• It’s Back to the Present for "Last Stop on Market Street" Director Oanh Nguyen

    Brian Robin
     | Jan 06, 2022
    Oanh Nguyen

    Oanh Nguyen’s last stop at SCR came in the spring of 2015, when he served as associate director for Abundance. That came two years after he directed SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences and Families production of The Night Fairy.

    Now, Nguyen’s next directorial stop comes in the Theatre for Young Audiences and Families production of Last Stop on Market Street, Cheryl L. West’s adaptation of Matt de la Peña’s New York Times best-selling children’s book. The musical joyride runs Jan. 8-23 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

    One of Southern California’s top rising directors, Nguyen is the founding artistic director of the Chance Theater in Anaheim, where he applies the dynamic lessons he learned as an SCR producing associate. Nguyen mentored under SCR Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson, who remains a good friend, teacher and inspiration for Nguyen.

    Nguyen’s path took him a long way from that first assistant directing job on Anaheim High School’s production of Up the Down Staircase. We caught up with Nguyen in between rehearsals and let him catch everyone up on what this latest stop on his rising path means to him.

    You built a good foundation as a producing associate at SCR. What’s it like to be back? 

    Oanh Nguyen: “It’s wonderful to be back at SCR with all the support and resources we have here. As a team, we’ve been really, really taken care of in a special way. From the first day of rehearsals, we had all of our props, all of our furniture, everything was ready to go for us to start working. That’s not something you always get at the beginning of rehearsals. ... It’s nice to feel like we’re getting the full support of South Coast Rep even though we’re doing a TYA show. … Obviously, it’s a very challenging time for producing theatre and it’s very clear SCR takes producing theatre during this challenging time very seriously.”

    Talk about your relationship with SCR Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson. He’s played an integral part in your story

    ON: “Martin Benson is an amazing mentor and friend, both personally and professionally. I’m so grateful for the day he decided to take me under his wing and help me through this path. Having someone who has done what he’s done and along with so many people there, having that kind of resource is priceless. I can’t be more grateful for that. We have lunch at least once a week.”

    Tell us about directing Last Stop on Market Street. What can we expect to see? 

    ON: “It’s such a joyous musical. Obviously, it’s a story we all need right now. To find the joy and to find community, to build muscles of empathy and understanding of others. It’s a very beautiful story and a good story to tell. I feel like there’s a lot of representation on that stage and it’s exciting to think about those young students in those seats, who are going to see themselves on that stage in many ways. This story is very special in that way. There was nothing like this kind of musical or TV show when I was young. … We spend a lot of time in a young boy’s head as he’s navigating this way through uncharted territory for him. For him, it’s very much a Wizard of Oz experience. I love doing musicals and I love trying to find other ways to tell this story with music. … It’s a fun show with an incredible cast and creative team.”

    What appeals to you about the directing process? 

    ON: “When I was introduced (to directing), I was introduced from the standpoint of looking at what is the big picture? What is the story? Why are we telling it now, who are we telling it for and who are we telling it with? Those questions are very exciting for me, for either a brand new world premiere or a production done many thousand times. When you ask those questions, your production is very specific and unique in its own way. Every performance is unique in a special way and every production can be very special if you focus on those questions.”

    You mentioned an “insider directing tip” in Last Stop on Market Street. Can you tell us about that tip

    ON: “We were challenged with a show where the leading character is 7 years old. Because of the kind of production this is, we can’t cast a 7-year-old. We cast someone in his mid-20s (Christopher Mosley) who is actually taller than most of the people on the stage. Have the audience look out for the many different ways I approached the staging to make him look as small as a 7-year-old. He’s actually taller than his grandmother, so I employed many different tactics to make him seem shorter than everyone else. It will be fun for audiences to watch out for.”

    See how Nguyen and the creative team tell the story of CJ and his Nana, her lessons in finding the beauty in the world around them and their adventure on the No. 5 bus. 

    Learn more.

  • Spotlight on Teaching—Richard Soto Discusses The Process

    Brian Robin
     | Dec 28, 2021
    Richard Soto

    When he’s not appearing on stage as an actor, Richard Soto can often be found teaching one of the beginning acting classes in the Youth Conservatory. 

    Because he’s been teaching acting for more than 15 years, this is as much Soto’s natural habitat as the stage. To him, along with all of SCR’s Conservatory staff of professional working artists, teaching acting starts with one fundamental lesson.

    “At SCR, it’s all about the process,” Soto explained. “The process equals life skills. In order to do a play, you have to collaborate, you have to listen, you have to focus and you have to apply that every day in rehearsal and on the stage. You develop the confidence and we nurture that confidence to make creative choices that are required for every individual.”

    In Soto’s classes, that begins with games. He opens with games designed to break the ice and reduce tension. In turn, that release of tension opens up communication. From there, Soto puts his students in groups and asks them to find five things they all have in common.

    “I was teaching a group of fifth and sixth graders and I asked them this question and told them to be creative,” he said. “One said ‘We’re all single.’ Everyone’s eyes got wide. And I said that was good to know. Another kid said ‘We’re all alive.’ When they’re using answers like that, it’s above and beyond ‘We all like the color blue.’ We’re moving in the right direction.

    “We have to learn about each other. You’re going to be working on a scene together. You have to make the audience believe your relationship is real. But before that, you have to trust them and trust yourself.”

    Soto teaches Kids Year 1—Exploration to 5th and 6th graders Tuesdays from 4-6 p.m. He also teaches Teen Year 1—Tools of Acting to 7th-through-9th graders Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. Classes are grouped by age and every class is led by an instructor who brings knowledge, passion and a desire to create a strong foundation for students that goes beyond the stage.

    “I enjoy teaching because I found my voice in sharing what I love as an actor,” Soto said. “Revealing to people who are curious about what that world is like. What we’re thinking about when we’re trying to create our characters. What we’re thinking about when we’re in the middle of a scene. The challenges an actor has in acting. It’s not simply taking a piece of paper with lines on it and reciting it. It’s creating as believable a character as possible, a living breathing human being with intellectual and emotional contact.”

    Youth Conservatory classes begin Jan. 11 and run to March 19. Give your child or grandchild the gift that keeps giving, one that helps them discover hidden abilities while it builds creativity, self-confidence and communication skills. All with the byproduct of making new friends that often last a lifetime.

    “I tell them ‘I’m their biggest fan.’ I’m the biggest kid in the room and you can do no wrong,” Soto said. “When you go to a theatre and see a play, it’s that. We play. It’s serious fun.”

    Learn more.

  • Adult Conservatory—Spotlight on Playwriting

    Brian Robin
     | Dec 21, 2021
    Diana Burbano

    The beauty of the way Diana Burbano teaches her playwriting class at SCR’s Adult Conservatory—offered online Wednesdays this winter from 6-9 p.m.—is she doesn’t teach you how to write a play. And as counterintuitive as that sounds, it makes sense when you hear Burbano explain why.

    “I can’t actually teach you how to write a play. I can give you the framework. I can give you the format,” she said. “But there is no right way or wrong way to write a play. What I can give you is room to experiment. I can give you room to work on the story and room to allow the story to unfold.

    “… When students begin to trust me, I’ll ask questions of them. What do you want the audience to come away with? What do you want the play to say? I’ll lead them through questions about where they’re going with a particular scene. If your goal is to have an audience questioning this part of society, does this scene fulfill your goal? Has it moved the story forward? I let them figure it out. I’ll never tell them what to do. My job is to let them figure it out and see their scripts for what they can be.”

    A published playwright; her play Ghosts of Bogotá won the Nu Voices Festival at the Actors Theatre of Charlotte and debuted at the Alter Theater in Northern California in February 2020, and Equity actor, Burbano brings deep knowledge born of experience with all elements of the playwriting craft. That stretches from developing story ideas to creating believable, relatable characters, to the business behind the craft. She creates a learning environment featuring abundant sharing of work along with lessons in how to critique that work.

    Burbano herself solicits individual feedback on how much critique a student wants. She wants beginner writers to feel like their work can be constructively critiqued. Others, who may come in with more writing experience, often open themselves up to deeper criticism. And Burbano is wide open to both extremes—and everything in between.

    “We read them out loud and I train every class in listening and critiquing,” she said. “The goal is to critique the work without making the writer rewrite it. ‘Pops’ mean you’re excited and ‘bumps’ mean you weren’t quite sure about it. … I want people to feel comfortable. I want this to be a space where you can experiment and feel comfortable doing that.”

    Burbano’s class also draws in everyone from beginners to experienced writers. Everyone comes out of it understanding the "hows" in putting words and ideas on paper and the "whys" that make it successful.

    “As a teacher, she is a great guide and course-corrector, drawing on her experience to recognize what we’ve done right and to make it better,” said one of her students, award-winning Southern California News Group Sports Columnist Mark Whicker. “She also recognizes the individual voices we all have, and nurtures them, and she’s open to any style or subject matter. It’s no surprise that many of her students are repeaters from previous sessions. She gives us confidence, which may be the best gift of all.”

    Playwriting begins Jan. 26 and runs through March 16.

    Learn more.
  • The Story Behind the Photo-"A Christmas Carol" (Jacob Marley’s Ghost and Scrooge)

    Brian Robin
     | Dec 16, 2021
    Richard Doyle as Scrooge and Michael Manuel as Marley in A Christmas Carol
    Richard Doyle as Ebenezer Scrooge and Michael Manuel as Jacob Marley's Ghost in A Christmas Carol. ​Photo by Jenny Graham.

    Michael Manuel stepped into the role of Jacob Marley’s Ghost for the first time this year in South Coast Repertory’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. His portrayal of the spirit is both electric and haunting, greasing the skids of scaring Ebenezer Scrooge straight into the light of humanity.

    Manuel is a veteran of several SCR productions, including Amos and Boris, Tartuffe, Eurydice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s played characters ranging from Iago in Othello to Tilden in Sam Sheppard’s Buried Child in theatres all over the United States. Manuel’s film roles include National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Volcano and Dragonfly.

    Manuel took a break from A Christmas Carol to talk about his role and the photo above.

    What moment does this depict?
    “He’s warning him. He’s telling him ‘You don’t want to be like me. If I could do it over again, I would do it differently.’ He’s telling Scrooge, ‘You can’t just joke this away. You can’t run and hide from this.’ It’s a sad moment to me. I think we have regrets about moments when we wish we could do it over again and warn a version of ourselves. I think that’s what he’s doing. He’s warning him.”

    Talk about the relationship between Jacob Marley and Scrooge.
    “To me, the only two people in the play who can show regret and remorse are Scrooge and Marley. Because they had a relationship before they were close, there’s certainly a back-and-forth they have. They can speak to each other in a way that only people who worked together can. When you know someone intimately, you can cut through the artifice and to the core of the person.”

    What motivated you in this scene?
    “The language. Just the language. …  Like all great writing, it’s just the language, the words. It kind of guides you, tells you where the jokes are, where the scary parts are.”

    Tell me about the impact of this scene.
    “Initially, the audience and Scrooge are scared by the entrance. There are different tactics you can take to get your point across. It’s like the old ‘Scared Straight’ show. You can scream at people and scare them. Sometimes, it’s really a matter of appealing to their humanity. That’s the other tactic. When Marley comes through the door and says ‘I’m Jacob Marley,’ and he says ‘Jacob Marley? Humbug,’ I say ‘Believe. Believe.’ The repetition of words throughout the play and especially in that scene is powerful. He’s incredulous that Scrooge doesn’t believe in him. He’s standing there in front of him. How can you not believe in something standing there? … We can do this the hard way if you want, if the hard way to impact you is to abuse you. Or it’s me saying, ‘I know who you are. I did this myself. Unless you want to be like me, you have to do something different.’”

    What is the experience like playing Marley’s Ghost?
    “What’s wonderful about it is you get to reinvest every single night. What does Marley want? What does he want to do to Scrooge? What does he need from Scrooge? At the same time, there’s also a feeling of responsibility to the words, to the playwright and to the story they’re trying to tell. With this play and at South Coast Repertory, because it’s so meaningful to people and such a part of their lives, you have a responsibility to them not to slag it off, like you’re ‘just doing A Christmas Carol.’ It’s very easy to be jaded at times. I’m on stage for five minutes and I do some stuff, but Richard Doyle is carrying the load. He’s shouldering the whole thing. But in order for him to be able to do it and for the story to have any meaning or impact, we all have to play our part and really give something to him. That part of it really means a lot to me.”

    Why is A Christmas Carol such a timeless story?
    “I think it’s timeless in the same way all great art is timeless. It has the effect it has, the story it tells, the lessons you learn are universal. They cross boundaries. They’re global. Every human being goes through this on some level. It’s important to tell each other this story and that we learn this story. Just to take a second, take a step back and realize that you’re not defined by all the choices you make. You can always make another choice.”

    Learn more and buy tickets to A Christmas Carol.
  • Stage Designing 101-Starring Tom Buderwitz

    Brian Robin
     | Dec 15, 2021
    Christmas Carol Stage
    Gustave Doré panels from A Christmas Carol.

    The task facing Tom Buderwitz when he took over scenic design for A Christmas Carol in 2002 was challenging and counterintuitive. Come in and give the sets for SCR’s holiday tradition a facelift. But don’t do it all at once.

    “I couldn’t just change everything in one fell swoop. It had to be integrated over a period of years,” said Buderwitz, who inherited Cliff Faulkner’s original design. “We did it over six years in parts and it all had to work with the existing show. Our schedule didn’t allow for a lot of tech time and there wasn’t a lot of money. That was the challenge: integrating new things into the existing production and make them feel integrated and let the production change over the course of the next decade.”

    First, came the front of the proscenium, redoing the Gustave Dor​é drawings of Victorian London seen on the stage panels. The drawings were resized and rescaled. In Year 2 (2003), Buderwitz tackled Scrooge’s bedroom. The next year, it was Scrooge’s Counting House’s turn. Then, a revision of the Cratchits’ house, cutting down a wall and adding the roof.

    Now, his work on A Christmas Carol’s set is more fine-tuning, mostly props and smaller set adjustments. But the award-winning stage designer never stops seeing the Segerstrom Stage as Charles Dickens’ playground.

    A Christmas Carol is always a work in progress. There are different variations and we’re always re-addressing things every year,” he said. “It’s really fun this year with the change in cast. … We’ve addressed most of the major things, but we’re always looking at everything. Will this still work? It this still playing right? With the blocking changes that come with new cast members, you may want to make a change as simple as positioning a chair differently. It’s always a fun thing to work on.”

    For Buderwitz, the fun part is researching to find the right look to match the period and setting. The challenge comes with the “little axiom” Buderwitz took from his student days at Adelphi University on Long Island. Three words that guide everything Buderwitz does.

    “The main challenge to me is form follows function. It means what it looks like has to come after how it functions,” he said. “If it can’t function, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. It’s always about trying to get functionality on stage. Is there enough space for the actors? Where do they move? Where does the furniture go? How do the sightlines work? Does it make sense for characters to get from one place to the other in terms of a multi-set show? That’s always the hardest part. After I solve the function, then I can have fun.”

    Buderwitz is no stranger to SCR. He designed sets for Outside Mullingar, The Monster Builder, The Whipping Man, The Whale, The Prince of Atlantis, The Trip to Bountiful, Three Days of Rain, The Weir, Crimes of the Heart, The Heiress and A Delicate Balance, among others. He co-designed the set for Tartuffe with director Dominique Serrand.

    Buderwitz is also no stranger to awards. He earned three Emmy nominations for television design. His mantle already contains six Los Angeles Stage Alliance Ovation Awards and three Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards.

    “I love the fact I got involved in this production and seeing how great the longevity has been,” he said. “Seeing how it wows Orange County audiences all these years is a great feeling. I always like coming home and rejoining the SCR family on A Christmas Carol. It’s a special feeling getting it back on its feet every year.”

    Learn more and buy tickets to A Christmas Carol.