• The Playwrights of PPF: Ana Nogueira

    Tania Thompson
     | Apr 08, 2019
    Ana Norgueria

    Playwright Ana Nogueira

    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 Mask Only by Ana Nogueira. We caught up with her and talked about her favorite (and surprising) writing place, the play that changed her life and more.

    Ana Nogueira

    Nogueira writing on the subway.

    Describe your favorite writing space.
    I need a mixture of public and private. I don't write very well in like, a silent cabin in the woods. But I also can't write in a loud space with music. I need people around and a sort of low hum of conversation. Also, snacks. I'm very picky! I think it's because I'm a little more extroverted than most playwrights, so I get energy being in a room full of people. When I'm home alone and trying to write, I just end up taking a nap; there's no energy for me to feed off. I also have to set strict rules for myself. I hide my phone (literally putting it in a cabinet or asking someone at the coffee shop to put it behind the bar for me) and I have an app that turns off my internet for an allotted period of time. I guess the place that makes all of this possible with the least effort on my part is the subway. As long as you can find a seat, it's one of the best places to write in New York. Plus, having to finish writing a scene is one of the best ways to keep yourself from feeling homicidal towards the MTA for all the delays.

    As a kid, what story did you read in secret?
    I wish I had been cool enough to read something in secret! That sounds like a badass move for a child. There was no Lady Chatterly's Lover under the covers with a flashlight happening for me. Everything I read, I read in public.

    When did you know that you wanted to be a playwright?
    I absolutely stumbled into this job. I'm an actress as well and that's what I spent my life working towards and studying. My mother was always telling me that I was a writer, but I ignored her because it felt like she was telling me I wasn't a good enough actress (she wasn't saying that—I’m just overly sensitive!). When I was in my mid-20s, I had an idea for a play and I sort of gave myself the challenge to see if I could finish it. It was really just an exercise, but I clearly fell in love with the process. Writing is hard work and takes a ton of discipline, but there is also this liminal space that you can slip into, where time expands and the play seems to be writing itself through you. It is quite a delicate state and it can't be forced; but, when it happens to you, you want to try to make it happen again and again. Add to that the joy of working with actors and a director on something you wrote and you have a job that's sort of an addiction.

    What play changed your life?
    There are so many, but the first one that really shifted my perspective was Into the Woods. I was obsessed with it as a child. I would build forts in the TV room so I could camp out and watch the PBS “Great Performances” VHS tape of it on loop. I was really young, probably 8 years old, and I think the mixture of familiar subject matter (fairy tales) and the deeply universal and complicated adult themes simultaneously drew me in and also forced me to rise to a new level of thought. I think about this a lot lately: the way too much musical theatre panders to its audience, to its fan base, without forcing them to step outside of their comfort zone. The great musicals do and I believe that's why they've withstood the test of time and deserve a place in the history books next to Shakespeare and Chekhov and all the rest. I think falling in love with Into the Woods at such a young age put me on a lifelong search for theatre that balances darkness and light. I'm always trying to find that sweet spot and this play, Mask Only, is no exception.

    What should we know about Mask Only?
    I guess it's important to know that Mask Only is about something I care about deeply. Or rather, many things that I care about deeply: musical theatre, friendship, the allyship between straight women and gay men. It is very much a love letter to all the people that I went to theatre school with many moons ago. But, to care about things deeply also means that you have to examine them fully and be willing to criticize them and even make fun of them. There are a lot of competing issues brought up in the play and I hope people know that I don't take a definitive stance on any of them but, rather that I am curious about the argument and the mucky grey territory. Also, it's about the theatre and there are a lot of inside baseball jokes about musicals, but it will make just as much sense if you've never seen a musical in your life.

    There are three public readings during PPF of Mask Only, directed by Mike Donahue: Friday, April 26, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 27, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 28, at 2:30 p.m., in the Nicholas Studio.

    Learn more and purchase tickets.

  • Meet the Cast of "Sheepdog"

    Tania Thompson
     | Apr 02, 2019
    Lea Coco and Erika LaVonn

    ​Lea Coco and Erika LaVonn in rehearsal for ​Sheepdog.

    The story of two people—Amina and Ryan—in Kevin Artigue’s Sheepdog (April 14-May 5, Julianne Argyros Stage) is complex and mysterious. Actually, a mystery within a love story because, in addition to being police officers, Amina and Ryan are lovers. Until something happens that rocks their relationship to the core. We caught up with the cast of Sheepdog to learn more about this new drama.

    Lea Coco

    Lea Coco
    At SCR: This is my debut.
    My other credits include Blue Man Group, The Public Theater, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Utah Shakespeare Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, J. Edgar, Sinister 2, “Queen Sugar,” and The Sweetest Christmas (Hallmark Channel).
    I’m drawn to Sheepdog because I love plays about discovery. I am particularly attracted to projects where characters are on a journey that takes place at the edge of their understanding. I love plays about discovery. Amina and Ryan both relentlessly ask, “Who am I?”; and we see them earnestly trying to answer that question in real time. It's ironic that our story is presented as a “memory” play because the discoveries are so immediate. I love plays that are distinctly rooted in difficult American values. Kevin [Artigue] has a unique, authentic and essential perspective of where the “rubber meets the road.”
    My character, Ryan, is a guileless and idealistic cop whose values are put to the test in his professional and personal life. He finds himself at a crossroads when his sense of justice comes in conflict with his sense of self. More importantly for the story we are trying to tell, Ryan is motivated by a desire to be the kind of man that Amina can love and respect. He is most relatable in his yearning to prove himself as a worthy father. He is honorable, forthright, a bit naïve, haunted, loving and kind. He is both qualified and unprepared for the challenge that he faces.
    My favorite donut is, well, I can't talk about donuts without talking about a specific place called District in New Orleans. Come for the food and music...stay for the doughnuts at District. My personal favorite is their take on a chocolate eclair.

    Erika LaVonn

    Erika LaVonn
    At SCR: I’m making my debut here.
    My other credits include Broadway production of The Lion King, My Lord, “Law & Order: SVU,” War of the Worlds, The Christians, What I ​Learned in Paris and The Mountaintop.
    I’m drawn to Sheepdog because it's a new work. It's also a new voice that touches on a very timely subject, a subject that is necessary to look at from different angles. One of the lines in the play is “we see what we want to see.” With the current atmosphere not only in America but in the world, I think it's really important to put fresh eyes on why we choose to see what we see. I really respect that [playwright] Kevin Artigue has done that, and that he challenges us to look at ourselves at the same time.
    My character, Amina, is a 13-year veteran of the Cleveland Police Department in a district that has been hit hard on many fronts—especially socially and economically. It's considered a dangerous part of Cleveland but is, and always has been, her home. She's there because she loves it and she wants to be a part of making it better. It's a story that follows a path in life when head, heart and home collide.
    My favorite donut is something from childhood. I grew up in an area where a bakery was on my way home from school. My path intersected with buttery, sweet, nutty aromas wafting in the air that would lure me like a mouse to the Pied Piper. Often, if the baker spotted me with my nose mashed to the window, they would offer up a sugar or black and white cookie the size of my head—I think just to see me smile. Don't you know that set me up for My Love of All Things Baked?! If I haaad to choose, I’d say that I'm a fan of the mash-up. With thoughts of sweet and buttery swirling in my head, the Cronut has to be my go-to because it's all things good. Light, flaky croissant inside, the best of crispy, fried donut outside and the tiniest drizzle of sweet glaze and cinnamon sugar sprinkled about. Nom, nom, sigh... Now, off to find one!

    And while you won’t SEE them in the play, you’ll HEAR these voice actors.

    Melody Butiu

    Melody Butiu
    ROLES: Female voices
    At SCR: A Christmas Carol (2018), Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience, Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, Ivy + Bean: The Musical, Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells Batman Smells.
    Her other credits include Dr. Zhivago (Broadway), Here Lies Love (off-Broadway), Sunday in the Park with George, A Little ​Night Music, Golden Child, Boy, The Patients, A Mother’s Great Fear, “The Kominsky Method,” “NCIS: LA”, “Gotham” and “Modern Family.”

    Ricardo Salinas

    Ricardo Salinas
    ROLES: Male voices
    At SCR: Culture Clash in AmeriCCa (2008), Culture Clash (Still) in America (2019).
    His other credits include With Culture Clash, has written more than a dozen plays and performed more than 5,000 nationwide. Currently touring a solo show, 57 Chevy, and in the fall, Bad Hombres, Good Wives (San Diego Repertory Theatre).

    Learn more about Sheepdog and buy tickets.

  • The Playwrights of PPF: Melissa Ross

    Tania Thompson
     | Apr 01, 2019
    Melissa Ross

    Playwright Melissa Ross.

    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 Unlikeable Heroine by Melissa Ross. Her play Of Good Stock had a PPF reading in 2015 and premiered here in the following year.

    We caught up with Ross and talked with her about the books she secretly read in childhood, her writing routine, the play that changed her life and more.

    Describe your favorite writing space.
    I write in two parts. My first drafts are always long hand, in notebooks. For that, I pretty much always write sitting in this old, falling apart leather club chair in my apartment—that I should probably get rid of, but I love it too much. And so I try not to notice that it's literally crumbling into pieces. And then, for part two, I switch to the computer to type it all up and I sit at my desk—surrounded by various keepsakes from productions of my plays.

    What was your favorite story or book that you heard/read as a kid?
    Oh there are so many! When I was really little, and mostly getting read to, I loved Eloise. I knew the entire thing by heart. I think I still may! I thought it was hilarious. The first book that I remember reading myself was Charlotte's Web. I devoured it in a few days and was unbearably devastated at the end. I don't think a book had ever made me cry before. But I also remember how real it felt, how grateful I was to spend the time with the characters and how much it meant to me that the ending felt like actual life. I can still viscerally remember what it felt like to read that book for the first time. It's such a profoundly beautiful story about love and grief and loss and friendship.

    When did you know that you wanted to be a playwright?
    I had written a lot as a kid, in high school and in college. Plays, but also short stories, and a few attempts at novels. Once I graduated college and moved to New York, I was mostly an actor. And then, after we closed Our Lady of 121st Street, I started writing again with my theatre company, LAByrinth. Mostly 10-minute plays that I started stringing together into a sort of collection. I was really enjoying the writing, but totally nervous about sharing anything beyond friends in my living room. And then a play dropped out of the LAByrinth Summer Intensive Program; someone called and said, “We hear you have a play that has a lot of characters in it. We need a play with a lot of characters in it.” And I think I said, "Yes I do but I don't want anybody to ever see it. So sorry I can't help you.” But somehow they convinced me to bring it. And I was terrified. And we presented it. And people laughed where they were supposed to and cried when they were supposed to. And I loved being in the audience watching my play come to life—more than I think I loved being on stage myself. I don't know that this was the moment where I decided I was going to be a playwright, but it was definitely the moment where I fell head over heels in love with everything about writing plays.

    What play changed your life?
    As an artist, I would have to say Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. It's such an extraordinary piece of writing. When I was an actor I worked on it a few times and was completely awestruck by how the play is scored so exquisitely. You just need to give in to the language and it takes you on an emotional journey. It's effortless. It's like working on a piece of music, hitting the harmony and feeling everything soar. I love how she so perfectly replicates the actual rhythms of how people speak to each other. We rarely pause politely, listen and then respond. Language is all about how we loop in and out of each other’s words. And the how and the why and the when that we do that. I was—and continue to be—hugely inspired and influenced by the magnificent art of the Caryl Churchill overlap.

    What should we know about Unlikeable Heroine?
    Since I've started writing plays​, I've thought about when I was going to write “My Feminism Play.” It's been looming over everything and, as a woman and a feminist, I tend to think of all of my plays as inherently feminist. But they aren't necessarily tackling it head on literally. I originally started writing this play before the 2016 presidential election. And then #TimesUp and #MeToo happened. And then Kavanaugh. And… and…and… at some point, it became impossible to write and keep up with the eve​r-changing landscape. Then I thought about the play I would have written even before any of this. Because none of it is actually new. What's new is how we're talking about it. And so I think in some ways, this play is one I’ve been waiting to and wanting to write for pretty much my entire life.

    The PPF reading of Unlikeable Heroine, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, is Saturday, April 27, at 10:30 a.m. Learn more and purchase tickets.

  • Building Community Engagement for "Poor Yella Rednecks"

    Beth Fhaner
     | Mar 28, 2019
    Thuy and Linda

    Thuy Vo Dang and Linda Trinh Vo

    Poor Yella Rednecks is the next chapter in playwright Qui Nguyen's story about his parents' immigration from Vietnam to the United States. The first play in the series, Vietgone, commissioned and premiered by South Coast Repertory, had much support from Orange County's Vietnamese community.Thuy Vo Dang, ​Curator for the Southeast Asian Archive, and Linda Trinh Vo, professor in the Department of Asian American Studies and director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC​I, played a large role in helping to create awareness for Vietgone. First, some backstory.

    In the summer of 2013, ​Vo and Vo ​Dang met with Nguyen during his residency in Orange County and shared the work they were doing in the local Vietnamese community. ​Nguyen later visited the UC​-Irvine Southeast Asian Archive and found himself captivated by the photograph collection of Vietnamese refugees at Fort Chaffee, Ark., one of four military bases that served as a temporary refugee/migrant processing center in 1975. These photographs, along with stories that Nguyen's parents told him as he was growing up, inspired him to write Vietgone—the story of how his parents met and fell in love in a Vietnamese refugee camp in 1975. As Vietgone’s journey progressed from script to stage, readings and other special events held in the local Vietnamese community generated much enthusiasm and support for the play.

    With Poor Yella Rednecks (Segerstrom Stage, March 30-April 27), ​Nguyen continues his family’s hilarious, yet deeply moving take on the immigrant story, told with hip-hop style. It's set six years after Vietgone, with Tong and Quang building new lives in Arkansas​; but nothing is easy in this foreign land. In our Q&A with both ​Vo and Vo Dang, they share their thoughts on SCR’s highly anticipated world premiere of Poor Yella Rednecks and the importance of engaging community.

    Describe what happened in the classroom when director May Adrales and the cast of Poor Yella Rednecks recently visited?

    Linda Trinh Vo: By introducing the students, most who are Asian American, to Asian American theatrical actors and a director, I hope to introduce them to storytelling from voices that are often absent in the theatre. It may inspire some who never saw their own reflection in the theatre to follow their own artistic passion. The cast of Poor Yella Rednecks performed a powerful scene in which a (playwright Qui's) grandmother is forced to stop speaking Vietnamese to her grandson, knowing she would lose the ability to communicate with him. The challenges of cultural adaptation for newcomers, particularly in a country that can be hostile to “foreigners,” is a topic we touched upon in my introductory class, Asian American Communities, with 280 students. It resonated with my students lived experiences, since many come from immigrant or refugee families, so they have firsthand knowledge of the difficult choices families make in building a new life.

    Why are you excited for this next chapter in the story?

    Thuy Vo Dang: The next chapter is really an important one! It is about the often-neglected moments in the refugee experience, when they’re trying to build their new lives from what remains after war and displacement. I think it is so exciting to have a masterful storyteller like Qui Nguyen representing this complex, heartbreaking time in his family’s story in such a compelling and humorous way. He’s telling an absolutely relatable story about how one family navigates the profound sorrows and many little triumphs along the way to becoming American.

    Vo: Poor Yella Rednecks delves into the struggles that refugees experienced coming to terms with the loss of their country, but also of their loved ones, realizing they would be indefinitely disconnected from their families since they could not return to Vietnam and their families were unable to join them in the U.S. With the right touches of humor and hip-hop, Qui Nguyen is able to poignantly reinterpret his parent’s story of not just physical survival, but also of emotional endurance and resiliency.

    Tell us about the impact in the Orange County Vietnamese community following Vietgone, and knowing what you do about Poor Yella Rednecks, how will that production deepen or impact the local Vietnamese-American community?

    Vo Dang: For Orange County to be a key site of inspiration and production of Vietgone really shows how the Vietnamese American community here is a major force and will continue to shape how the public comes to know Orange County. I think my community here, particularly youth, was receptive and incredibly proud that such a nuanced story about Vietnamese-American lives made it so big! And it ignited dialogue and interest for them in learning about the experiences of the first generation of Vietnamese refugees—their parents and grandparents. I think Poor Yella Rednecks will do the important work of keeping these conversations going.

    Vo: Although Vietgone and Poor Yella Rednecks are about a particular couple and family, it captures universal aspects of the emotional journey of those impacted by war, displacement, migration and resettlement. Although their family’s story may vary, many in our community have shared experiences of loss and survival. Having their story produced on stage validates their history and, hopefully, will lead to fruitful dialogues between the older and younger generations in our community.

    What do you admire about Qui and his work?

    Vo: Refugees are often depicted as passive victims or overachieving newcomers, but Qui Nguyen resists these narrowing portrayals. Instead, he reimagines refugees as strong-willed, defiant and even funny. He is brilliant at humanizing refugees, showing they are self-reliant in rebuilding their lives, and like all Americans, have desires and dreams. His play is daring and brutally honest in its portrayal of family relations and racial discrimination.

    Vo Dang: Qui has the gift of using irreverent humor to give the audience temporary reprieve from the anguish we experience as we become absorbed in the characters’ lives. He also creates a world that is very real and relatable. I love his fearless use of language in Vietgone and Poor Yella Rednecks; we are asked to hear American English as a jumble of confusing and hilarious stereotypes that flips the script on how non-English speakers experience America. I laughed and cried throughout the entire play and loved every moment of it!

    This story is about Vietnamese refugees/immigrants, but it’s also a universal story. Why is it important for this story to be told now?

    Vo Dang: Stories from communities that have gone through trauma take some time to surface. I know from my work collecting oral histories of Vietnamese Americans that there is a pervasive silence in refugee homes around the topic of the war, the escape, the years of rebuilding. So it might take a generation or two before the folks who lived through these hard times can really share their memories. But it is so important that it is happening now because the Vietnamese American community is losing that first generation. I also think that there is a lot of negative public opinion out there about immigrants and refugees, and this play can help others far removed from the struggle really empathize and see the humanity of immigrants and refugees.

    Vo: Given the animosity towards immigrants/refugees today, I hope attendees recognize that those who are displaced are often ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances and are doing their best to survive. The play makes us consider how we would react if we were faced with a similar predicament. Given the nuanced, complex characters that Qui has created, I hope that audiences leave recognizing there is not one refugee story, but that there are many more stories to be told.

    What do you hope the audience takes away from Poor Yella Rednecks?

    Vo Dang: I hope that Poor Yella Rednecks will inspire more young people to dig deeper, ask harder questions and learn their community’s stories from many different angles. And the other thing I hope for is that after audiences laugh and cry through this play, their imaginations will be ignited and they will want to know more about the Vietnamese-American experience.

    Learn more about Poor Yella Rednecks and buy tickets.

  • Profane Pleasure in Life’s Pain

    Kimberly Colburn
     | Mar 25, 2019
    The Cast of Poor Yella Rednecks

    THE CAST: Tim Chiou, Paco Tolson, Samantha Quan, Eugene Young and Maureen Sebastian.

    Raucous laughter distinguishes the world of playwright Qui Nguyen, as it does in his latest Poor Yella Rednecks, but humor does not even begin to fully encapsulate this story.

    Qui Nguyen creates universes, and one of his best known is Vietgone, the prequel to Poor Yella Rednecks. Vietgone, in case you missed it, tells the story of how Tong and Quang meet in a refugee camp after fleeing the fall of Saigon (don’t worry if you didn’t see it—Poor Yella Rednecks stands completely on its own). Both plays are based in part on interviews that Nguyen did with his parents, and after an action-packed play that even featured ninja cameos, he surprised audiences at the end of Vietgone with an epilogue of the Playwright interviewing his father.

    Poor Yella Rednecks opens with the character of the Playwright interviewing his mother. At first she resists his questions, but then set some ground rules. First, he can’t only write about happy romantic things. Second, she wants to sound like he does. He protests that he’s got a potty mouth, but she insists—launching the convention that the Vietnamese characters sound like R-rated action heroes. Her third rule is that the American characters speak in the silly way that she hears them. The Playwright agrees, and with the ground rules set the story is launched.

    It is six years after Vietgone and the family struggles to find their place in America. Quang and Tong are living in El Dorado, ​Arkansas with their five-year-old son, whom they call Little Man (played by a puppet) and Tong's Mother, Huong. They’re barely scraping by, but making it work. Quang’s friend, Nhan, visits and encourages them to visit him in Houston, where a large number of Vietnamese have settled; they're interrupted by Tong opening a letter from Quang’s first wife​, Thu, when they assumed she believed Quang had died in the war. Immigration declares that Quang and Tong aren’t really married until Quang deals with his first wife. Racked with guilt, Quang secretly wipes out his and Tong’s hard-won savings and sends it back to his two kids in Vietnam, setting their marriage on a rocky course and creating even more battles for Tong to fight. Tong is also trying to help her son assimilate in school. Kids make fun of him and teachers can’t understand him. Tong investigates and the teachers recommend not speaking Vietnamese to him at home, so he can learn English. Except his grandmother takes care of him…and only speaks Vietnamese.

    While this might not sound like a setup for a laugh riot, the family operates just like any family—using laughter to get through difficult situations. Nguyen also makes ample use of the tools in his spectacle toolkit, liberally applying rap songs, kung-fu battles, puppetry and any other stage convention that he can get away with. He leans in to theatrical storytelling, grounding his based-on-truth characters and situations in a fanciful world of superheroes.

    It’s hard to know if it comes from the play or the players, but the rehearsal room reflects the joy and hard work the characters engage in. It’s filled with laughter, inside jokes and a sense of shared history that is imbued into every fiber of the production. Director May Adrales, who began working with ​Nguyen at the very outset of Vietgone years ago, deftly tackles any theatrical challenge that the playwright has set out for her. She assembled a cast comprised of three returning members from Vietgone (Samantha Quang, Paco Tolson and Maureen Sebastian) with two newcomers—Tim Chiou and Eugene Young. Watching rehearsal, you’d never be able to tell who was new to the team, as they have all heartily embraced inhabiting Nguyen’s raucous world.

    This sense of joy and community is palpable with every moment in this play—from the raps and hip-hop dance steps to the surprisingly simple gesture of seeing a grandmother take the hand of her puppet grandson. It all speaks to the larger message that Nguyen is so successful at portraying—immigration is hard and life is tough, but humanity will always find a way.

    Learn more about Poor Yella Rednecks and buy tickets.