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.