• The Playwrights of PPF: Melissa Ross

    by 
    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"

    by 
    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

    by 
    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.

  • The Playwrights of PPF: Adam Bock

    by 
    Tania Thompson
     | Mar 22, 2019
    Adam Bock

    ​Playwright Adam Bock.

    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 The Canadians by Adam Bock, which recently had a reading here as part of the NewSCRipts play-reading series. We caught up with Bock and got him to talk about his early (really early) play writing efforts, the play that changed his life and why, for him, there’s no place like home to write.

    Adam Bock's Dog Gracie

    ​​Gracie.

    Describe your favorite writing space.
    I always write at my desk at home, facing a window with a rooftop view of the water towers of New York City, a view that I love and can get lost in while I daydream. Everything has to be in its place: my dog, Gracie (pictured), sleeping underfoot and the desk has to be pretty clear for me to start, otherwise I fuss around and then start to vacuum instead of write. It also has to be quiet. They are about to tear down and then build a new high-rise across the street. I have to get noise-cancelling earphones.

    As a kid, what story did you read in secret?
    It wouldn’t be a secret if I told you.

    When did you know that you wanted to be a playwright?
    I knew pretty early on. I started writing plays in the third grade​—for me and my friends to do in class​—took my first playwriting class in high school (my teacher made me listen to a recording of Marat/Sade, she was awesome and I was hooked on experimental theatre). I didn’t know playwriting could be my career until I went to the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center for a semester after college. After that, I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do.

    What play changed your life?
    Far Away
    by Caryl Churchill. I saw it at New York Theatre Workshop. It was 45-minutes long and explained war, how it creeps up on us, how it dehumanizes us and then how it turns the whole world against itself and how terrifying that is. There is an amazing speech at the end of the play when a returning soldier describes not knowing whose side silence and darkness are on—and whether the river is an enemy—and suddenly I understood how, during war, walk outside and who knows what will attack you. We are so lucky we have lived without mass armed conflict on our land for a while, a fortune that I think we take for granted. Churchill did all this in 45 minutes and with a deeply theatrical, entertaining and horrifying play. Made me know that the length of a play is not its virtue, that deep is as strong as wide and that our job as playwrights is to delight and terrify people with the reality of the world, to wake up and to awaken others. A very high bar she raises and an inspiration always.

    What should we know about The Canadians?
    I am a Canadian who has lived in the U.S. for most of my adult life. I love the experience of exploring a new world, but also of knowing another one. It’s a bit like being gay—learning to be comfortable in many different environments, hopefully learning from them all. I think the sadness of all the difficulties we have with difference, misogyny, racism, homophobia and on and on, is that we lose the chance to learn from each other, to explore each others’ worlds, so fascinating and vast.

    ​The PPF staged reading of The Canadians will be Friday, April 26, at 4 p.m., on the Segerstrom Stage.

    Learn more about the Pacific Playwrights Festival, and purchase tickets.

  • 40th Anniversary of "A Christmas Carol" to be Hal Landon’s Farewell as Scrooge

    by 
    Tania Thompson
     | Mar 21, 2019
    Hal Landon Jr. and Presley Coogan

    Hal Landon Jr. as Scrooge and Presley Coogan as Tiny Tim in SCR's 2018 production of A Christmas Carol.

    A​bout Hal Landon Jr.

    He is a South Coast Repertory Founding Artist who joined the theatre at its inception in 1964. He has appeared in the theatre’s productions of Gem of the Ocean, All the Way, Going to a Place where you Already Are, Rest, The Fantasticks, The Trip to Bountiful, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Nothing Sacred, Man from Nebraska, Born Yesterday, A View from the Bridge, Habeas Corpus, Antigone, The Drawer Boy (Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award nomination), Major Barbara and Tartuffe. His other theatre credits include Arcadia, Our Town, Sidney Bechet Killed a Man, BAFO, Six Degrees of Separation, An Ideal Husband, A Mess of Plays by Chris Durang, Faith Healer, Green Icebergs, The Miser, Our Country’s Good and Waiting for Godot. He created the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in SCR’s A Christmas Carol. He appeared in Leander Stillwell (Mark Taper Forum), Henry V (The Old Globe) and as Polonius in Hamlet (Shakespeare Orange County). Among his television and film credits are “The Closer,” “My Name is Earl,” “CSI: NY,” “Mad Men,” The Artist, Trespass, Pacific Heights, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Pee Wee’s Big Holiday (Netflix) and All the Way (HBO). Born in 1941, he will be 78 years old when he takes his last bow as Scrooge.

    Nobody “Bah-humbugs” quite like Hal Landon Jr. Or somersaults into a top hat and comes up ready to meet Christmas Day in style. The New York Times acknowledged him as one of the longest-running Ebenezer Scrooges in the country. But, on Dec. 24, 2019, after 40 years of playing Scrooge—a role he originated for South Coast Repertory’s popular adaptation of A Christmas Carol—Landon will hang up his top hat.

    “For me, this 40-year run has so many stand-outs,” says Landon. “Playing such a terrific role and having an extended period of time to develop it has been immensely satisfying and made me a better actor, too. And to share the success of A Christmas Carol with the SCR family of talented actors and be able to create a true ensemble under director J.D. Keller’s inspired guidance. And, of course, the response from our audience—knowing how much the show means to them—is one of the big reasons I’ve done it for so long.”

    Two of the 40 years stand out personally for him—1995, when his daughter, Caroline, auditioned and was cast as Girl About Town, and 2018, when his granddaughter, Presley, auditioned and was cast as Tiny Tim.

    “The response from our audience—knowing how much the show means to them—is one of the big reasons I’ve done it for so long.”
    -Hal Landon Jr.

    At the end of the day, he has found Scrooge to be “a symbol of hope for all of humanity because he proves without a doubt that anybody can change.”

    “Hal was our immediate choice to portray Scrooge when this production started,” says SCR Founding Artistic Director David Emmes. “Even as a younger actor, Hal was able to carry the weight of Scrooge’s path to redemption. This is a complicated and demanding role and, each season, Hal’s performance grows stronger as he continues to explore and deepen Scrooge. Hal’s dedication to this production, to his actor’s craft, to his fellow cast members and to our Orange County audiences over the span of four decades is truly exceptional.”

    SCR’s A Christmas Carol, adapted by Jerry Patch, debuted at SCR in December 1980 and its warmth and distinctive qualities, such as Landon, have kept the production timeless.

    “Our audiences may rest assured that A Christmas Carol, will remain part of the tradition and the fabric of South Coast Repertory,” says Artistic Director David Ivers. “Hal has brought a brilliant sense of humor and pathos to Scrooge over the decades and I admire both Hal’s performance and this production. While these are big shoes to fill, Dickens’ timeless classic—with its rich language—will be at the center of our programming.”

    “In Orange County, Hal Landon Jr. is synonymous with A Christmas Carol,” notes Managing Director Paula Tomei. He has become not only a seasonal favorite but a local treasure. His performance as Scrooge is always a highlight of the holidays, bringing joy to many. We look forward to sending Hal off in style.”

    A Christmas Carol tickets will go on sale to the general public on June 10, following an exclusive pre-purchase period for 2019-20 SCR subscribers that begins March 25, 2019.