• Director Beth Lopes Understands the Historic Weight of "Our Town"

    Brian Robin
     | May 02, 2022
    Our Town Logo
    Beth Lopes

    Director Beth Lopes.

    With Theatre for Young Audiences and Families directing credits such as The Velveteen Rabbit and Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook, Beth Lopes is no stranger to SCR. But she relishes the fact she is a stranger to her latest directorial project: Our Town by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Thornton Wilder.

    “I’m in a fortunate position because I haven’t been inundated with Our Town in the sense that I had only seen it once and only read it once,” she said. “I read it in high school and I saw it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a while ago. I have the benefit that I know it’s iconic, but I don’t have a thousand other productions in my head. I felt like I was able to read the script with the eye of someone who has seen what’s there as opposed to what has been done. 

    “However, with that being said, there is a weight with this play and almost anyone I encounter who asks me what I’m working on, so many of them tell me it’s their favorite play. It means so much to them. That weight is nothing to discount, in addition to the weight of the last several years. It’s incredibly important to me that everyone who chooses to visit Our Town by coming to see this production feels as if they belong in Our Town. When (SCR Artistic Director) David Ivers talked to me about the play, I was so honored that he would trust me with a play of this magnitude, both logistically and emotionally.”

    Yes, Lopes understands that with directing an American classic comes great responsibility. After all, Ivers was handing Lopes the keys to one of America’s most beloved and most performed plays. And doing so during the milestone year: the 125th anniversary of Wilder’s birthday.

    Lopes quickly grasped the significance of Wilder’s iconic play, it’s emphasis on community, on human connection, on appreciating each moment—significant or otherwise. Wilder’s message resonated particularly strongly.

    “When the pandemic hit and the future of this project was uncertain, I didn’t know if and when we’d be able to perform it. I couldn’t stop thinking about this play,” she said. “All of a sudden, the lessons I felt Wilder was trying to teach us became so much more important. I felt like the pandemic was trying to teach us something and as I continue to work on this play, the lesson is ‘connection is essential.’”

    That connection took on another dimension. Lopes stressed to her cast that the character you’re portraying is secondary to you—the person portraying that character. She understood this was one of Wilder’s hidden gems in terms of connecting 1901 Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire with—in this instance—2022 Costa Mesa, California.

    “Right at the beginning, it occurred to me the community of people producing and watching this play is as important—more important—than the people in Grover’s Corners,” she said. “I’ve told my actors who you are is far more important than who you pretend to be. You don’t have to be George or Emily. I took that responsibility on by casting you. … I work on a lot of Shakespeare and I understand that there’s an enormous amount of pressure to be those iconic parts: Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet. But they’re just words on a page. Our actor who is playing Simon Stimson (Brad Culver), for example, has to bring what he has to offer as a person to Simon to make him into a three-dimensional person. The back-story on that character is quite vague.”

    The other mountain Lopes had to conquer came from Wilder himself. He often said Our Town was his favorite play, but it wasn’t produced correctly. By that, he felt too much sentimentality creeped into the productions. He wrote it intending it to be performed in the simplest fashion. That’s why props are minimal. The words and the individuality of his characters need to carry the day.

    “I think he makes that very clear in the play. If you lean into sentimentality, you miss the point in certain regards,” she said. “One of our brilliant actors, Michael Manuel (Mr. Webb) asked the other day in rehearsal, ‘Are we having a moment now?’ I said, ‘Great question. NO, you don’t know you’re having a moment now.’ We on the outside can see all these beautiful moments they’re chugging along. That’s the point of the play, that we’re so caught up in our everydayness that we don’t recognize the little beauties around us.

    “When do you realize you’re having a moment? Weddings and funerals are such important events, but one of the few times we realize we’re living something very significant is while it’s happening. In the play, we’re trying to use design to emphasize those moments and let them ‘blossom’ in a way that we can feel that something feels very special.”

    All this explains why Lopes feels Our Town is the perfect destination for these times.

    “Just because Our Town took place a long time ago doesn’t mean that fundamentally, the people are different than us,” she said. “… That’s why I think this play is so popular. Wilder was able to hit at the heart of the core of people. There’s so much in there that was written for us right now.”

    See Our Town on the Segerstrom Stage May 7-June 4.

    Learn more and buy tickets to Our Town.

  • What is a Dramaturg? Our Town's Anna Jennings Explains

    Brian Robin
     | Apr 25, 2022
    Our Town Logo
    Anna Jennings

    Anna Jennings

    Kwana Martinez had questions. The actor playing Mrs. Gibbs in SCR’s Our Town wanted to know how travel abroad was advertised and secured. She also wanted to know what languages were taught in turn-of-the-20th century schools, what childbirth/folk remedies/medical practices were like and French Canadian/Caribbean immigration patterns to New England in 1901.

    As the saying goes, there is an app for that. Her name is Anna Jennings. And she turned the information around to Martinez in a few hours.

    SCR’s Artistic Coordinator, Jennings is the dramaturg for Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s American classic set in the fictional hamlet of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire beginning in 1901. She is the “app,” the all-sources resource for helping transform actors and audiences back to turn-of-the-20th century New England.

    A dramaturg’s job is to provide context, structure and expertise on the social, political, physical, economic and technical environment of a play’s setting. Consider them part librarian, part historian, part linguist, part Googlemeister, and keeper of all knowledge. A dramaturg serves as a source of knowledge to help the director and actors accurately capture a period of time.

    “Dramaturgy is always difficult to define. Whenever anyone asks, ‘What is dramaturgy?’ I tell them there’s so many different versions of this,” Jennings said. “That’s why it’s hard (to define). Our Town is set-text dramaturgy. It’s the most straightforward and the easiest way to define it is that a dramaturg, researches, and helps throughout the entire process as a resource to the artists. At a certain point, I look at the work from an audience perspective.”

    If you need to know how much $350 in 1901 dollars equates to in 2022, Jennings has that for you ($11,838.40, if you’re curious). If you need to know what Dr. Gibbs would be reading and how he would read it: candlelight or an oil lamp—as a recent question from a rehearsal posed—you ask Jennings.

    If you need to know the context of a word from 121 years ago, you ask Jennings. For example, Emily Webb has a line in the play referring to “this terrible moonlight.”

    “The use of the word ‘terrible’ here, that’s not how we use the word anymore,” Jennings said. “I looked it up in the American Heritage Dictionary and found a definition that shows it doesn’t always mean ‘bad.’ Sometimes, it means ‘great and overwhelming.’ So, I shared that with everyone.

    “Sometimes when you’re reading through for the first time, you don’t catch the little things. That’s what the actors do for you. As a dramaturg, you’re approaching the whole of it. The actors are approaching it through tunnelvision. They’re great at catching things.”

    And Jennings, who is making her SCR dramaturgical debut on Our Town, is great at finding things. Because director Beth Lopes is approaching the play in a historically accurate fashion, Jennings created a 98-page “protocol” that included Wilder’s biography, Our Town’s production history (openings, revivals, radio and TV adaptations), reviews, a glossary of terms used at that time, research images, a historical timeline (which was 20 pages alone), the historical, social and cultural environment of 1901 New England, character analyses, a summary of the play’s major themes/ideas, a critical history consisting of relevant scholarly items and—something Jennings took great pride including—complimentary texts, primarily Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters.

    Including Masters’ 1915 collection of short poems that captures the lives, losses and manner of deaths in the fictional Illinois town of Spoon River illustrates Jennings’ attention to detail. She immediately saw the connection between Grover’s Corners and Spoon River, so into the protocol it went.

    Along with the protocol, Jennings created 14-page individual packets for each actor: a slimmed-down version of the protocol that included a glossary, a pop-culture chart for 1900, pictures of flowers mentioned in the play and excerpts from Spoon River Anthology she felt were relevant.

    “The nice thing about this kind of dramaturgy is it’s very much like collecting articles and skimming them,” she said. “I’m like a magpie getting all this stuff. I put all that’s interesting into a binder. Some of it won’t be used, but some of it will. …

    “It’s a very flexible thing what you put into it. It’s up to you to determine what will be useful to the artists.”

    Jennings, who has an MFA in dramaturgy from the University of Arizona, clearly enjoys the challenge of dramaturgy for a play performed thousands of times in hundreds of venues since its 1938 debut.

    “The dramaturg is kind of like being there with the artist to figure out what kind of story they want to tell. It’s understanding what their goal is and then helping them get to that,” she said. “ … I like the flexibility and the variety of ways you can apply it.”

    See Our Town on the Segerstrom Stage May 7-June 4.

    Learn more and buy tickets to Our Town.

  • "Tiger Style!" Challenges Tiger Parenting Stereotypes

    Brian Robin
     | Apr 19, 2022
    Tiger Style Logo

    It is no secret that Mike Lew wrote Tiger Style! as an artful response to Amy Chua’s 2011 New York Times best-selling book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua, a law professor at Yale, wrote her much-praised, much-criticized book as a memoir of how she raised her two daughters: Sophia and Lulu.

    In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua breaks down parenting in two categories: “Western” and “Chinese.” The “Western” method seeks to build respect and nurture a child’s individuality. It’s more permissive, more cognizant of a child’s self-esteem. The “Chinese” method is not permissive. It strives to build inner confidence and future success through emphasizing strong work habits and hard skills such as math, music and anything that puts them ahead of their peers.

    That method is unbending and, unlike Western parenting, does not nurture a child’s self-esteem. Chua’s daughters were not allowed to have playdates, not allowed to get a grade lower than an A, not allowed to be in a school play, not allowed to watch TV or play computer games, and not permitted to be anything but the top students in their classes in every subject but gym and drama.

    Oh, and they had to play either the piano or violin. Which left no time for anything else, because Chua mandated they practice their instrument three hours a day—even on vacations, where Chua would scout out hotels that had pianos for Sophia to practice on.

    That led to moments such as one chronicled by Sophia in the book. She quoted her mother saying that if the next time she didn’t play a piano piece perfectly, “I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!”

    Not surprisingly, this didn’t play like a Beethoven sonata in various corners of Western society. Chua received death threats, waves of hate mail and even calls for her to be arrested for child abuse. To this day, she keeps the hate email in a folder entitled “Do not look.”

    Lew looks at all that, digests it partially through the personal prism of his own upbringing in La Jolla, and does a masterful job destroying stereotypes. Through the play’s two protagonists, siblings Albert and Jennifer Chen, Lew writes about two products of “tiger parenting” who rebel in adulthood after feeling unfulfilled—despite achieving everything they were supposed to.

    Jennifer graduated from Harvard in three years, played the piano and became a successful oncologist. Albert went to Harvard and became a software programmer.

    Lew explores the siblings’ quest for self-worth and inner fulfillment, showing the two sides of tiger parenting: its effects on children as children and subsequently, as adults. On their journeys, the Chens battle cultural stereotypes, generic assumptions about millennials and learn that you can go home again.

    Learn more and buy tickets to Tiger Style!.

  • Meet the Cast of "Our Town"

    Brian Robin
     | Apr 19, 2022
    The Cast of Our Town
    Top row: Mikayla Conley, Paul Culos, Brad Culver and Nicole Erb. Row two: Michael William Gomez, Saúl Gutierrez, Corey Jones and Hal Landon Jr. Row three: Jo Lopez, Evan Lugo, Michael Manuel and Kwana Martinez. Bottom row: Elyse Mirto, Grace Morrison, Lester Purry and Moses Villarama.

    Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town to illustrate the meaning that exists in the simple, everyday happenings within a single community: the diverse lives that come together to form that community.

    Our Town runs May 7-June 4 on the Segerstrom Stage.

    The cast features SCR Founding Member Hal Landon Jr. as the Stage Manager. It is Landon’s first SCR role since he ended his iconic, 40-year run as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol in December 2019. Landon has appeared in 122 different SCR productions, dating back to 1967’s Playboy of the Western World.

    Joining Landon in the cast are several SCR veterans. Paul Culos (Howie Newsome) returns after appearances in SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences and Families Productions of The Velveteen Rabbit and Junie B. Jones is Not A Crook.

    Brad Culver (Simon Stimson) returns after his appearances in One Man, Two Guvnors, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Charlotte’s Web.

    Nicole Erb (Mrs. Soames/Lady in the Balcony) also appeared in Junie B. Jones is Not A Crook, along with The Velveteen Rabbit.

    If you saw The Velveteen Rabbit and Junie B. Jones is Not A Crook, you also saw Jo Lopez (Sam Craig/Baseball Player).

    Michael William Gomez (Joe Stoddard/Baseball Player) was cast in I Get Restless. He attended rehearsals before that production was canceled due to the pandemic. Most recently, Gomez appeared in a NewSCRipts reading of The Hombres.

    Michael Manuel (Mr. Webb) returns after his haunting performance as Jacob Marley in SCR’s A Christmas Carol this past winter. His other SCR credits include Amos and Boris, Tartuffe, Eurydice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and numerous readings.

    Kwana Martinez (Mrs. Gibbs) returns to SCR after her appearance in the world premiere of Mr. Wolf, along with several Pacific Playwrights Festival and NewSCRipts readings.

    Elyse Mirto (Mrs. Webb) previous appeared at SCR as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, and as Mother in Little Black Shadows.

    Lester Purry (Constable Warren) appeared at SCR as Rev. Charles Grace in Fireflies.

    Moses Villarama (Professor Willard/Baseball Player) made his SCR debut last weekend in the Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of A Million Tiny Pieces.

    Evan Lugo (George Gibbs) makes his SCR debut prior to his graduation from the UC Irvine MFA Acting program.

    Also making their SCR debuts are Mikayla Conley (Rebecca Gibbs/Lady in the Box/Woman Among the Dead), Corey Jones (Dr. Gibbs), Saúl Gutierrez (Wally Webb/Joe Crowell Jr./Si Crowell), and Grace Morrison (Emily Webb).

    Learn more and buy tickets to Our Town.

  • Celebrating 125 Years of Thornton Wilder

    Brian Robin
     | Apr 11, 2022
    Thornton Wilder
    ​Thronton Wilder in 1935. Photo courtesy of the Wilder Family LLC and YCAL.

    It’s not exaggerating to call Thornton Wilder a Renaissance Man. Where to start chronicling his remarkable and varied career provides a challenge to anyone seeking to wrap their minds around how much Wilder (1897-1975) accomplished in his 78 years.

    SCR commemorates the 125th birthday of this Renaissance Man by producing his seminal work Our Town, which runs May 7-June 4 on the Segerstrom Stage. SCR is the only Southern California theatre producing one of Wilder’s works this year.

    To commemorate Wilder’s 125th birthday, more than 150 productions of his plays go on stage worldwide. This includes a new Broadway production of The Skin of Our Teeth and a first-ever staging of Wilder’s unfinished play The Emporium at Alley Theater in Houston. Along with that, the Thornton Wilder Library is releasing a new edition of The Bridge of San Luis Rey and special Thornton Wilder Library editions of all his novels and major plays.

    On April 27, a short documentary, Thornton Wilder: It’s Time will premiere at Lincoln Center Theater, the site of the Broadway revival of The Skin of Our Teeth. That documentary, featuring rarely seen footage of Wilder, along with interviews with Mia Farrow, the late playwright A.R. Gurney and others, will be made available free online.

    On Tuesday, May 3, the Library of America will host Our Town for Our Time: How Thornton Wilder’s Play Speaks to a changing America and Around the Globe. The online conversation, which features a conversation with theatre director Michel Hausmann, Sorbonne University professor Julie Vatain-Corfdi and Tappan Wilder, the author’s nephew and literary executor, is free. Register here.

    The celebration of Wilder’s 125th birthday honors one of the most decorated men of letters of the 20th century. But Wilder was more than a playwright, more than a novelist.

    There’s the three Pulitzer Prizes: two in Drama for Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth and one in Fiction for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Wilder remains the only American writer to win Pulitzers in two different categories.

    There’s the proficiency in four languages. There’s the teaching career at the University of Chicago and Harvard. There’s the screenwriting career, where Wilder wrote the first draft of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Shadow of a Doubt.

    He wrote the libretto for Paul Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner and Alcestiad by Louise Talma, which was based on Wilder’s play. And there’s the man who served his country as a decorated officer for the Army Air Force Intelligence Department during World War II.

    Even Tappan Wilder finds himself running out of verbal real estate trying to encompass Wilder’s overall contribution to the arts.

    “Wilder was a man of many parts: most people know him as a playwright and a novelist, but he was also an actor, translator, educator, lecturer, musician, lyricist, screenwriter, and the list goes on,” Wilder said. “Constantly experimenting with form, he wrestled with the questions of the cosmos, of what it means to be human. With the celebration of the 125th anniversary of his birth, we’re putting him back together. It’s a moment to celebrate the depth and breadth of his work, as well as his legacy—his influence on the writers of today.”

    Learn more and buy tickets to Our Town.