grief underneath. This darkness slowly burbles up in surprising and moving ways. Rachel's dialogue has a particular rhythm and it is thrilling to orchestrate this musicality while calibrating the emotional terrain. The rehearsal process has been joyful, muscular, exhausting, moving and surprising. And the actors have been fearless in navigating the complexity of this emotional terrain.

Coming from a small town yourself, did you find inspiration from your own personal experiences while writing Five Mile Lake?

Rachel Bonds: Yes. I'm from a tiny, very beautiful place in Tennessee. It was a lovely place to grow up, in many ways, but ultimately it wasn't a place I could stay. I still find it strange that sometimes I feel more at home in Brooklyn now. Though I feel the pull back to that tiny place at times, which is probably linked to nostalgia, to missing childhood and my dad and the woods behind our house.

In Five Mile Lake, the characters all seem to be dealing with the choices they’ve made and the paths their lives are set on. How do you believe this translates into the relationships between the characters?

Topol: In the first scene, Mary asks Jamie if he ever feels claustrophobic. He doesn't, he answers, because he lives on a giant lake, which is big enough for him. This causes Mary to roll her eyes and proclaim that they are very different people. This question of similarity and difference continues to appear throughout the play as an important and resonant theme. The characters who find themselves grappling with similar existential questions share an intimacy and understanding.

Bonds: All the characters are facing the choices they've made—they're all at separate "crossroads" moments. The characters are looking back at what they've done and what they're proud of—and ahead to the various roads they've paved. And now there is this question, now, of "was this the right road to take?" So, then there's this new conflict between the characters, as some want to move ahead, some want to turn back, some want to take a different road entirely and some are stuck in place—unable to really go forward or back. And so tension is created between them.

The play looks at two sets of people, those who have stayed and those who have left. How do you think leaving your hometown affects you as a person?

Topol: I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. and first left home to go to Carnegie Mellon to study theatre. Ironically, both of my parents grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Carnegie Mellon as well (not in the theatre program). So, by going away to school, I was actually connecting more deeply to my parents' roots. This taught me that leaving home can sometime mean that you are actually coming home. My next big move was to go to New York City where I still live today. NYC has expanded my worldview and my understanding of humanity and myself. But I return to where I grew up quite often and feel that it gives me great comfort to have close relationships with family members and old friends who still live there.

Bonds: I don't spend much time thinking that I should have stayed in the place I grew up—I couldn't personally have really grown as a person or a writer if I had. But I do miss it. I do feel the pull back there sometimes, even though I know my home is really in the city now. I think leaving has made me feel brave and guilty and melancholy—and it's given me something to write about.

Hear them talk more about the play in this video.

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