• Party Play: "Kings"

    Beth Fhaner
     | Oct 22, 2018

    Fresh from its New York premiere, Kings, Sarah Burgess’s timely play about how things get done in Washington, D.C., captured the attention of the First Night audience and never let up, keeping theatregoers riveted ​with whip-smart, funny dialogue and extraordinary performances.

    Along with warm laughter, First Night attendees showed their appreciation for this sleek, comedy-drama with generous applause. Led by Dámaso Rodríguez’s direction, the entire ensemble delivered impressive performances while giving audiences a glimpse into the high-stakes, high-pressure world where politics, special interests and money collide. The talented cast includes Paige Lindsey White and Jules Willcox as two Washington lobbyists, Tracey A. Leigh as Rep. Sydney Millsap and Richard Doyle as Sen. John McDowell.

    Honorary Producers and First Nighters Steve and Laurie Duncan and Samuel and Tammy Tang enjoyed seeing the play and found it to be an intriguing production.

    “A commonly held truth is that money makes the world go round,” noted the Tangs. “Kings by Sara Burgess is an entertaining, witty and timely play whose enduring characters must confront this truth in our comical American political system!”

    The Duncans added that the play was "a thought-provoking, timely political production that is perfectly cast and much funnier than we expected! The play’s humor captures both the possibility of a politician's integrity as well as the dark side of our current political system. It was ninety minutes very well spent!"

    A special delight for the audience came just before the curtain when Managing Director Paula Tomei introduced and welcomed new Artistic Director David Ivers, who shared some remarks with First Nighters.

    Guests who attended the cast party, co-sponsored by the Center Club, were welcomed to the stylish venue. Mason jars—filled with white hydrangeas and mini American flags—were adorned with red-and-white polka dot ribbons tied in bows and scattered throughout the elegant space.

    Among the menu highlights was a savory fajita bar (trying to match the onstage sizzle of fajitas delivered during one scene) with a selection of toppings such as seasoned chicken breast, roasted peppers and onions, flour and corn tortillas, tortilla chips and salsa, chile con queso and sour cream. Partygoers also enjoyed an array of delectable hors d’oeuvres including BBQ beef brisket sliders, mac n’cheese balls and charred corn risotto, as well as domestic cheese platters, vegetable crudité platters and dips, artisan breads and crackers. Assorted mini desserts provided a sweet finish to the celebratory soiree.

    The evening’s signature cocktail was “The Senator-ita”—a fitting beverage for a play exploring the currently relevant political theme of lobbyists in Washington. Comprised of tequila, triple sec and lime juice, the delicious drink was a hit with the festive crowd.

    First Night theatregoers were delighted to have the opportunity to meet and mingle with the director and cast during the ​cast party. All the while, lively conversation and laughter continued to swirl around Kings, an absorbing, intelligent and very funny look at money’s corrosive effect on politics.

    Learn more about Kings and buy tickets.

  • Four Questions with "Nate the Great" Composer Brett Ryback

    Christina Cordano and Beth Fhaner
     | Oct 18, 2018
    Nate the Great Rehearsal

    Composer and lyricist  Brett Ryback, left, works with the cast of Nate the Great (l. to r. Daniel Bellusci, Xavier Watson, Domonique Paton, Luzma Ortiz (obscured) and Erika Schindele) on the music.

    More about Brett Ryback

    Brett Ryback

    Brett Ryback is an actor, composer/lyricist and playwright based in Los Angeles. He is the recipient of the ASCAP Foundation’s Cole Porter Award. His plays and musicals include Joe Schmoe Saves the World (National Alliance for Musical Theatre 2016, ASCAP/ Dreamworks Workshop), Liberty Inn: The Musical (Ovation Award nominations: Best Book, Best Music/Lyrics), Darling (Weston Playhouse New Musical Award), The Tavern Keeper’s Daughter (Best Musical, Pasadena Weekly) and Just a Little Critter Musical (First Stage). His plays Weïrd and A Roz By Any Other Name are both published in The Best American Short Plays 2007-2008. His musical Passing Through was developed at the Rhinebeck Writer’s Retreat and the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed Musicals, where it was recently featured in their New Works Festival. As an actor, he originated the role of Marcus off-Broadway in Murder for Two. His SCR appearances include the world premieres of SHREW!, The Prince of Atlantis and Doctor Cerberus. His recent TV and film appearances include “Mom,” “Modern Family,” “How I Met Your Mother,” Hail, Caesar! and the Lifetime movie The Assistant. Ryback is writing a musical podcast called In Strange Woods. He created the online accompanist website PlayThisForMe.com and he teaches musical theatre at the University of Southern California. brettryback.com

    As an actor, composer/lyricist and playwright based in Los Angeles, Brett Ryback believes a good story has the power to change the way people feel, think and act. He appeared recently onstage at SCR as Lucentio in the world premiere of Amy Freed's SHREW! This time around, he’s back as the composer/musical director for the kid detective musical, Nate the Great, which kicks off SCR’s theatre for young audiences season on the Argyros Stage (Nov. 2-18, 2018). Learn more about Ryback and the musical “styles” of Nate the Great in our Q&A.

    How would you describe the music in Nate the Great?

    There are two main “styles” of music in this show. There’s Nate’s music, which leans towards jazz and big band—styles that are usually associated with film noir and private-eye stories. You can hear it in all of Nate’s songs, and also a little bit in “Fang Tango” and “The Hexes,” too. And then there’s Annie’s music, which is more colorful, playful and lyrical. That style is on display in “Art Matters,” “Colors” and also “Monster.”

    As a composer, how do you approach writing a song?

    It always varies, but I usually start by asking a lot of questions. What is the character feeling when they sing, or what do I want the audience to feel? What does the character want, and what is the conflict that is making it difficult for them? I translate the answers to these questions into musical gestures—harmonies, rhythms, motifs, etc. Then once a lyric is written, I’ll start to sing whatever comes into my head and craft the rest of the melody from there. But no matter what, the story always comes first.

    You’re also an actor—how does that inform your writing?

    My writing and my acting absolutely inform one another. When it comes to music, you’re practically dictating the exact way a line of music is going to be performed—how loud, how fast, how high, how low. So you’re doing a lot of the acting work for the actor. Therefore, when I’m writing a song, I think about the acting process that an actor will go through to bring a moment to life. This helps me create melodies or lyric scansions (how the lyric is rhythmically situated) that support the actor’s intention. On a bigger level, I also think about things like how does this character talk, or what style of music do I identify with this character. I also think about what a character’s super-objective or bottom line is. This helps me decide what musical moments need to really land, or sing out, and which themes are going to be important to craft the character’s arc. Hopefully, you can see how acting and writing come from the same creative place!

    Do you have a favorite character in Nate the Great?

    Yes, but don’t tell the other characters. My favorite character is Rosamond. I love how unapologetic and bizarre she is. She’s the best kind of character to write for. I was able to give her a super unique musical voice and also some of the best lyrics in the whole show.

    Learn more and buy tickets.

  • Mr. Dickens and Mr. Patch: Taking "A Christmas Carol" From Page to Stage

    South Coast Repertory Staff
     | Oct 18, 2018
    A Christmas Carol

    The cast of A Christmas Carol.

    Keeping Things Fun

    “We have fun every year because of the familiarity most of us have with each other,” says Director John-David Keller.

    “We have fun, but it’s up to me to make sure that we never make fun. This show represents my legacy to SCR, and my biggest responsibilities as director are to preserve its long and proud tradition and to make the show fun both for those who’ve never seen it, and for those who keep coming back.”

    Dancing Pair

    Jordan Bellow and Puja Mohindra.

    Probably the hardest part of any actor’s job is to create the illusion of performing for the first time.

    More than half of A Christmas Carol audience members are returning and they’re eager to see their old friends again on the stage, from Hal Landon Jr. as Scrooge, on down the roster of familiar SCR performers.

    But Keller believes the production gets an “extra spike” from all the new faces in the cast. “There are 16 children in the show and none of them have ever done it before. Sometimes we have repeats, but because we have such a huge pool of Theatre Conservatory students to draw from, we try to spread the wealth around every year. Christmas for these lucky youngsters is one they’ll never forget. I watch their faces during rehearsal and I can see them grow with every passing day. It’s an intense learning process and they have more fun than anybody . . . well, maybe not more fun than me. That would be very difficult!”

    A Christmas Carol probably is to theatre what The Nutcracker is to ballet.

    “This show is such an important part of who we are as a theatre company,” Keller says. “The fact is that audiences still look forward to it every year and we still have the same devotion to it now as we did back in 1980, so it really doesn’t matter how many productions we’ve got under our belts.”

    Nearly 40 years ago, Jerry Patch’s summer had a routine: wake up early—around 4:30 a.m.—and ​work with Charles Dickens. Patch, South Coast Repertory’s then-resident dramaturg, was adapting Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the stage at SCR. In the midst of ​his Huntington Beach summer, Patch had to envision a December in Victorian England.

    “It wasn’t that hard,” Patch recalls. “Dickens overpowered life at the beach almost every morning.”

    Patch’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol, debuted on SCR’s stage in December 1980 and the universal qualities that Patch brought to the play have kept the production timeless. He concentrated on how the major themes of the story could most effectively be communicated on the stage.

    “I wanted families to be able to come to the theatre together and share an experience. Everyone from grandparents to grandchildren could all be touched by the significant message of this classic story," he says. "Every year I waited in the lobby after performances and listened to families talking about what they’ve gotten out of the play.”

    The story’s focus on humanity and regeneration continues to move audiences of all ages as they experience Scrooge’s transformation along with the character.

    A Christmas Carol dinner

    “This play is a celebration of family, peace and unity,” Patch explains. “It’s not just a British play, nor is it limited in scope to the 19th century. Scrooge’s didactic understanding of generosity, charity, and mercy are ideals to be embraced by all people in all times. His story embodies the very tenets of American culture—you can change yourself, you can succeed beyond your means and. after undergoing metaphorical death, you can come back and live a better life. In other words, it’s never too late. This isn’t a complicated message, but it’s an important one nonetheless, and it’s the means by which we hope to touch our audiences.”

    John-David Keller has directed SCR’s A Christmas Carol each of its 39 years. He says he tries to read the novella every year—it keeps him honest. It also helps him prepare to greet new actors to the cast, including 16 child actors.

    “I ask the children in the cast to read A Christmas Carol—that’s always their first assignment. Jerry’s script is very faithful to the original, but there are some elements he chose to eliminate because they’re peripheral to our primary focus, which is Scrooge’s through-line. Things such as the engagement and the fates of his fiancée and his sister are still there, but only to stimulate Scrooge and not to tell the other characters’ stories,” Keller says.

    “Another change concerns the reconciliation between Cratchit and Scrooge, which in the book occurs at Scrooge’s office, but we didn’t want to have to go back to that set, so our Scrooge goes to the Cratchit home instead,” says Keller. “This is a Jerry Patch device that works wonderfully because you get to see the whole family reacting positively to this man who, in an earlier scene, was being called names and started a family fight."

    Another departure from Dickens is the exchange of gifts in that scene, which is not in the Dickens 1843 novella.

    “Every theatre adapts A Christmas Carol for ​its own company, and certainly our script was written to suit the personalities and acting styles of our cast,” Keller says. “But I believe that if you compare the Dickens book and the Patch play at SCR, you’ll see how very loyal Jerry was to his source. After all, it’s hard to improve on Charles Dickens.”

    Learn more and buy tickets

  • Fun Facts: What Lobbyists Have Tried to Get

    Danielle Bliss
     | Oct 12, 2018
    A photo from Kings

    Kate (Jules Willcox) and Sydney (Tracey A. Leigh) hatch a plan in ​Kings.

    In Sarah Burgess’s incisive comedy, Kings, Sydney Millsap wins a seat in Congress and she’s determined to drain the swamp. Then she meets Kate, a whip-smart lobbyist who gets her clients whatever they want. Kate and Sydney then work together in hopes of unseating a powerful senator steeped in cronyism. Lobbying is the act of attempting to influence actions, policies or decisions of officials in their daily life. Lobbying is done by many types of people, associations or organized groups. Read on for some fun facts about past lobbyists—some more unbelievable than others.

    The U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers
    This North Carolina-based nonprofit fights for the conservation and care of reptiles. This group (they call themselves “Reptile Nation”) spent $20,000 in 2012 for lobbying for “miscellaneous issues" (we will make a strong guess that these were reptile-related issues).

    Cigar Rights of America
    This enthusiastic group of cigar fanatics claim that the “age-old pleasure of enjoying a cigar is under attack” by an “overzealous, anti-smoking movement.” The Cigar Rights of America has recently voiced its opposition to the proposed regulation of high-end cigars by the Food and Drug Administration. This group is also fighting against general government regulations of cigars as well as taxation of cigars and various bans on smoking. The group spent $320,000 on lobbying in 2012.

    California Cling Peach Growers
    Based in California, this group “represents hundreds of family growers” as well as works to prevent receiving imports from China. This group spent $110,000 last year to ensure people “buy American” when purchasing cling peaches—a peach known for having a flesh that sticks to the pit.

    The Balloon Council
    The Balloon Council fought for what they called a “very real problem”—the shortage of helium. This group sought help from the Helium Stewardship Act, a legislation that lays out how to maintain a helium reserve for the future. This council spent $60,000 on its lobbying efforts in 2012.

    Manned Space Flight Education Foundation
    This group is responsible for the Houston Space Center—where the public can delve into space flight knowledge as deep as possible without actually leaving the Earth. Some of the exhibits here include “Angry Space Birds” as well as a film that allows patrons to join the Mars Curiosity rover on our neighboring planet. This group spent $30,000 lobbying for space education last year.

    Catfish Farmers of America
    This trade association was founded in the 1960s and has had a busy few years promoting the catfish after a headstrong debate brought on in Congress over the necessity of catfish inspections. This group spent over $170,000 last year and more than $300,000 in 2012.

    California Dried Plum Board
    Prunes, right? Yes—but in 2000, the then-California Prune Board successfully lobbied the Food and Drug Administration to let it use the more female-friendly (really, that’s what it said) “dried plum.”

    One-Man UFO Lobby
    One person can be all it takes to lobby. There is only one registered lobbyist in the U.S. on UFO and extraterrestrial issues, The lobbyist is convinced that the government has this information and it’s only a matter of time before an announcement will come to the American people that “we’re not alone.”

    Learn more about Kings and buy tickets.

  • Kids Learn the Audition Process for Coveted Roles in "A Christmas Carol"

    Beth Fhaner
     | Oct 12, 2018
    A Christmas Carol

    Jaden Fogel, Hal Landon Jr., Liam McHugh, Nika Natalie Aydin, Daniel Blinkoff, Jillian Tabone, Grace O'Brien and Jennifer Parsons in the 2013 production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Jim Cox.

    Kids in A Christmas Carol

    Rachel Bailey and Jamie Oostman in rehearsal for A Christmas Carol in 2015.

    SCR’s annual production of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol marks its 39th year in 2018. A favorite tradition for many theat​regoers at the holiday season, A Christmas Carol requires a large cast of actors. Kids play a big part in this show, with children’s roles ranging from Tiny Tim and his brothers and sisters (the Cratchits) to Scrooge and Marley as boys, to street urchins, to beautifully costumed singers and dancers in the party scenes.

    There are eight roles for children that are double cast, so 16 lucky kids have the opportunity to appear onstage in this beloved holiday show. Having two groups of children—“​Red” and “Green” teams—cast in this play also allows for the opportunity to build-in understudies for various roles.

    After performances begin, the two teams of children will perform on alternate days with both casts performing one show each on both Saturdays and Sundays. Overall, each child who is cast will typically perform four shows per week on four days a week. With rehearsals scheduled for nearly every day after school and weekends, A Christmas Carol requires a great deal of commitment and dedication from each cast member.

    Each child who is cast goes through an audition process, and it’s a great honor to have the opportunity to audition. Selections are based on talent, a student’s maturity, focus and the ability to follow direction and cooperate with others. So, what’s a typical audition process like for the kids? One session involved a group of kids who ranged in age from 10 to 16, and they were there because they ​are longtime students in the Theatre Conservatory and faculty members had recommended them based on their strong work in class.

    Conservatory Director Hisa Takakuwa enthusiastically greets the group and tells them they should all feel good about coming through the door. She then explains the audition process and notes that the “process of casting is complicated.”

    Every play has a certain type of story and energy, says Takakuwa. A Christmas Carol’s energy is brightness, lightness and overt joy, and she’s looking for a certain kind of energy to match the show. Additionally, Takakuwa is looking for specific ages, sizes and types, but she emphasizes to the students that whether or not they get cast, it’s never a statement that they’re not good enough. She’s also looking to see if a student is mature enough and focused enough to handle the demands of a professional production. The students must be savvy, confident and able to jump-in quickly to the rehearsal process.

    Once Takakuwa has conveyed the finer points of what to expect in an audition, it’s time for the kids to begin with an improv exercise. The group is instructed to imagine that it’s Christmas Eve back in 19th-century London, and each student must pantomime a job that they might have had during that time period. Working simultaneously, the students act out different roles such as a baker, seamstress and chimney sweeper, among others. Takakuwa then asks the students to move to different areas of the room while continuing their job duties. She also talks with the students about maintaining their focus and creating a real world for themselves without looking at the audience.

    After the improv exercise is finished, the group moves on to reading scenes from the play. The kids are asked to read different roles from a short Cratchit family scene, and one student is asked to read another scene “cold” (without preparation). The kids all do a fantastic job reading scenes and approximately 40 minutes after the session has started, the audition process wraps-up. Final instructions are given for the next step in the process—after initial auditions are complete, specific children will be requested to return for a callback audition with Takakuwa, Director John-David Keller and Casting Director Joanne DeNaut. The students then turn in mandatory paperwork and file out of the classroom on a hopeful note, while the next group of kids eagerly awaits their chance to audition for A Christmas Carol.

    Learn more and buy tickets.

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