• The Story Behind the Photo: "Gem of the Ocean"

    Tania Thompson
     | Oct 22, 2020
    Gem of the Ocean
    L. Scott Caldwell, Shinelle Azoroh, Matt Orduña and Preston Butler III in​ August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean. Photo by Jordan Kubat.

    About Gem of the Ocean

    It’s 1904. Many former slaves and descendants venturing north find themselves at Aunt Ester’s door in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. A renowned cleanser of souls claiming to be 285 years old, Ester provides solace, advice and healing. Citizen Barlow, racked with guilt over letting another man take the rap for of his crimes, desperately wants to be pure again. And Aunt Ester may be his only hope. A mystical story of freedom, justice and redemption from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fences.

    Preston Butler III was among seven actors who brought August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean to life on the Segerstrom Stage in 2017. The play was special to him on many levels. He selected the photo above as an important moment from the play.

    What moment does this depict?

    Preston Butler III: This moment depicts Aunt Ester describing in detail the "City of Bones" to an amazed Citizen Barlow using a quilt as an abstract map.

    How did you work to make this moment happen?

    PB: Truthfully, this was one of the few moments in the play where all I actually did was, literally, sit and listen! I think that we tried me standing at one point, but it just felt right to center both the illustrations of the quilt and the force of Aunt Ester's evocation.

    What’s the power about this moment?

    PB: L. Scott Caldwell as Aunt Ester IS the power of this moment. I can't begin to tell you how incredible she is as a performer and how much I was in awe each night at this particular moment! Everything about this moment is heightened because Aunt Ester is educating Citizen Barlow about his African ancestry, the Middle Passage, and power of those who died in transport. It is a rollercoaster of intensity, passion and spirituality. The interesting duality of the moment is that, just as Citizen Barlow was forced to reflect on the treacherous voyage of enslaved African peoples, I, too, as Preston was forced to confront this complex and chilling history of our country. I think therein lies the genius and power of August Wilson's work: to put characters onstage from times past in order to gain new perspectives of the present.

    Tell us about Citizen Barlow, the character you portrayed.

    PB: The journey of Citizen Barlow is one of purpose and discovery. Playwright August Wilson has him grapple with the complexity of being an American—What is freedom? What does it mean to be a citizen? Oddly enough,​ it's more than a century later [than the story is set] and I often find myself engaging similar questions. Citizen chooses to become a liberator for the people. Likewise, I believe I chose the same path when I decided to become an artist. These are defining times for America. Much like the characters in the play, we have an opportunity and responsibility to progress the ideas of citizenship and freedom for generations to come.

    Anything else you’d like to say about the production?

    PB: Fun fact: this production was my first professional gig! I am eternally grateful to Director Kent Gash, Casting Director Jo​anne DeNaut and the SCR team for trusting me with such a precious part in a stellar cast that included not one but TWO Tony Award-winners [L. Scott Caldwell and Cleavant Derricks]!

  • The Story Behind the Photo: "A Doll’s House, Part 2"

    Tania Thompson
     | Oct 16, 2020
    A Doll's House
    Caption: Shannon Cochran in A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath (2017). Photo by Debora Robinson.

    About A Doll’s House, Part 2

    The story follows Nora, who in the final scene of Ibsen’s classic A Doll’s House makes the shocking decision to leave her husband and children. A door slams. The curtain falls on a stunned audience. Playwright Lucas Hnath continues Nora’s story in this intriguing play with a decidedly modern perspective. Fifteen years have passed when there’s a knock on that same door. Why is Nora back—and what will her return mean to those she left behind?

    Director Shelley Butler is a veteran of nearly a dozen productions at South Coast Repertory—both in the main play series and in the Theatre for Young Audiences family series. In 2017, she helmed the world premiere of the SCR-commissioned A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. The Los Angeles Times lauded the show as a “quietly gripping production." Butler selected the photo above as an important moment from the play.

    What moment does this depict?

    Shelley Butler: This is the moment Nora [portrayed by Shannon Cochran] first returns and walks back through the door she slammed so famously all those years ago. There’s perhaps a wave of nostalgia and yet distance from a life she can no longer imagine herself inhabiting. Stronger than she was, having more trust and belief in herself but Nora still lacks power in society. She needs something from her husband, not love, not closure, but something legal that only he can give her—even though she made her way on her own—she cannot circumvent the law without her husband’s signature… and so she must return.

    How did you work to make this moment happen?

    SB: We wanted to amplify all that the brilliant Shannon Cochran was able to bring to this moment and pull the audience even closer—allowing them to share the breadth of her anticipation, apprehension, hopes and desires—so it felt like they were inside her mind or breathing with her. We accomplished this quite simply by irising in on Nora, dimming down on the room with its impossibly tall walls and casting it largely into silhouette and letting the bright white backdrop symbolize the larger world beyond. That contrast between outside and in became a true liminal space with Nora literally at the threshold between what was and what may come next.

    What’s the power about this moment?

    SB: This moment was only a flash, but there was a true synergy between Shannon, this extraordinary design team and myself. Sara Ryung Clement’s striking clothing clearly shows Nora as a woman who has now traveled beyond this home and has returned with her own armor. Takeshi Kata & Se Hyun Oh’s room design created a forum for ideas and space for a series of boxing matches to unfold. Tom Ontiveros' lighting carved out the flash itself. And while you can’t hear it, Cricket S Myers’ sound design here, a literal breath, almost a gasp, proved both arresting and poignant.

  • The Story Behind the Photo: "Venus in Fur"

     | Oct 09, 2020
    Venus in Fur
    Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige in​ SCR's production of Venus in Fur (2014). Photo by Debora Robinson.

    About Venus in Fur

    Auditions are over for the day, and Thomas still hasn’t found the perfect actress for his adaptation of a 19th-century erotic novel. Vanda stumbles into the bare rehearsal studio, soaking wet and hours late. Before he can stop her, she strips down to lingerie, wiggles into a white period dress and mysteriously becomes his elusive leading lady. But will the power play for sexual dominance be limited to the stage?

    Director Casey Stangl helmed South Coast Repertory’s production of David Ives’ Venus in Fur in 2014—a two-actor show. The Los Angeles Times said “the most delicious pleasure … comes from watching [the] actors dazzle us in a psycho-sexual pas de deux expertly choreographed for the dramatic stage.” Stangl selected the photo above as an important moment from the play

    What does this moment depict?

    Casey Stangl: In this moment, Thomas still thinks he is in control of the audition and is simply playing along with Vanda's role playing. Little does he know what Vanda has in store for him. Inch by inch, she uses his own hubris to trap him.

    How did you work to make this moment happen?

    CS: The actors, Graham Hamilton (as Thomas) and Jaimi Paige (Vanda) had previously worked together and had an incredible amount of trust and willingness to be vulnerable with each other. They were game to try anything. We did a lot of experimenting to both illustrate and obfuscate the power dynamics. In this photo, Graham is in the classic power position—standing above her, taking the action of kissing her hand, while Jaimi is prone and allowing the action to happen. So visually, he is in charge; but, in fact, she is about to turn the tables on him.

    Anything else you’d like to say about the photo or the production

    CS: YES! The shadows on the wall behind the actors. That show was my first time working with lighting designer Elizabeth Harper and she has become one of my go-to designers. The idea of using a lot of shadows was key to our visual plan, which culminated near the end in a literal giant shadow of Vanda on the walls when she stood on the table.

  • It Can't Happen Here

    John Glore
     | Oct 05, 2020
    It Can't Happen Here

    Beginning on Oct. 13, South Coast Repertory community members will have the opportunity to hear a radio play based on Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, adapted by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, directed by Lisa Peterson and starring Academy Award nominee David Strathairn. The project, made possible through a partnership with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, ;and more than 75 other theatres nationwide, will air in four segments via YouTube. All four half-hour segments of the radio drama (as well as a post-performance Q&A with the creative team) will begin airing on Oct. 13 and will be available for listening until Nov. 8.

    From Berkeley Rep’s publicity for the production: “Written in 1935 during the rise of fascism in Europe, writer Sinclair Lewis’ darkly satirical novel, It Can’t Happen Here follows the ascent of a demagogue who becomes president of the United States by promising to return the country to greatness.

    In 2016, Berkeley Rep unveiled a new stage adaptation of Lewis’s prescient novel; one week after that production ended, the presidential election roiled our nation. Now, Berkeley Repertory Theatre reprises that production with the same director and much of the original cast, but this time as a radio play in four episodes​, just in time for the 2020 presidential election. The audio drama is being offered free to organizations across the country. Berkeley Rep intends for the project to encourage dialogue and motivate citizens to exercise their civic power and vote.”

    Sinclair Lewis
    Sinclair Lewis in 1944.

    Sinclair Lewis established himself as one of the preeminent American writers of the first half of the 20th century when Main Street, a realistic novel about small-town life, took the country by storm in 1920. The novel’s phenomenal success (more than 2 million copies sold in the first few years after its publication) propelled Lewis to literary stardom and made him a rich man. Over the next 10 years he went on to write such enduring novels as Babbitt, Arrowsmith (Pulitzer Prize, 1925), Elmer Gantry and Dodsworth, leading to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930.

    Lewis’s writing generally offers a critical view of capitalism, materialism and unbridled ambition as exemplified in the lives of men from various strata of Middle American society—from a middle-class businessman (Babbitt) to a doctor and medical scientist (Arrowsmith) to a hypocritical evangelist (Elmer Gantry) to a prosperous automotive tycoon (Dodsworth).

    While his novels typically adopt a satirical tone, they feature nuanced portrayals of flawed men who live lives of privilege but succumb to the temptations their privilege inevitably brings with it.

    With It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis turned his focus to matters of state, and specifically to currents of fascism and demagoguery in American politics during the 1930s, when the Great Depression and political volatility in Europe and the U.S. weighed heavily on the minds of Americans. Critics and historians often cite the career of Huey P. Long as a likely inspiration for Lewis’s story of “Buzz” Windrip, a power-hungry Senator who sets out to ride a populist program and his own personal charisma to the presidency. Long (known as “The Kingfish”) was a fixture of Louisiana politics, a Democratic governor and then senator who exploited economic and class divisions to gain and consolidate power. Although his stance was generally progressive, Long became an outspoken critic of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and, with his populist “Share Our Wealth” platform, he was beginning a campaign against FDR for the 1936 election when he was assassinated—just before It Can’t Happen Here was published.

    SCR’s ties to Berkeley Rep go back many years and remain strong. In fact, Tony Taccone, co-adaptor of the radio play and Berkeley Rep’s artistic director until last year, is currently working with SCR artistic director David Ivers on a new-play project that will appear soon at SCR, either on stage or on SCR’s virtual platform. And Lisa Peterson, director of It Can’t Happen Here, has been a frequent SCR collaborator; most recently Peterson staged Julia Cho’s Aubergine on the Segerstrom Stage​ (2019) and, the year before, directed Culture Clash Still in America in the Julianne Argyros Stage.

  • The Story Behind the Photo: SCR Company on the Beach

    Tania Thompson
     | Oct 02, 2020
    SCR on the Beach
    Click photo to enlarge.
    SCR Beach IDs
    Select the image above to see the ID's.

    Fifty-two years ago, half way through South Coast Repertory's third season, in December 1968, this band of theatre adventurers gathered on the beach in Newport for a company photo. South Coast Repertory, halfway through its third season.

    This group did most everything to bring productions to life, says Founding Artistic Director David Emmes—acting, making costumes, building sets and more.

    This photo was taken for a mid-season subscription brochure sent out in January 1969; the large piece of plywood in the photo had “69” printed on it when it appeared in that mailing. “At the time,” Emmes says, “it was just a photo for a brochure. Now, of course, it is of immense value as it brings individual life and creative texture to our history.”

    Emmes, actor Hal Landon Jr., playwright and dramaturg Jerry Patch and Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson are all in the photo. Can you find them? Whom else do you recognize?