• The Story Behind the Photo: "Mr. Wolf"

    Tania Thompson
     | Jan 22, 2021
    Mr. Wolf
    Emily James, Jon Tenney and John DeLancie in Mr. Wolf by Rajiv Joseph (2015). Photo by Debora Robinson.

    About ​Mr. Wolf

    When Rajiv Joseph puts pen to paper, he ignites the theatre world. He has thrilled audiences with plays like the Broadway hit Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and now comes his most provocative drama yet—a psychological mystery that will keep you guessing up until the end. The universe is vast, but 15-year-old Theresa seeks to understand how and why it came to be. Her guide in that quest is a man named Mr. Wolf. Now, the only life she has ever known is coming to an end. With the center of her world gone, how will she find her place in it?

    For Emily James, Spring 2015 had two major milestones: she graduated from Cal State Fullerton and she made her professional debut in the world premiere of Mr. Wolf by Rajiv Joseph at South Coast Repertory. The play is dark and complicated [see sidebar], but it gave James just what she was looking for. The cast also included John DeLancie in the title role, Jon Tenney as her character’s father, Tessa Auberjoinois as her mother and Kwana Martinez as her step-mom. James selected the above photo as a pivotal moment for her character.

    What moment does this depict?

    This moment depicts my character reuniting with her beloved rug. In the play, Theresa, played by me, was kidnapped at an early age and raised by a lunatic astronomy professor named Mr. Wolf. In his eyes, he was training Theresa to be the “chosen one,” a person who would one day save the world. He was aware the police would come for him and he has prepared her for that moment. Theresa, being all kinds of brainwashed, has bound her life to Mr. Wolf. He was the only person she has ever known and, though she was trapped, she was content because it was all she knew. She became very attached to the things in the house where Mr. Wolf kept her and had a special relationship with the rug, where she would pace back and forth and crunch her toes into it all day.

    Tell us more.

    At the beginning of the play, Theresa’s parents and the police finally find her after a 12-year search. Her captor, Mr. Wolf, kills himself and Theresa is left to her own devices in an absolutely terrifying new world. As predicted, she has a rough time in her new reality. She’s experiencing Stockholm Syndrome and sees Mr. Wolf everywhere: as a doctor and as the policeman at the end of the play. She desperately wants to get back to the comforts of her confinement. She misses her art supplies, Mr. Wolf and, especially, her favorite rug. She repeats over and over to her Mom, Dad and stepmom that she wants to go “home.” She gets that wish when a new investigation opens up about other possible abductions and the police officer takes Theresa back to Mr. Wolf’s house to question her.

    How did you work to make this moment happen?

    Jon [Tenney, who portrayed Theresa’s father] and I always embraced this moment in the play. It was such a relief, after an hour and a half of stress and darkness, to get barefoot on the rug and goof around. In rehearsal, it took me a while to understand Theresa’s thought process in this moment. In the beginning, I expressed overwhelming joy at the sight of my rug. But then, Rajiv Joseph [playwright] and I had a discussion and he insinuated that my emotions were a bit off track. I don’t think he told me what to do outright, but I remember he looked down at the ground in a sort of meditative state and shuffled back and forth. It reminded me of the things that kids do when they are being creative in their own solitary, little worlds. After sitting with that note, I realized that the rug was simply a pacifier for Theresa; she was spending the entire play in fight​-or​-flight mode, overwhelmed by fear and trauma. When she gets to the rug, it’s finally a moment of familiarity for her and she starts pacing again—it’s like a meditation.

    What’s the power about this moment?

    This is when Theresa’s father connects with his daughter for the first time in the play. Seeing Theresa so happy and at ease with the rug, the Father takes off his shoes and joins her. Before this moment, he could barely look at or speak to her; the emotional toll and pressure to connect with his daughter had been too heavy for him, after spending a dozen years searching for her. It’s a beautiful moment of connection in the midst of the bleakness of their circumstances and it opens the door to more even more connection and healing.

  • The Story Behind the Photo: "tokyo fish story"

    Tania Thompson
     | Jan 14, 2021
    tokyo fish story
    Jully Lee, Lawrence Kao, Sab Shimono and Ryun Yu in tokyo fish story (2015) by Kimber Lee. Photo by Debora Robinson.

    About tokyo fish story

    Generations, gender and tradition collide in tokyo fish story, a new play by Kimber Lee, with its world premiere at South Coast Repertory. Koji is a sushi master whose fine, traditional sushi restaurant is on the decline at the same time the new sushi place down the street packs them in. A quiet play that has a big heart, a touch of poetry, a hint of mystery—and just the right amount of enticing comedy.

    Director Bart DeLorenzo helmed Kimber Lee’s tokyo fish story (2015), which unfolded on the Julianne Argyros Stage. The story’s recipe appealed to him: food, combined with a subtle yet engagingly universal drama about people who suppress emotions for the sake of tradition. He remembers fondly the choreography needed for sushi-making scenes [one is featured above].

    What moment does this depict?

    Not many plays are about food. This photo is from the first dinner service in tokyo fish story, the moment when we see for ourselves the kind of sushi mastery that chef Koji is capable of. Kimber was inspired to write this play by the wonderfu documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and, although we can’t taste, the film allows us to see in extraordinary close-up the beauty and lusciousness of the dishes. Theatre as an art form isn’t great at depicting flavor or showing the close details of an object, so we knew we had to fashion a beautiful metaphor. Kimber’s script says, “The sushi bar is lit like a stage,” so we pursued this thought to perform the sushi preparation as an elaborate, choreographed dance.

    How did you work to make this moment happen?

    We all had gone on a field trip to James Hamamori’s delicious restaurant to observe and learn from him and his generous sushi-makers. Then, we devoted a whole day of rehearsal to the creation and refinement of our sequence. SCR provided us with all the working tools of a real sushi bar and we began with the actors playing freely with the props, knowing that, unlike the film, we would never see any actual food. I watched the improvisations for interesting gestures or defining sounds. We decided which moves were the most compelling and, over many trials, gave the piece a momentum that we liked. While we had simultaneously created a natural live percussive score, our sound designer John Zalewski watched and later built a subtle complementary orchestration. Then Elizabeth Harper lit it like theatre, as you can see above.

    What’s the power about this moment?

    The sequence gave a holy hush to the act of sushi preparation and I think it conveyed the seriousness and devotion of Koji’s artistry. I was raised Catholic and you can perhaps see traces of the mass in this configuration. Tradition, ritual. And, as the play moved forward and we later watched Takashi, Koji’s son, prepare dinner, we were able to see how the future generations might respectfully progress the customs of the past.

    Anything else you’d like to say about the photo or the production?

    If you look closely, Sab Shimono who played Koji, hasn’t tied his apron the way chefs typically do. This is a very special time-consuming knot that Sab himself insisted on, a knot that itself comes out of a tradition and a history. Sab said that he was taught the knot by Mako when they performed together on Broadway in Pacific Overtures in 1976. This passing on reflects the spirit of Kimber’s play.

  • The Story Behind the Photo: "The Whale"

    Tania Thompson
     | Jan 07, 2021
    The Whale
    Matthew Arkin as “Charlie” in The Whale (2013). Photo by Scott Brinegar.

    About The Whale

    Charlie is different from most of us. First, he’s an online writing teacher with one friend, a nurse who nearly kills him with kindness, and one acquaintance, a troubled young missionary who’s determined to rescue his soul. Second, he’s in bad health but refuses to be hospitalized.  And third, he weighs in at 600 pounds. When his estranged daughter turns up suddenly, Charlie makes a deal to buy her time, if not her affections. He hopes their connection will give her life—and his—meaning at last.

    When the lights came up on a dingy apartment living room set on the Julianne Argyros Stage, a large man was seated on a small sofa. Audiences gasped​ when they saw Matthew Arkin, appearing to be several hundred pounds heavier than normal​, thanks to some ingenious prosthetics. He had become “Charlie,” the main character in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale (2013). The Los Angeles Times lauded Arkin’s performance, saying that he “makes the audience feel for the morbidly obese, grieving … Charlie in Samuel D. Hunter’s funny, angry and moving play.” And Broadway World called it “beautifully acted and heartbreakingly stirring.” The tour de force performance was a journey for Arkin and in this Q&A, he talks about the meaning behind this particular photo [above].

    What moment does this depict?

    In The Whale, the amazing play by MacArthur Fellow Samuel D. Hunter, one of the central plotlines follows my character Charlie's efforts to heal his relationship with his daughter, Ellie [portrayed by Helen Sadler] and to awaken her to her own potential before his impending death from congestive heart failure and complications of extreme obesity. He left Ellie and her mother when Ellie was three; she's now in high school and an extremely angry and troubled young woman. But Charlie knows that she's also incredibly intelligent, and so he bribes her into coming to visit him every day and to do some writing. At one point, Charlie picks up Ellie's red notebook when she's not around to see what she's been working on. He opens it and reads a phrase from it out loud: “This apartment smells. This notebook is retarded. I hate everyone.” He then reads it again: “This apartment smells. This notebook is retarded. I hate everyone." He reads it a third time:
    This apartment smells.
    This notebook is retarded.
    I hate everyone.

    What's the power about this moment?

    To me, the power of this photo is that it captures the exact moment that Charlie realizes that what his daughter has written is a haiku, thus confirming for him that she is incredibly talented and intelligent and, also, that on some level his efforts to reach her are working; even in her rebellion, she can't help but express her innate strengths and abilities. This strengthens both his resolve and his hope for her future.

    How did you work to make this moment happen?

    When we were in rehearsal, I asked Helen Sadler, the wonderful actor playing Ellie, my daughter, to write the phrase in the notebook we were using as a prop. That way, at every performance, I’d be looking at her writing and it would help me to connect with her. One of the things that helps me, as an actor, is to have as many “real” things around me or in my memory as I can. I feel that those kinds of touchstones can ground a performance. As another example of doing that type of work, I remember a time when I asked Lisa Emery, who played my wife in Dinner with Friends, to bring in a photograph of her at the age that we would have first met and fallen in love. Then I would have that image to hold in my mind when we were working on the last scene of the play, when the couple is discussing the difficulty of keeping marriage and love alive through the long haul.

  • South Coast Repertory Partners With The Story Pirates on "Sleep Squad"

    Tania Thompson
     | Jan 04, 2021
    Sleep Squad
    ​Lilli Cooper as the Dream Queen.

    Two Ways to Enjoy Sleep Squad

    Families may order Sleep Squad two ways, and watch as many times during the steaming window (Feb. 1-14):

    • Video Only: $35
    • Video + a Dreamtime Kit: $50. The kit is shipped directly to purchasers and includes a dream journal, a sleep mask, stickers and a star globe nightlight. Recommendation: order early to allow time for shipping the kit.

    Pre-order Now

    The Team Behind Sleep Squad

    Sleep Squad is produced by The Story Pirates and Tony Award-winning producer Eva Price (Oklahoma!, Jagged Little Pill). It is created and directed by Olivier Award nominee Jennifer Weber (& Juliet) and Drama Desk nominee Lee Overtree (Artistic Director, The Story Pirates). Read more about the full creative team.

    It’s bedtime…and your kids don’t want to go to sleep. Sound familiar? It’s what many parents face. Enter: The award-winning Story Pirates with Sleep Squad, a family-friendly, interactive, virtual theatre experience that turns your home into a rocket ship to launch kids into their dreams. This brand new, unique, kid-driven comedy theatre is something you can’t see or hear anywhere else. And, this world premiere, on-demand production creates a new kind of bedtime ritual for kids age 4-12. Sleep Squad is available to stream on-demand from Feb. 1-14.

    In Sleep Squad, Tony Award-nominee Lilli Cooper (SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, Tootsie) portrays the Dream Queen, who guides adventurers through three enchanting virtual experiences, adapted from stories written by real kids. These include a visit to a desert island (Stuck Island), a dinosaur’s birthday party (Spinosaurus’ Birthday), and an intergalactic nightclub (30 Moons) and allow kids to take ownership of the imagination-powered storytelling. Sleep Squad concludes with soothing music that will help lull adventurers to sleep.

    “We’re excited to partner with The Story Pirates on this innovative, theatrical adventure for kids,” says SCR Artistic Director David Ivers. “Sleep Squad offers kids an immersive storytelling experience that engages their imaginations, helps them settle down to sleep and gives them the tools to record their dreams. As a parent, I can identify with how challenging bedtime can be. Sleep Squad, and its nightly routine, will have kids looking forward to going to sleep.”

    Parents LOVE Sleep Squad

    Parents and reviewers are raving about Sleep Squad since its launch in late November. Review Wire recommended it as a “‘stellar’ new bedtime ritual for the whole fam!” and Motherhood Later remarked, “The best part was watching the smile on my son’s face as he listened to the stories, paused to write in his sleep journal, and watched the stars dancing on the walls of his room.” And The New York Times theatre critic Alexis Soloski remarked that her kids enjoyed creating their own stories behind their sleep masks. She added, “This is the first time in 20 years of theater criticism that I can unashamedly make this claim: The show put me to sleep.”

    The Story Pirates, one of the Sleep Squad producers, “believe that kids are creative geniuses. All of them.” Winner of the 2020 iHeartRadio award and the 2020 Webby Award for Best Kids and Family Podcast, Story Pirates Podcast is one of the top three kids and family podcasts in the world. Downloaded more than 25 million times and featuring songs and sketches based on stories written by kids, their special guests include top talent like Billy Eichner, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dax Shepard, Amber Ruffin, Bowen Yang, Claire Danes, John Oliver and Lake Bell. The Pirates have released three critically acclaimed middle-grade books with Penguin Random House and three award-winning albums, all based on ideas from kids around the world.

    Sleep Squad is part of SCR commUNITY, the theatre’s digital storytelling platform.

    Learn more and order your family’s Sleep Squad streaming pass.

  • The Story Behind the Photo: "Destiny of Desire"

    Tania Thompson
     | Dec 29, 2020
    Destiny of Desire
    Esperanza America (as Pilar), Cástulo Guerra (Armando Castillo), Ruth Livier (Fabiola) and Ella Saldana North (Victoria Maria del Rio) in Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías (2016). Photo by Debora Robinson.

    About Destiny of Desire

    On a stormy night in Bellarica, Mexico, two baby girls are born—one to poverty, one to privilege—and then secretly switched by a scheming former beauty queen. Eighteen years later the girls meet, brought together by misfortune. Or is it destiny? In this fast-paced comedy inspired by popular telenovelas, forbidden love, revenge, infidelity and burning passion abound. (And musical numbers make it the perfect guilty pleasure!) This was a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

    Love, jealousy, dark secrets, hidden identities and shocking surprises. That describes both telenovelas and Karen Zacarías’ play, Destiny of Desire (2016). Audiences loved the reveals at nearly every turn of this tale—and the cast loved telling it. Actor Ella Saldana North is an SCR veteran of both mainstage and Theatre for Young Audiences Family Series productions; she portrayed Victoria Maria del Rio in Destiny of Desire, one of two young women (the other is Pilar) whose fates are intertwined. She selected this photo (above) as an important moment from the lively play.

    What moment does this depict?

    This is the moment of truth when Fabiola (Ruth Livier), who secretly is the biological mother of my character, Victoria, must decide between protecting ​Victoria, or pleasing her husband and continuing to pretend that she doesn't care what happens to this maid. In a few seconds, she will end up pushing her out of the house and into a sandstorm. 

    How did you work to make this moment happen?

    Lots of rehearsal centered around Fabiola: What were her natural impulses? As a mother? As a wife? When does she care and when does she switch and make that decision to be ruthless. As someone who isn't in her home and is no longer a welcome guest—not to mention is having trouble breathing—Victoria is pretty much at the mercy of these three people.  

    What’s the power about this moment?

    ​It perfectly depicts the status of everyone involved and really tells the story about that moment. You see Fabiola's posed stance and haughtiness; Armando's anger, authoritativeness, and need to control; Pilar looking ever-so-slightly hopeful but being pretty much powerless; and Victoria feeling ashamed, unwanted and scared.