• Evan Lugo Makes The Most of His Opportunity

    Brian Robin
     | May 23, 2022
    Evan Lugo

    Evan Lugo has played big roles before. There was Konstantin in The Seagull. There was John Proctor in The Crucible. He played Will in Shakespeare in Love. Nice, juicy plum roles any up-and-coming actor would seize and run with.

    But you can say playing George Gibbs in SCR’s production of Our Town takes Lugo to another level.

    The 25-year-old Michigan native earns his MFA at UC Irvine next month. And yet, he landed the male lead in a main stage production at a major regional theatre.

    “I was fairly surprised to get this role,” he said. “Mainly in terms of how great an opportunity it is. I was fairly happy with my work. I loved the play and I was happy with my callback. But there were so many other talented people there. Ones I look up to as well.”

    The journey that brought Lugo here started in the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights. It winded through Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where Lugo earned a BFA in Theatre. That’s also where he played Konstantin, John Proctor and Will in WMU’s productions.

    Even here in SCR’s backyard, Lugo originally had no idea he was on anyone’s radar. But SCR Casting Director Joanne DeNaut often attends a class at UCI and knows about the MFA students. Eventually, this brought Lugo to her attention, with him popping up on her radar through director Beth Lopes. Herself a UCI product, Lopes had Lugo among her initial audition candidates for the role of George.

    When DeNaut saw Lugo’s audition tape, she was intrigued enough to call him back for a reading. When she saw his work with Grace Morrison, the actor playing Emily Webb, DeNaut knew she had something.

    “There were many contenders for George, and while Evan is still a student in the MFA program, his youthful presence and charm as George—along with his chemistry with Emily in the callback audition—won him the role,” DeNaut said.

    “He is truly one of the most present performers I have ever encountered,” Lopes said. “He comes alive on stage with his scene partners in a way that is so special. … Both Evan and Grace are spectacular performers and there is something special about them reading together.”

    Lugo, meanwhile, keeps pinching himself every time he’s on stage with such SCR veterans as Hal Landon Jr. (Stage Manager), Michael Manuel (Mr. Webb), Elyse Mirto (Mrs. Webb), Brad Culver (Simon Stimson) and Nicole Erb (Mrs. Soames).

    “It’s been a wild ride for me. I feel very grateful and honored to be part of this production,” Lugo said. “This is a beautiful production and a beautiful cast.”

    See Lugo and the rest of Our Town’s cast on the Segerstrom Stage through June 4.

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  • Mike Lew Discusses "Tiger Style!," Creativity and Growing Up With Tiger Parenting

    Brian Robin
     | May 23, 2022
    Mike Lew

    When Mike Lew pivoted from biology to theatre his freshman year at Yale, he underwent more than just a shift in majors. He underwent a major shift in mindsets.

    From the practical to the abstract. From the easily quantifiable to the elusively puzzling.

    “For whatever reason, theatre was calling me,” Lew said. “I was desperate for people to tell me how to do it. How do you get a career in theatre? Nobody had the answer to that.”

    Maybe not. But Lew found it based on his writing talent. Of such quandaries are comedies born and critically acclaimed plays created. When Lew’s comedic search for answers collided with his upbringing, the result was Tiger Style! running through June 5 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

    Lew’s hilarious look at “tiger parenting,” a byproduct of Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s 2011 memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, allowed him to externalize in a funny manner the internal struggles he faced not only growing up with “tiger parents,” but the quest for the quantifiable, the practical, in a theatre world antithetical to that.

    “I think for both a career standpoint and from an artistic standpoint, my upbringing didn’t have all the answers,” he said. “In terms of a career in theatre, it’s not the same kind of rhyme or reason why I would be individually successful. If I were to go into a field where more quantifiable results or a field where metrics matter more, I would be able to measure how my progress went. It’s not like I’m getting grades on my plays, or if I do get a grade on my play, through a review, that’s not objective. I’m trying to develop an internal compass on how I’m doing and how I’m doing has been hard to learn on my own.

    “For kids that grow up this way, there’s a real sort of reckoning waiting in your adult life. That’s the essence of the play. These are egghead, high-achieving kids who can’t use that same methodology in the real world and have an existential crisis on who they are and how they fit. Though comedic, it’s getting into the same phenomenon I’ve observed not only in myself, but people in my community.”

    Lew is the co-director of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, the New York theatre company that is the largest incubator of Asian American playwriting talent in the country. Spending time in that fertile incubator was a double-edged sword in terms of inspiration.

    “This was a play that was really a long time in coming,” he said. “Coming up in theatre and feeling like a lot of theatres were asking me for an Asian American play, but there was a set of assumptions around what that would look like. People wanted me to write a play about being an immigrant stuck between two cultures. Being in Ma-Yi Writers’ Lab, we were all wrestling with that and much more. …

    “The play is in part, a response to the boxing-in that I felt from theatres and is in part with me wrestling with growing up with tiger parents.”

    Ah yes. The “tiger parenting” element is an inescapable variable to Lew’s artistic equation. It’s not difficult to understand why. Lew’s grandparents fled World War II China and arrived in the United States with practically nothing. This made an understandable impact on his parents, who instilled in Lew a love of science, along with demands for academic excellence, liberal participation in extracurriculars and acceptance into the most elite schools.

    “My parents were extremely exacting when it came to academics. I get where they’re coming from,” Lew said. “They grew up poor and the only way they saw getting out of that situation was getting a good education and becoming doctors. … They are carrying that same immigrant mentality to me, even though I was born here.

    “The multigenerational question was how do we thrive in the U.S. and how do we make sure we’re doing better than they did? … Where the national debate falls short is the assumption this is doing this with lovelessness. I see it as being hard on your kids because you love your kids. There’s a real sense of fear you’re not going to have enough resources in adult life. It (tiger parenting) is trying to instill some real resilience and rigor to attacking life. That’s coming from a place of love. It’s a very personal play and it really had a big effect in how I came into theatre, how I countenanced the value going into theatre and the value going into the arts.”

    So how have Lew’s parents adjusted to their son’s distinctive artistic talent? Quite nicely, actually. His parents were longtime subscribers to the Old Globe Theatre and Lew quipped that going to the theatre was “one of their only date nights.” He also told the funny story of his father mapping out audience reactions during previews of his plays based on everything from sound to light cues. Just like a scientific trial.

    “He’s processing it just the way a scientist would,” Lew said. “They had anxiety about how I would make a living and would I be unhappy by the instability of the arts. They’ve put those reservations aside. I’m not changing career paths. In the meantime, they’ve been supportive about seeing the work and trying to understand what drives me to do it.”

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  • How Did Million Dollar Quartet Get Its Name?

    Brian Robin
     | May 17, 2022
    Million Dollar Quartet

    It was a throw-away line in the end of a story and a line in a photo caption. From such seemingly innocent actions come the names of hit Broadway musicals.

    Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records in Memphis, was eating dinner at a local restaurant on December 4, 1956 when sound technician Jack Clement interrupted his meal. Clement told his boss that his planned recording session of Carl Perkins and pianist Jerry Lee Lewis had suddenly grown by two legends-in-waiting: Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. The pair dropped by unannounced.

    Seeing a golden opportunity for some publicity, Phillips finished his meal and hurried back to the studio, where he called Robert Johnson, the entertainment editor for the Memphis Press-Scimitar. Johnson and photographer George Pierce came over, listened to the impromptu jam session that arose from this meeting, and filed a story.

    Johnson’s column and Pierce’s accompanying photo of the four music legends and Presley’s then-girlfriend, Marilyn Evans, ran the next afternoon.

    The first three lines of the photo caption? “Million Dollar Quartet.”

    The last sentence of Johnson’s column? “That quartet could sell a million.”

    He wrote it estimating what the salaries of the four would have been. Using Johnson’s story as a guideline, today’s “Million Dollar Quartet” would sell more than $10.6 million. Doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    Million Dollar Quartet, book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, original concept and direction by Mutrux, is Outside SCR’s 2022 production at the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano. Directed by James Moye, who played Phillips during the production’s 2011-12 off-Broadway run, Million Dollar Quartet runs July 30-August 21.

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  • Tappan Wilder Opens The Curtain To His Famous Uncle

    Brian Robin
     | May 17, 2022
    Tappan Wilder

    Tappan Wilder graduated from Yale and has a Masters in American History from the University of Wisconsin and a Masters of Philosophy in American Studies from Yale. He brings even more to the table when it comes to his main job for the past 27 years—literary executor for Thornton Wilder’s voluminous works.

    “I do not write as a scholar, but it was my good fortune to know Thornton Wilder as ‘Uncle Thorny,’ …” Tappan writes in a 2013 essay for Northwestern University Press titled “Thornton Wilder for the Twenty-First Century.”

    And it is Wilder fans’ good fortune that Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s lone nephew, took that role managing his uncle’s vast properties. Since taking over as literary executor in 1995, upon the death of Thornton’s sibling, Isabel, Tappan opened up Thornton Wilder’s world to the rest of the world. There was the three-volume Library of America editions of Wilder’s plays and novels, headed—of course—by Our Town. Then came a 2012 biography and The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder, both of which drew on a wealth of information previously inaccessible to anyone outside the Wilder family.

    “What do I do? Quite a range of things,” Tappan said last week, in between editing several Wilder playlets—three-minute, one-act plays his uncle started writing in high school. “I run basically the business of managing Thornton Wilder properties, from keeping everything in print to working on adaptations and translations. … What don’t I do is a better question. I’m very proud everything is in print. … I deal with scholars seeking permission to write about Thornton Wilder.

    “My job is to represent him in every way I can responsibly and joyfully do.”

    And it’s a full-time job. In so doing, he added dimensions to one of the 20th century’s most celebrated men-of-letters. He brought not just Thornton Wilder’s prolific plays, novels, essays and letters into the 21st century, but insight into who his uncle was.

    Tappan said since taking over as literary executor, he’s discovered “hundreds of letters I wasn’t aware of, learning a great deal about these people I never knew about. I’ve gotten to know them all over again in a totally different way. It’s quite an opportunity and quite a treasure.”

    So are the memories.

    “What I remember most were happy encounters with him and the wonderful letters he wrote me,” Tappan said. “I was the only nephew. He was an extraordinary letter writer. You can see the spirit in which he wrote. He was interested about life and gave me wonderful comments and observations. He was fun to be around and he was fun to be around because he had an extraordinary sense of humanity. He was a great conversationalist. All joyful, but very serious at times. …

    “I have often said the one thing I did not do for him was I never shared my term papers. I declined the opportunity.”

    But Thornton didn’t decline the opportunity to spoil his nephew. Along with the letters, Tappan tells the story of a day in Switzerland in 1953. Tappan was there with his father, a college professor on an exchange program. They were at the Palace Hotel in Gstaad and Thornton was there, on one of his numerous travels. The hotel gave him a large box of candy, which Thornton didn’t eat.

    “So he gave it to me,” Tappan said. “I had to hide it because he didn’t want the hotel to think he was ungrateful. So I put it under my shirt, like a big, bulletproof vest. … Somehow we got out of that hotel and I got back home with the biggest box of candy I ever had.”

    Speaking of big, there’s Our Town, which Tappan described as “the nine-hundred-pound gorilla in Thornton Wilder’s artistic tent,” in that Northwestern University essay. Tappan said from the moment Our Town was first made available to amateur and stock stages on April 5, 1939, it has been performed at least once a day somewhere in the world. In the first 20 months after it was made available, the play was performed on 658 stages across the United States and Canada.

    It was performed in Warsaw, Poland in February 1939, seven months before the Nazis invaded the country, starting World War II. It was performed in Nazi-occupied Vienna the following month and in Japan two weeks before Pearl Harbor. It was performed in Berlin in the fall of 1945, when that city was little more than rubble. Currently, Tappan said the play is also being licensed to the Czech Republic, Portugal, Serbia, China, Spain, Ecuador, Hungary and Taiwan, among others.

    “It’s an international play and Grover’s Corners is an international address,” Tappan said.

    And Thornton Wilder knew what Our Town meant. In 1960, he went to Peterborough, N.H., one of the small New Hampshire towns that Grover’s Corners is based on and where Wilder wrote much of Our Town. He went to receive a medal from the MacDowell Colony, an artistic fellowship and residency that dates to 1907. When a New York Times reporter covering the event asked Wilder in essence what was so special about a genre play set in a small, New Hampshire town, Wilder disabused him of that notion in a hurry.

    “Young man, Grover’s Corners is your town. It’s my town. It’s everyone’s home town,” Tappan quoted his uncle saying. “I have received letters from Chile, Iraq, Iran and other countries from people who have seen the play. Despite sociological differences, they tell me they have readily identified their everyday experiences with those in Our Town. …”

    Tappan said his uncle wasn’t an “in-your-face” type of writer. But he understood why Our Town was—and is—such a special play.

    “I’m always happily amazed and pleased and proud to be associated with someone I felt was an absolute genius,” Tappan said. “He was a complete, abstract, marvelous man. I’m extremely proud he tried to write about everybody. He was trying to write not just about one person, but trying to catch everybody. This was a guy with his eyes on observing human life around him. He was a great entertainer, but as he once wrote me, and it was true, he was a great listener.

    “He lived alone all his life and wrote beautifully about marriage and love and family. You realize the man on the edge, the outsider, they have an incredible ability to understand what is going on. They are free to observe and understand. That’s what great artists do. And he had that in spades.”

    See Our Town on the Segerstrom Stage now through June 4.

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  • The Teen Players Join the Dickens Tradition

    Brian Robin
     | May 09, 2022
    Nicholas Nickleby

    Hisa Takakuwa got it right out in the open from the beginning. She’s an unapologetic Charles Dickens fan. But there’s more to the story to why her Teen Players are performing Nicholas Nickleby, dramatized by the late Tim Kelly and based on Dickens’ novel. Nicholas Nickleby runs May 28-June 5 in the Nicholas Studio. The Teen Players are advanced students in grades 10-12 from SCR’s Theatre Conservatory.

    “There’s a little tradition doing Dickens adaptations with the Teen Players. This will be my fourth: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Hard Times,” Takakuwa said. “There’s a couple of reasons for that. For many of the kids who did A Christmas Carol, it was a life-changing experience for them. Most of them do it when they’re quite young, so an opportunity to go back and revisit Dickens when they’re ready to graduate is really meaningful to them, once they have more training and understand it.

    “The second reason is I like to expose them to classical material and language-based material. Dickens is great because of all the challenges he presents. These characters don’t speak like contemporary Americans. There’s a sense of color and description and specificity of word usage, even a poetic quality to characters. It’s a world that is language-based with fun, out-there characters. … Dickens is so accessible to them and they can identify with that.”

    And speaking of characters, Takakuwa’s knowledge about Nicholas Nickleby’s characters—there are 47 of them—and how that helps a budding actor’s ability to develop a character played a key role in selecting this work.

    There are 14 Teen Players in the cast playing those 47 roles. And Takakuwa furthered her students’ education by assigning them a research project to help inform them about their particular character. The Players dug into finding out more about the backgrounds of their respective characters, how they lived, where they lived, what their education was like, what was similar and what was different to life today.

    “Character development is one of the priorities in any Players ensemble year. We spend the entire fall exploring how to build a character,” Takakuwa said. “After they see where they are as performers, we try to push our range and make them make different choices (as a performer). Dickens gives them the opportunity to implement all those things. …

    “Dickens is so fun and so emotionally accessible to them. Even though his characters live in a different century and have different life experiences then they do, the kids really identify with the characters.”

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