• A Q&A With "M. Butterfly" Director Desdemona Chiang

    Tania Thompson
     | Apr 23, 2019
    Desdemona Chiang

    Director Desdemona Chiang. Photo by Steve Korn.

    David Henry Hwang’s award-winning M. Butterfly came about as the result of a newspaper story that caught the playwright’s attention. The true-life tale that inspired Hwang was about a career French foreign service officer brought to ruin by his 20-year affair with a Beijing Opera diva.

    “Though written 30 years ago, few contemporary plays speak so profoundly to America’s current situation in the world as does David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.”

    DC Metro Theater Arts

    Much as Hwang was drawn to the news story, Desdemona Chiang is drawn in by Hwang’s striking play. She first read the script as an undergraduate and ​then saw the 2017 Broadway revival. This production of M. Butterfly marks her directorial debut at South Coast Repertory and concludes the 2018-19 season on the Segerstrom Stage.

    Chiang is based in Ashland, Ore., and Seattle, where she is a founder and co-artistic director of Azeotrope. Her directing credits include Guthrie Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Repertory Theatre, ​Pittsburgh Public Theatre and Baltimore Center Stage. She read M. Butterfly as an undergraduate and saw the 2017 Broadway revival.

    In this Q&A, she talks about the play and what it says to her.

    What are some key parts of the narrative around this play?
    M. Butterfly is a play about the allure of exceptionalism and the lengths a person will go to achieve and preserve it​, as well as issues of gender, cultural stereotypes and the ongoing tensions between East and West.

    Tell us about René Gallimard.
    He is a man who was unremarkable and inconsequential his entire life, until he met a woman that made him feel like the most important person in the world. Every human is the center of their universe, but here in the West, we are particularly concerned with our own sense of exceptionalism. We tend to say, ‘Bad stuff happens in life, but not to me’ or ‘I know he’s like that with other people, but I’m different.’ That feeling of exceptionalism, of uniqueness, of rare singularity, is very, very hard to let go of. And sometimes, we’d rather persist in a fantasy where we reign in perfection and beauty than to face the fact that the world is messy, where suffering is actually more painful than romantic, and we are merely average. This play shows us how long someone can persist in a fabricated reality in the interest of self-preservation.

    Talk a little bit about the setting.
    The play itself is set largely in China during the Cultural Revolution, one of the deadliest sociopolitical movements of the 20th century, yet it's setting shields us from the poverty and oppressive uniformity that was pervasive at the time. It takes place in a country populated by one-billion Chinese people, in a culture of collectivism, yet we are centered and protected in largely western-centric spaces—embassy offices, diplomat homes, cocktail parties and, most of all, in Gallimard’s mind. Even Song’s modest apartment is a haven from the dirty and impoverished streets. We—the audience—are mostly immune to the horrors and dangers of what is happening to the native people throughout the country. It serves as a dramatic backdrop for a forbidden romance filled with intrigue, but it never feels like we’re truly in it, at least not in a way that’s endangering or threatening.

    Why is this play important to be produced now?
    For a while, I kept asking myself why I was directing this play in 2019. I wholeheartedly agree that this play is a kind of love story, but it is also a warning to those who are willfully ignorant to the totality of the world they live in. We’re living in a climate of confirmation bias and polarizing assumptions that are proving more and more dangerous with each passing day. We consume information that supports our world view ​but, at the same time, we reject ideas that contradict our most deeply held beliefs, even when evidence may show otherwise. As society becomes more interconnected, intersectional and, yes, complicated, we cannot afford to persist in self-affirming confirmation bias where we refuse to see the whole picture.

    What do you hope the experience will be for audiences?
    I hope they will be moved by the arc of the story. This is a play that does ask some hard questions, such as ‘Should I trust everything that I see?’ or ‘Will I benefit from talking with people who don’t see the world the way I do?’ This is a play that is beautiful, invigorating and exciting and I hope that’s also what will move audiences.

    Learn more about M. Butterfly and buy tickets.

  • The Cast of "Oliver Twist" in Rehearsal

    Tania Thompson
     | Apr 23, 2019

    Oliver Twist Logo

    The Cast of Oliver Twist

    ​The cast of Oliver Twist: Top Row (left-to-right) Joshua Myran (Fagin), Liam McHugh (Limbkins, Bill Sikes), Nick Trafton (Susan, Artful Dodger), Sean Kato (Ballad Singer). Second row from the top: Olivia Drury (Nancy), Ella Webb (Oliver Twist), Stephanie Dien (Old Sally, Charlotte, Fang, Officer), Louis Tonkovich (Mr. Sowerberry, Bailiff, Grimwig). Third row from the top: Ben Susskind (Doctor, Monks), Lauren Dong (Agnes, Charley Bates, Mrs. Bedwin), Sarah Sparks (Board Member, Betsy, Puppeteer), Zoe Hebbard (Board Member, Mrs. Sowerberry, Book Seller, Old Emily). Front row: Mitchell Huntley (Mr. Bumble), Emme O’Toole (Rose), Amanda Fassett (Mrs. Corney), Saul Richardson (Noah Claypole, Mr. Brownlow).

    It’s a few minutes before the afternoon rehearsal starts for Oliver Twist (May 18-26, Nicholas Studio). Director Hisa Takakuwa is in the Nicholas Studio, where she has been working with some of the Teen Players* actors to strengthen a scene involving Oliver and a family he’ll work for.

    The script is adapted from Charles Dickens’ classic tale and offers the acting students both challenges and opportunities—it’s a stark portrayal of Victorian England; it offers hope through Oliver’s resilience; and there’s the added layer of perfecting British accents.

    The actors run their lines as Takakuwa listens.

    “So what’s the body language on that?” she asks, engaging the actors in a discovery process to help them portray the characters with truth, authenticity and depth.

    The actors re-run the lines as Takakuwa listens and watches.

    “How does that feel?” she asks. “You may feel like these characters are fringe, but they’re not,” she explains. “They’re people, just like you encounter all the time—maybe even in your own family. I want you to go further with it.”

    She steps back as the actors repeat the scene.

    “Keep going, keep going,” Takakuwa encourages over the dialogue. “Good! Okay!”

    At that point, the rest of the cast has arrived and Takakuwa shifts her focus to work over the next four hours with the full complement of characters—from Oliver to Fagin, to Nancy and Bill Sikes. The students are devoted to the process and what they learn enriches not only their lives, but those of audience members who will see the show in a few short weeks.

    *ABOUT THE TEEN PLAYERS: The Teen Players are carefully chosen through auditions from students in the teen acting program at SCR’s Theatre Conservatory. They have a minimum of two years’ experience. The cast for this production are all come from area hometowns that include Trabuco Canyon, Santa Ana, Lake Forest, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, Riverside, Newport Beach, Irvine, Foothill Ranch, San Clemente, Fountain Valley, Silverado and Costa Mesa.

    Learn more about Oliver Twist and buy tickets.
  • Party Play: "Sheepdog"

    Beth Fhaner
     | Apr 23, 2019

    Playwright Kevin Artigue’s Sheepdog, an SCR commission that is also part of the 2019 Pacific Playwrights Festival, opened to an appreciative and engaged audience at its world premiere on the Julianne Argyros Stage on Friday, April 19, 2019.

    A complex and mysterious story about two ​police officers who are also romantic partners, Sheepdog captured the attention of the First Night audience right from the start and never let up, delivering 90 minutes of impressive performances, intense dialogue and deep emotion under the skillful direction of Leah C. Gardiner. Theatregoers immediately showed their admiration for Artigue’s riveting drama with generous applause and a standing ovation.

    With Erika LaVonn as Amina and Lea Coco as Ryan, the two leads delivered extraordinary performances while giving audiences a glimpse into the complicated lives of two police officers in Cleveland. Voice actors Melody Butiu and Ricardo Salinas are also heard as unseen characters in the play.

    The Playwrights Circle served as Honorary Producer for this production. The circle members include Sandy Segerstrom Daniels; Dr. Robert F. and Julia A. Davey; Patricia Ellis; David Emmes and Paula Tomei; Janet and Michael Hards; Tracy and Roger Kirwan; Carl Neisser; Michael Oppenheim; Carolina and John Prichard; Michael Ray; Susan Shieldkret and David Dull; Peter and Joy Sloan; Julia Voce; and Judy and Wes Whitmore.

    Circle member John Prichard found the play to be thought-provoking and commented, “It was truly a treat to talk to the playwright, director and dramaturg amid the excitement of Sheepdog’s world premiere! Their insight made the play that much more intense and unforgettable.”

    Guests who attended the cast party at the Costa Mesa Marriott, which was a co-sponsor of the event, were welcomed to the stylish space with the warm glow of candlelight and eye-catching floral arrangements consisting of blue hydrangeas, cornflowers and stock flowers.

    The celebratory soirée featured a menu of Cleveland-inspired dishes including passed hors d’oeuvres such as potato and cheese pierogis with hollandaise aioli and kielbasa sausage in a puff pastry. Partygoers also enjoyed savory fare including gourmet pizza bagels and grilled corned beef sliders on marble rye bread. For a sweet finish, guests indulged in scrumptious treats including strawberry cassata cake and a gourmet donut display.

    From the bar, the play-inspired signature cocktail was dubbed “Cleveland (on the) Rocks”—a delicious beverage that blended whiskey, ginger ale and lime juice over ice.

    First Night theatregoers were delighted to have the opportunity to meet the director, playwright and the cast during the after-party. As guests mingled with fellow theatregoers into the evening, kudos continued for the cast and creative team of Sheepdog, Artigue’s important new work that will perhaps help to continue the conversation regarding police violence and the feeling that something needs to change.

    Learn more about Sheepdog and buy tickets

  • The Playwrights of PPF: Chisa Hutchinson

    Tania Thompson
     | Apr 22, 2019
    Chisa Hutchinson

    Playwright Chisa Hutchinson.

    South Coast Repertory's Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF) has been a launching pad for many plays and playwrights, including David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime, Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel and Vietgone by Qui Nguyen and Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee.

    Among the five readings at the 2019 festival is Whitelisted by Chisa Hutchinson. The story follows the ​strange things that are happening in Rebecca’s new apartment—poltergeist strange. And it’s not easy being on the front lines of gentrification. Now Yvette, a homeless woman, keeps intruding on her life. But even the best home-security system can’t save Rebecca from what’s really haunting her​.

    We caught up with Hutchinson and talked with her about the moment she knew she wanted to write plays, the play that changed her life and more.

    As a kid, what story did you read in secret?
    VC Andrews novels—they were so scandalous! I wouldn’t even check them out of the library; I’d just read them there in installments.

    When did you know that you wanted to be a playwright?
    When I saw August Wilson debate Robert Brustein on the issue of colorblind casting. My man was like, “It’s lazy and it’s bullshit. Just an excuse to not tell stories actually about people of color by people of color. We need to do better.” And I was like, “Right on, Mr. Wilson,” and started telling stories myself.

    What play changed your life—and why?
    Kia Corthron’s Breath, Boom. I saw it at Playwrights Horizons umpteen years ago and it was just so different from anything I’d ever seen on a stage. Like who puts poor, black thugs on stage? Maybe in a “Law & Order” episode for two seconds, but not on stage for 90 minutes, endowing the​m with humanity and nuance and shit. That just wasn’t done. I’d read Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun before this, but nothing compares to seeing black bodies move through life, live on stage. It’s incredibly validating. Like “Wow! Society cares enough about us to make us art!”

    The reading of Whitelisted, directed by Sarah Rasmussen, will be on Sunday, April 28, at 10:30 a.m., on the Segerstrom Stage.

    Learn more and purchase tickets.

    Meet the Playwrights of the 2019 Pacific Playwrights Festival
    Daniel Messe, Sean Hartley & Craig Lucas: Prelude to a Kiss
    Adam Bock: The Canadians
    Ana Nogueira: Mask Only
    Melissa Ross: Unlikeable Heroine

    Qui Nguyen: Poor Yella Rednecks
    ​Kevin Artigue: Sheepdog

  • The Art and Business of Acting

    Matthew Arkin
     | Apr 22, 2019
    Matthew Arkin with students

    Acting Intensive Director Matthew Arkin works on a scene with students.

    About Matthew Arkin

    Arkin's Broadway credits include the revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, as well as Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor (also national tour). He has numerous ​off-Broadway and regional credits including his Drama Desk-nominated performance as Gabe in Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends and he received acclaim for his portrayal of the 600-pound Charlie in ​South Coast Repertory's ​west ​coast premiere of Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale, one of his many appearances ​here. His films include indies Second Best and Raising Flagg, as well as Death to Smoochy, Liar, Liar, North and An Unmarried Woman. ​Arkin's television appearances include recurring roles on “Rescue Me,” “100 Centre Street,” “Third Watch” and “All My Children,” and guest spots on “Aquarius,” “NCIS,” and “Switched at Birth” He is an adjunct professor at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University, has taught ​technique and ​scene ​study at New York’s world-renowned HB Studio and now teaches privately in Los Angeles. He studied technique, scene study and Shakespeare with Uta Hagen and studied with Austin Pendleton and Sheldon Patinkin.

    South Coast Repertory's Acting Intensive Program (AIP) is a nationally renowned seven-week summer program for serious acting students, ages 18 and over. This year, AIP takes place from June 3-July 20, ​with entry to this program by audition only. Here, Program Director Matthew Arkin writes about what students can expect in this distinctive, summer acting program.

    The goal of the Acting Intensive Program is twofold: We focus on both the art and the business of acting. First, we aim to engender in the individual knowledge of themselves and their abilities that will to guide them as they build a solid identity as an actor engaged in a lifelong quest to refine and sharpen their own craft. Second, we give participants solid technique, as well as information about the realities and practicalities involved in the pursuit of a viable living as an actor.

    I come to my work as an instructor from the standpoint of a working professional. My initial relationship with SCR was as an actor, 10 years ago. After performing in my second show here in 2012, I began teaching in the adult education program. Now, with six main stage productions under my belt, along with countless readings and workshops, I am entering my fifth year as program director. So, although I have been teaching acting and film for many years, my approach is to convey to students what I know works out in the real world, not theory that has gone stale from too much time in the classroom. This commitment extends to the selection of the other core faculty members as well, which is where the true strength of the AIP resides.

    In addition to the core curriculum, the AIP is augmented by extraordinary guest teachers and lecturers, all of whom are currently working in the industry as actors, directors, producers or show runners. Because of this extensive experience, participants will be getting priceless insider advice. AIP students will thrive for seven weeks inside a caring, vibrant community at one of the nation’s leading breeding grounds for new play development, and leave with a toolbox full of creative knowledge and technique, revitalized and ready to take their next steps down their career path.

    Learn more about the Acting Intensive Program and how to apply.