• Set Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge Gives You That Resort Feeling

    Brian Robin
     | Apr 04, 2022
    Clean Set Design
    ​Set rendering for SCR's production of Clean/Espejos by Brian Sidney Bembridge.
    Clean Set Design

    ​Set rendering by Brian Sydney Bembridge.

    Brian Sidney Bembridge loves being the proverbial fly on the theatre wall. And the set designer for Clean/Espejos really enjoyed his perch in the Julianne Argyros Stage one night shortly after the play previewed.

    “I love listening to audiences. It’s so rewarding when things are good,” Bembridge said. “They were like, ‘They’re doing so much with so little. I get everything they’re doing. This is why I love theatre. It’s not a movie. Those walls do everything they need to do. I feel like I’m at a resort.’ I said to myself ‘YES! We did our job successfully.’”

    Success is nothing new for the award-winning designer who has seven Joseph Jefferson Awards, five After Dark Awards, three L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards, three Back Stage West Garland Awards, two Gregory Awards and an Ovation Award.

    Bembridge’s set and lighting design work has taken the native of tiny Londonderry, New Hampshire all over the world. Based in Chicago, he is a design presence at that city’s numerous theatres. And his work graced stages such as the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, Guthrie Theater, Pittsburgh Public Theater, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Geffen Playhouse, Arden Theatre Company, Alliance Theatre, and the Virginia, Juneau and Omaha operas among many others. He’s designed off-Broadway at The Public Theater, Second Stage Theatre, Jean Cocteau Repertory, Kids with Guns and Theatre at St. Clements. He designed sets for films such as Muppets from SpaceHolding Out and Marie and Bruce.

    Clean/Espejos represents Bembridge’s SCR debut. It reunites him once again with director Lisa Portes. The two have collaborated over a number of projects over 19 years. He’s also collaborated with famed acrobat Nik Wallenda on a project—Zircus II—at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut.

    “Lisa came to me and said Clean was ‘A Bembridge show.’ I told her, ‘I don’t know how you know that.’ I feel like a bit of a chameleon,” he said.
    This “chameleon” started on Clean/Espejos late. He and Portes began in September, but didn’t get to the real work until December. Bembridge went through five different iterations with the bed in the Cancun resort, which serves as a touchstone for Christine Quintana’s dramatic story.

    Speaking of resorts, Bembridge’s trip to a Mexican resort outside Puerto Vallarta helped form his self-described minimalist approach to the Clean/Espejos set. Interestingly, he won the trip through his husband’s company. That’s similar to how Quintana—who won a trip to a Cancun resort through a relative—came up with the idea for Clean/Espejos.

    “It was interesting seeing what the things there were made of and seeing the details. Everything looked elegant and beautiful and for a while, I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” he said. “They had wood, limestone, another type of stone and tile. What were the screens? What was the floor? After we decided on a wood floor because it had a reflection, I thought ‘Maybe we have carpet, one that has a water-like feel to it.’ That went out the door because we couldn’t afford it.

    “It took us a while to figure out what we wanted to do, but everyone (at SCR) was patient. Then, one day, I was in Mexico City talking to a painter and we couldn’t figure out the right color for the wood. I’m walking back to my hotel from lunch and looked at this building. Oh my God, this is it. This building had beautiful teakwood outside. I took 30 pictures and sent them to (SCR Scenic Charge Artist) Jen Stringfellow.”

    Finding the right screens was a similar challenge. Bembridge went through 15 different iterations of those before going back to the one in his Mexican resort. The one for the shower in Bembridge’s room provided the model for the Clean/Espejos screens. Unlike in opera, where the subtitles are shown far above the stage, the Clean/Espejos subtitles are show right above the actors’ heads.

    “Once the show gets going, you forget about them,” Bembridge said. “They’re not intrusive to the storytelling. I’m not doing anything to the storytelling here."

    Actually, he is.

    As his fly-on-the-theatre-wall story from the audience reveals, Bembridge’s set helps tell Quintana’s story in an authentic, dramatic manner. Through his design, he takes you to a resort, the setting for Adriana and Sarah (actors Lorena Martinez and Nell Geisslinger) to tell their gripping stories.

    Clean/Espejos is now running on the Julianne Argyros Stage through April 10.

    Learn more about Clean/Espejos and buy tickets.

  • The Creative Dynamics Behind "Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life"

    Brian Robin
     | Mar 28, 2022
    Anika & Britta Johnson & Nick Green

    Anika Johnson is a talented, award-winning writer and performer in her own right, carrying a resume that includes international dancer, feature-film writer, playwright, pianist, musical theatre composer and dramaturg.

    And yet, she looks up to her little sister, Britta Johnson. Then again, it’s hard not to, when the Toronto Star—one of Canada’s largest papers—calls your little sister “Canadian musical theatre’s next great hope.”

    “It’s funny. I came into this work because I was following (a little sister). I don’t know what it’s like to be a little sister, but I feel like a little sister as a writer because I followed my little sister into this world and she was my inspiration that led me to become a writer in the first place,” Anika said. “It is interesting as we write together because whenever you’re collaborating, you have to always be aware of all the dynamics in the room that might affect somebody’s impulse or a response to an impulse.

    “We have to be so cognizant of our sister dynamic when we’re fighting out an idea or figuring out how to advance an idea. Sometimes, all of a sudden, it feels like we’re 10 and 6 again, arguing over who gets the front seat. Our radar when that’s happening is very finely tuned at this point, so we can stay with the work, stay with each other and fall into that dynamic only as far as it can serve the work.”

    The work they—along with writer Nick Green—serve is Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life

    The musical theatre is part of SCR’s new Samples from The Lab, a special event at the Pacific Playwrights Festival (Apr. 8-10) that offers audiences an exclusive sneak peek of a new musical in development.

    “We are so thrilled to have Anika, Britta and Nick join us as part of The [email protected] and PPF’s new initiative, Samples from The Lab,” SCR Artistic Director David Ivers said. “Their new musical, Dr. Silver, is so of-the-moment and promising! We are eager to share a sample from it and hear feedback from Festival participants. This should be an adventurous format as they begin the next development phase of their work at South Coast Repertory.”

    Anika Johnson and Britta Johnson composed the music and the lyrics for Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life off of Green’s book. The musical tells the story of a fictional cult and explores the impact of absolute belief. It takes you to the funeral of the cult leader, with the Johnsons’ music creating “a joyous, site-specific, immersive piece of theatre,” as Britta described it.

    “One thing we were talking about a lot is how we can meet the very specific moment we’re living in with this play and the possibilities of that,” Britta said. “It is a play about absolute belief and the division that happens when people believe absolutely without any room for questioning, nuance or the intricacies of real human relationships. I think societally, we’re seeing this obviously in how we’re so divided. And that’s absolutely true.

    “But the way that’s enacted within families is a painful thing to explore, but we hope to explore it with the show and it feels like an important thing to explore in a very, very moment-to-moment world we’re living in right now.”

    The Johnsons collaborated with Green—himself an award-winning playwright for his work Body Politic—to seek an exploration in an interactive way that brings audiences along for the ride.

    “One of our big goals for this show is to present a scenario in which the audience can see themselves being indoctrinated into the cult,” Green said. “The religion feels out there and wild, but we want to present a story to see how very smart people, very intelligent people might find themselves going into an area where they can be pulled into a sense of community.”

    Speaking of community, that word describes how the Johnsons became two of Canada’s most up-and-coming musical theatre composers. They grew up in Stratford, Ontario, where their parents were musicians in the Stratford Festival orchestra. Britta started writing musicals in high school and her first full-length musical: Big Box Story—about a Walmart coming to town—gained such buzz that the Avon Theatre did a one-off performance in 2009.

    She was 16.

    Ten years later, Britta’s Life After opened at Toronto’s Canadian Stage in a co-production with Musical Stage Company. Musical Stage Company Artistic and Managing Director Mitchell Marcus called Johnson’s talent “profound” in a Toronto Star piece anointing her “Canadian Musical Theatre’s next great hope.” He would later tell the Toronto Star that Johnson’s talent is so rare that he kept telling Robert McQueen, the director of the 2017 production, “This is what it would have felt like to be in the room with Stephen Sondheim in 1968, just before he broke through.”

    After garnering numerous awards, Life After enjoyed its U.S. premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2019. Chicago’s Goodman Theatre will produce a five-week run later this summer.

    Anika served as dramaturg for the Old Globe production and was in the cast. This sister act travels well beyond who gets the front seat in the car or at the piano.

    “The fact we’re sisters means we’re really good about disagreeing with one another, which is really good for the collaboration,” Anika said. “We know how to fight. We’ve seen ourselves through a lot of fights in our lifetime. That’s a big part of why the collaboration is successful, especially in a lot of those early stages. We can really get into it.”

    Learn more about the Pacific Playwrights Festival and buy tickets.

  • Michael Shayan Conjures Up a Magical Tale With "avaaz"

    Brian Robin
     | Mar 25, 2022
    Michael Shayan

    Michael Shayan started making artistic magic by making magic. Literally.

    This came courtesy of a magic set his mother bought him when he was 7. In short order, Shayan took his act from his living room to “the bar mitzvah circuit,” as he put it, all over Los Angeles. Corporate events for such clients as AOL and Creative Artists Agency followed and at 13, Shayan was the youngest performer in the history of L.A.’s iconic Magic Castle.

    So between making things appear and disappear and some stand-up performances, Shayan had this writing-your-own-shows thing down by the time he got to Harvard. After a professor planted the seed of writing for the theatre, Shayan began making a different kind of artistic magic.

    One of the results of that is avaaz, which was selected for a reading in the Pacific Playwrights Festival, April 8-10. Shayan conjured up the play about celebrating the Iranian New Year with an outgoing, ebullient host based on a familiar figure in his life.

    “The character of Roya is based on my fabulous mother,” he said. “She invites you into her home for the Persian New Year, Nowruz. You are literally a guest in her home. I wanted to make this play feel like a party, fun and interactive. She starts recounting stories of her past and as she goes into her past, she comes face to face with ghosts from her past. As she tells her story, she ultimately has to reckon with the ghosts she faces.”

    Shayan actually interviewed his mother for avaaz as a way to find his roots. His mother was the first member of her family to leave Iran for the United States. She moved to L.A. and one, by one, brought the rest of her family over. The seeds for avaaz were planted after he interviewed her and was at a Lambda Literary Fellow retreat, listening to renowned L.A. playwright and performer Luis Alfaro lead a workshop.

    From that retreat, Shayan went to Brooklyn College for grad school. After talking to Alfaro, Shayan said the play “just poured out of me.”

    “I was really getting in touch with my own Iranianess, since I’ve never been to Iran,” he said. “As a queer person, I was curious about her history and her story in Iran. … It was really quite remarkable how she managed it all and navigated all that. I started interviewing her out of curiosity because I wanted to learn more. I’d been writing about Iranians in L.A. To me, L.A. was always the city of illusion. Particularly as a magician, I wanted to know more about her experience coming to L.A. and what that was like. The play emerged naturally from our conversations.

    “The play is about one version of the embodiment of my mother. … What it meant to have her story in my body. It is based on my mother’s experiences, but there were parts I had to imagine.”

    Shayan listened to his Harvard professor who told him to take the elements of magic and stand-up and give them another voice. You’ll definitely see some magical moments and illusions about life. But all of them come with a message

    “I always want my plays to feel like parties,” he said. “I want my plays to feel very theatrical. There’s a lot of spectacle in my work and theatre allows me to marry that with real ideas about social change.

    Learn more about the Pacific Playwrights Festival and buy tickets.

  • John J. Caswell Jr. Summons the Supernatural in "Scene Partners"

    Brian Robin
     | Mar 25, 2022
    John J. Caswell Jr

    John J. Caswell Jr. needed an excuse—any excuse—to revisit a play he hadn’t seen in nearly two years. While he was making a name for himself with plays like Man Cave and Wet Brain, both about to make off-Broadway debuts, Scene Partners was sitting in a digital drawer, biding its time.

    Its time is now. Caswell’s play about a 75-year-old woman seeking liberation and validation in Hollywood was chosen for a reading in the Pacific Playwrights Festival, April 8-10.

    “This is one I wrote when I was at Juilliard and this is as far as it’s ever gotten,” Caswell said. “This means I finally have a compelling reason to grab this play, pull it back out and get to know it for real this time. It’s a push that I need for this particular play. …

    “I’ve been waiting for a chance and a reason to go back to Scene Partners and I’m excited to be coming out to do this.”

    Caswell wrote Scene Players in the fall of 2020, his first semester at Juilliard. He wrote the story of 75-year-old wanna-be ingenue and star Meryl—a woman with far more moxie than sense—abandoning her staid Midwest life for a shot at Hollywood as one of his three-plays-a-year requirement. This means Caswell’s muses had to find fifth gear sooner rather than later.

    “I didn’t have time to think much,” he said. “I was writing from a gut place and in a stream of consciousness. I love doing that and that’s where Scene Partners came from. I was tapping into something instinctual.”

    Caswell’s instincts with Scene Partners brought him back to his Arizona roots and a deep dive into the otherworldly elements he loves weaving into his plays. Caswell has a love of the supernatural, the paranormal, the casting of light on the dark corners of humanity not often seen or noticed. You see these elements manifest themselves throughout Scene Partners.

    “I come from a family where very few of us had opportunities to move around or have a career beyond the local, native experience in Arizona,” he said. “I think that’s a common story in this country and this idea of having regrets in old age is something that terrifies me. I wanted to create a story and a character who encounters her own mortality and a life that might have been. She tries to implement change despite the passing seasons in her life.”

    In Scene Partners, Caswell takes what could be a heavy topic and has fun with it. Get deep, but laugh along the way.

    “The play is fun and I hope an audience has a good time. I hope they leave with a renewed vigor for life, ready to make the most of it,” he said. To alter the course of reality as they know it and stand up to their own story. I know that’s a lofty goal for an audience, but I want to make people realize today is all we have and all we’re guaranteed.”

    Learn more about the Pacific Playwrights Festival and buy tickets.

  • Playwright Christine Quintana Defies Assumptions, Boundaries

    Brian Robin
     | Mar 24, 2022
    Christine Quintana

    The burning, gnawing desire that motivated Christine Quintana to write the first draft of Clean/Espejos in a month was the same burning, gnawing desire that motivated her to brush off rejection and trust her storytelling skills.

    They’ve seen her through sticky creative thickets before. They’ve seen her win numerous playwriting awards in Canada. Why wouldn’t they see her and her innovative, bilingual drama through this one?

    “This is a play that if I thought too hard about it, I wouldn’t have written it,” she said. “There were a lot of things in it from a form and storytelling standpoint that were very complex. The first three theatres I brought this to passed on it. They said ‘This isn’t going to work on stage.’ There were political issues, obviously, but there was also the monumental task of producing a fully bilingual play. There are so many reasons why it shouldn’t work and I’m grateful that it arrived at a time in my life where I wasn’t willing to take no for an answer. And I’m grateful I found amazing collaborators like South Coast Repertory who said ‘Sign us up.’”

    Making its co-world premiere a year after it was a digital reading at the 2021 virtual Pacific Playwrights Festival, Clean/Espejos is playing on the Julianne Argyros Stage through April 10. Directed by Lisa Portes with Spanish translations and adaptation by Paula Zelaya Cervantes, Clean/Espejos tells the gripping story about two women—one Canadian, one Mexican—brought together at a luxury Cancun resort by circumstances that force them to examine the past, envision the future and face the present.

    Quintana said the genesis for Clean/Espejos came when she visited the setting of the play: Cancun. She had two family members working in the resort industry in that southern Mexican city. One won a prize at a staff party: a trip for two to that resort. Quintana was offered the trip and what she saw there sent her to her computer the moment she got back home.

    “It was such a disorienting experience. I came in through the staff entrance with my family, but I stayed there as a guest,” she said. “I got a behind-the-scenes look at a resort, but I also was seeing the grand performance that goes on at these resorts. These resorts are all American-owned companies operating on Mexican-owned land. I’m Mexican on my dad’s side and Canadian on my mom’s side. I’m there and I’m thinking ‘Who am I in this moment? Who am I speaking to?’

    “It was a really disoriented feeling that reminded me of the feelings of disembodiment that comes with trauma. I came home to Toronto, where I was living at the time, and immediately wrote the play. The false paradise of a Mexican resort ended up being the perfect backdrop to do a deep dive into the psychology of women who had been shaped by the things that have happened to them.”

    Quintana makes no apologies for taking the audience’s assumptions about a play with two women set in Mexico and “defying them,” as Portes put it. While she couldn’t wait to write Clean/Espejos and while she knew the logistics of producing a play where one character speaks her lines in English and the other entirely in Spanish, she also knew she had to create a work that came from the heart and a work that pushes audiences “to not get comfortable with judgments … to listen to people you know and people you don’t know.”

    “I want to set the stage for peoples’ own biases and assumptions to be turned on their heads over and over again,” she said.

    Clean/Espejos does that. In a powerful, dramatic, boundary-pushing manner. Learn more about Christine, her awards and background here.

    Learn more about Clean/Espejos and buy tickets.