• Matt de la Peña on "Last Stop on Market Street"

    Brian Robin
     | Jan 14, 2022
    Matt de la Pena

    The emotions poured over Matt de la Peña that evening in Chicago. Emotions he felt the moment he saw Christian Robinson’s illustrations. The illustrations that led him to write Last Stop on Market Street, and the illustrations that—along with his artful words--brought de la Peña the Newbury Medal and placed his book into schools across the country. The illustrations that brought him to the Chicago Children’s Theater that night in 2018 when he saw Last Stop on Market Street performed on stage.

    “I can’t believe it’s being performed. What a miracle. It just blew me away. How is this possible?” he asked. “It kind of reminds you of the moment I got those illustrations for the first time. Here are these illustrations you never even considered. Now, this is in the hands a talented writer, director, actors and you just go ‘Wow. Look what they did with this tiny little story. It’s just crazy.’”

    How this one-time college basketball player wrote one of the most beloved children’s books in the country is a story that is a little crazy, a little serendipitous and more than a little touching. It features writer’s block, an eye-opening career transition and more than a year of de la Peña writing, rewriting and sweating every word—hundreds of times.

    The story behind Last Stop on Market Street’s creation started when de la Peña’s agent sent him a Robinson drawing of an African-American boy and his grandmother on the bus. In a fortuitous twist, the illustration coincided with a book for young adults de la Peña was trying to write about seeing the beauty in a working-class neighborhood.

    “It opened my eyes to maybe a different medium. Instead of a novel, a picture book,” he said. “I had a different sense of characters, but the same theme before I saw the picture. But when I saw that picture, I saw this idea. Maybe this can be about seeing the beauty in your neighborhood. It wasn’t working out for a young adult novel.”

    This is where de la Peña’s self-described “inefficient process” kicked in. He had little experience with picture books. His first draft took three months to write. He said from there, his obsession with the music of the language—how the words flowed together in a musical structure—sent him on another four-month journey that featured more than 10 revisions. Because picture books are read out loud, de la Peña was obsessed with more than the story. The words had to flow in a melodic rhythm.

    “The bummer about this medium is sometimes you’ll spend two days looking for one specific word. You know it’s there. You can’t access it and you’re searching so hard for it and you have nothing to show for it, even though you’re working eight hours a day,” he said. “When you do discover that word and that sound, you have that euphoric moment and the whole book comes together.”

    That four-month process featured de la Peña obsessing about the ending. He thought his original ending was “too quiet.” So he spent three weeks writing alternate endings—before going back to his original one.

    Finally pleased with his year-long labor of love, de la Peña finished Last Stop on Market Street in 2015. He and Robinson went on to other projects and didn’t think much about it.

    Until the award season. Last Stop on Market Street won the 2016 Newbury Medal, the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor.

    “That’s when it became a different thing,” de la Peña said. “It was a book that would be in every school, every state and every city library. That’s when you have a different proposition. Kids are going to get it. Not just some schools—all schools will have it. That’s what blows you away.”

    It still blows de la Peña away. The one-time University of the Pacific basketball guard, who earned an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State because four professors surreptitiously submitted his application behind his back, remains thankful the world found a place for his “tiny little story” about gratitude, kindness and a boy finding the good in the world.

    “I’ve always been interested in writing about diversity. I think back to when I was a new writer. That was a super niche,” he said. “You couldn’t expect to make much money. But I didn’t want to write anything else,” he said. “I always knew what was interesting to write about, but the world changed more to having a thirst for books with diverse characters. I wasn’t at the right place at the right time early, but I watched the field shift around me and audiences and publishers became more interested in stuff I had been writing about the whole time.”

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  • Keeping In Step With Choreographer Kelly Todd

    Brian Robin
     | Jan 10, 2022
    Kelly Todd

    Kelly Todd started choreographing plays and musicals when she was 17. And you could say she slid right into the deep end of the choreography pool.

    “My first musical was Grease, the first one I got to do by myself from beginning to end,” she said. “I was 17 and the cast was 14-through-19-year-olds. I just remember it was hard to work with the boys, asking them to dance. They get self-conscious because it’s an extremely vulnerable act to get people to express themselves through their bodies and movement. Even for professional actors, I have to create a place for them to feel comfortable and take risks. That’s a big part of my job.”

    Fast-forward 30 years later and Todd is a master at that “big part of her job”—the latest example being SCR’s production of Last Stop on Market Street, which runs Jan. 16-23 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

    The high-energy, entertaining musical joyride is exactly the vehicle to show off Todd’s skills at getting people comfortable with movement. Did someone mention “vehicle?” The presence of a bus the size of a shuttle bus on stage creates a new vehicle—and challenge—for Todd’s talents.

    “This challenge has turned into something really cool,” she said. “Working with the replica of a bus is challenging in that you’re confined and are trying to create movement. The one advantage I have is that it’s not a true bus. There are half walls and no ceiling, so there is some extra space for arms and heads to bob and weave. Also, sometimes when we go into a character’s mind, they hang from the bus and get out of the bus.”

    Todd got her SCR start in 2012 working for Conservatory Director Hisa Takakuwa and the Summer Players cast on Seussical. Impressed with the professionalism of Takakuwa and her staff and crew, Todd took on more opportunities. She worked on SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences production of Ivy + Bean the Musical. That segued into such productions as The Light in the PiazzaOnce and Sweeney Todd. She recently choreographed SCR’s holiday tradition: A Christmas Carol.

    Opportunities like that opened Todd’s eyes even larger to what she could do with the elements of movement. In Once, she was asked to choreograph actors moving with musical instruments in their hands. She had choreographed people playing drums and the blocks. But a tambourine solo?

    “That was quite the experience and quite challenging, but also really exciting, she said. “The big number in there was one of my favorite numbers I ever choreographed.”

    The teacher of movement moves around frequently these days. When she’s not choreographing a production at SCR or the Chance Theater, Todd runs the musical theatre department at Pepperdine, were she is a professor. And when she’s not teaching the art of movement, Todd is often moving toward another award for choreography.

    StageSceneLA named her Southern California’s Choreographer of the Year in 2011 and 2012. Todd won Ovation Awards for Jerry Springer: The Opera (2011), Triassic Parq (2013) and Lysistrata Jones (2014). She won an LA Drama Critics Circle Special Award for Fight Choreography in West Side Story (2014).

    In Last Stop on Market Street, Todd gets another stage to show off her versatility. Cheryl L. West’s adaptation of Matt de la Peña’s New York Times best-selling book and Lamont and Paris Ray Dozier’s music and lyrics gives Todd numerous vehicles inside the vehicle to display her craft.

    “It’s a really fun show. It’s heartwarming and uplifting and just a joy to choreograph,” she said. “Especially with the awesomely talented actors, who are also great human beings. I love all the different styles of music: there’s a hip-hop number and a Latin number and a disco number. It’s been really a joy.”

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  • It’s Back to the Present for "Last Stop on Market Street" Director Oanh Nguyen

    Brian Robin
     | Jan 06, 2022
    Oanh Nguyen

    Oanh Nguyen’s last stop at SCR came in the spring of 2015, when he served as associate director for Abundance. That came two years after he directed SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences and Families production of The Night Fairy.

    Now, Nguyen’s next directorial stop comes in the Theatre for Young Audiences and Families production of Last Stop on Market Street, Cheryl L. West’s adaptation of Matt de la Peña’s New York Times best-selling children’s book. The musical joyride runs Jan. 8-23 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

    One of Southern California’s top rising directors, Nguyen is the founding artistic director of the Chance Theater in Anaheim, where he applies the dynamic lessons he learned as an SCR producing associate. Nguyen mentored under SCR Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson, who remains a good friend, teacher and inspiration for Nguyen.

    Nguyen’s path took him a long way from that first assistant directing job on Anaheim High School’s production of Up the Down Staircase. We caught up with Nguyen in between rehearsals and let him catch everyone up on what this latest stop on his rising path means to him.

    You built a good foundation as a producing associate at SCR. What’s it like to be back? 

    Oanh Nguyen: “It’s wonderful to be back at SCR with all the support and resources we have here. As a team, we’ve been really, really taken care of in a special way. From the first day of rehearsals, we had all of our props, all of our furniture, everything was ready to go for us to start working. That’s not something you always get at the beginning of rehearsals. ... It’s nice to feel like we’re getting the full support of South Coast Rep even though we’re doing a TYA show. … Obviously, it’s a very challenging time for producing theatre and it’s very clear SCR takes producing theatre during this challenging time very seriously.”

    Talk about your relationship with SCR Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson. He’s played an integral part in your story

    ON: “Martin Benson is an amazing mentor and friend, both personally and professionally. I’m so grateful for the day he decided to take me under his wing and help me through this path. Having someone who has done what he’s done and along with so many people there, having that kind of resource is priceless. I can’t be more grateful for that. We have lunch at least once a week.”

    Tell us about directing Last Stop on Market Street. What can we expect to see? 

    ON: “It’s such a joyous musical. Obviously, it’s a story we all need right now. To find the joy and to find community, to build muscles of empathy and understanding of others. It’s a very beautiful story and a good story to tell. I feel like there’s a lot of representation on that stage and it’s exciting to think about those young students in those seats, who are going to see themselves on that stage in many ways. This story is very special in that way. There was nothing like this kind of musical or TV show when I was young. … We spend a lot of time in a young boy’s head as he’s navigating this way through uncharted territory for him. For him, it’s very much a Wizard of Oz experience. I love doing musicals and I love trying to find other ways to tell this story with music. … It’s a fun show with an incredible cast and creative team.”

    What appeals to you about the directing process? 

    ON: “When I was introduced (to directing), I was introduced from the standpoint of looking at what is the big picture? What is the story? Why are we telling it now, who are we telling it for and who are we telling it with? Those questions are very exciting for me, for either a brand new world premiere or a production done many thousand times. When you ask those questions, your production is very specific and unique in its own way. Every performance is unique in a special way and every production can be very special if you focus on those questions.”

    You mentioned an “insider directing tip” in Last Stop on Market Street. Can you tell us about that tip

    ON: “We were challenged with a show where the leading character is 7 years old. Because of the kind of production this is, we can’t cast a 7-year-old. We cast someone in his mid-20s (Christopher Mosley) who is actually taller than most of the people on the stage. Have the audience look out for the many different ways I approached the staging to make him look as small as a 7-year-old. He’s actually taller than his grandmother, so I employed many different tactics to make him seem shorter than everyone else. It will be fun for audiences to watch out for.”

    See how Nguyen and the creative team tell the story of CJ and his Nana, her lessons in finding the beauty in the world around them and their adventure on the No. 5 bus. 

    Learn more.

  • Spotlight on Teaching—Richard Soto Discusses The Process

    Brian Robin
     | Dec 28, 2021
    Richard Soto

    When he’s not appearing on stage as an actor, Richard Soto can often be found teaching one of the beginning acting classes in the Youth Conservatory. 

    Because he’s been teaching acting for more than 15 years, this is as much Soto’s natural habitat as the stage. To him, along with all of SCR’s Conservatory staff of professional working artists, teaching acting starts with one fundamental lesson.

    “At SCR, it’s all about the process,” Soto explained. “The process equals life skills. In order to do a play, you have to collaborate, you have to listen, you have to focus and you have to apply that every day in rehearsal and on the stage. You develop the confidence and we nurture that confidence to make creative choices that are required for every individual.”

    In Soto’s classes, that begins with games. He opens with games designed to break the ice and reduce tension. In turn, that release of tension opens up communication. From there, Soto puts his students in groups and asks them to find five things they all have in common.

    “I was teaching a group of fifth and sixth graders and I asked them this question and told them to be creative,” he said. “One said ‘We’re all single.’ Everyone’s eyes got wide. And I said that was good to know. Another kid said ‘We’re all alive.’ When they’re using answers like that, it’s above and beyond ‘We all like the color blue.’ We’re moving in the right direction.

    “We have to learn about each other. You’re going to be working on a scene together. You have to make the audience believe your relationship is real. But before that, you have to trust them and trust yourself.”

    Soto teaches Kids Year 1—Exploration to 5th and 6th graders Tuesdays from 4-6 p.m. He also teaches Teen Year 1—Tools of Acting to 7th-through-9th graders Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. Classes are grouped by age and every class is led by an instructor who brings knowledge, passion and a desire to create a strong foundation for students that goes beyond the stage.

    “I enjoy teaching because I found my voice in sharing what I love as an actor,” Soto said. “Revealing to people who are curious about what that world is like. What we’re thinking about when we’re trying to create our characters. What we’re thinking about when we’re in the middle of a scene. The challenges an actor has in acting. It’s not simply taking a piece of paper with lines on it and reciting it. It’s creating as believable a character as possible, a living breathing human being with intellectual and emotional contact.”

    Youth Conservatory classes begin Jan. 11 and run to March 19. Give your child or grandchild the gift that keeps giving, one that helps them discover hidden abilities while it builds creativity, self-confidence and communication skills. All with the byproduct of making new friends that often last a lifetime.

    “I tell them ‘I’m their biggest fan.’ I’m the biggest kid in the room and you can do no wrong,” Soto said. “When you go to a theatre and see a play, it’s that. We play. It’s serious fun.”

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  • Adult Conservatory—Spotlight on Playwriting

    Brian Robin
     | Dec 21, 2021
    Diana Burbano

    The beauty of the way Diana Burbano teaches her playwriting class at SCR’s Adult Conservatory—offered online Wednesdays this winter from 6-9 p.m.—is she doesn’t teach you how to write a play. And as counterintuitive as that sounds, it makes sense when you hear Burbano explain why.

    “I can’t actually teach you how to write a play. I can give you the framework. I can give you the format,” she said. “But there is no right way or wrong way to write a play. What I can give you is room to experiment. I can give you room to work on the story and room to allow the story to unfold.

    “… When students begin to trust me, I’ll ask questions of them. What do you want the audience to come away with? What do you want the play to say? I’ll lead them through questions about where they’re going with a particular scene. If your goal is to have an audience questioning this part of society, does this scene fulfill your goal? Has it moved the story forward? I let them figure it out. I’ll never tell them what to do. My job is to let them figure it out and see their scripts for what they can be.”

    A published playwright; her play Ghosts of Bogotá won the Nu Voices Festival at the Actors Theatre of Charlotte and debuted at the Alter Theater in Northern California in February 2020, and Equity actor, Burbano brings deep knowledge born of experience with all elements of the playwriting craft. That stretches from developing story ideas to creating believable, relatable characters, to the business behind the craft. She creates a learning environment featuring abundant sharing of work along with lessons in how to critique that work.

    Burbano herself solicits individual feedback on how much critique a student wants. She wants beginner writers to feel like their work can be constructively critiqued. Others, who may come in with more writing experience, often open themselves up to deeper criticism. And Burbano is wide open to both extremes—and everything in between.

    “We read them out loud and I train every class in listening and critiquing,” she said. “The goal is to critique the work without making the writer rewrite it. ‘Pops’ mean you’re excited and ‘bumps’ mean you weren’t quite sure about it. … I want people to feel comfortable. I want this to be a space where you can experiment and feel comfortable doing that.”

    Burbano’s class also draws in everyone from beginners to experienced writers. Everyone comes out of it understanding the "hows" in putting words and ideas on paper and the "whys" that make it successful.

    “As a teacher, she is a great guide and course-corrector, drawing on her experience to recognize what we’ve done right and to make it better,” said one of her students, award-winning Southern California News Group Sports Columnist Mark Whicker. “She also recognizes the individual voices we all have, and nurtures them, and she’s open to any style or subject matter. It’s no surprise that many of her students are repeaters from previous sessions. She gives us confidence, which may be the best gift of all.”

    Playwriting begins Jan. 26 and runs through March 16.

    Learn more.