• The Story Behind the Photo: "All the Way"

    by 
    Tania Thompson
     | Feb 05, 2021
    All the Way
    Jordan Bellow, Larry Bates and Gregg Daniel in All the Way by Robert Schenkkan (2016). Photo by Debora Robinson.

    About ​All the Way

    1963. Lyndon B. Johnson has been catapulted into the most powerful job on earth. No stranger to back room deals, Johnson takes us with him—flattering, backslapping, placating and bullying as he maneuvers to pass the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act. From Martin Luther King Jr. to George Wallace, some of America’s most dynamic leaders stand beside him—or against him—during this tumultuous time, captured vividly in the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit.

    Larry Bates is a South Coast Repertory veteran, with nearly 20 shows to his credit—including mainstage productions and Theatre for Young Audiences shows. In All the Way by Robert Schenkkan (2016), a drama about the passage of the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act, Bates portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a role that presented him with both opportunities and challenges. In this Q&A, he talks about taking on the role and why he chose the photo above as a meaningful moment from the play. He selected the photo above as a meaningful moment from the play.

    What moment does this depict?

    This is the moment right after Dr. King finds out that President Lyndon B. Johnson was indeed successful at getting the Civil Rights Bill out of committee and to the House of Representatives. It is a great scene because, despite the small victory, there is still a lot at play. The voting rights portion was stripped from the bill and that was a key component and vital to what King was trying to achieve. He is also balancing this small victory in the legislative process with growing impatience and divisions that are developing within his own coalition. There are different factions at play; each was set on achieving the same goal, but one was steadier and more institutional while the other frustrated and growing more radical.

    How did you work to make this moment happen?

    Luckily, we had a great director and a slew of fabulous actors. Pictured with me [above] are Jordan Bellow, who played Bob Moses, and Gregg Daniel, who played Roy Wilkins. What was great about working on this production was how we all were able to keep everything incredibly light but not forsaking our objectives, the seriousness, or any of the stakes at hand. I laughed so much working on this show with these actors. It really was a great time, and I credit Marc Masterson, our director, with fostering that environment for us especially considering the content.

    What’s the power about this moment?

    There is a lot on the line. First and foremost, there ​was the fierce urgency ​at the moment in history. The stakes ​were high, and the weight of a people was on his shoulders. So, there is a delicate dance between accepting a small victory to move the ball along while also applying pressure to get more done. At the same time, King must achieve it in a way that keeps his various coalitions intact.

    What was challenge for you in portraying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

    These were large shoes to fill for obvious reasons. It was challenging because Dr. King was widely known and his rhetorical style was so uniquely his own that it is tethered to people’s expectations of seeing him. I had the good fortune and opportunity to play Dr. King in another play, several times and in various productions, so I felt relatively at ease. It was still challenging though. What I tr​ied to do ​was let go of any expectation and simply focus on Dr. King’s humanity as it ​was revealed through the script, the direction and my scene partners. I ​did that first and then transitioned to the details that would help meet an audience’s expectation of Dr. King. It was also nice that there ​were a lot of private moments—those are always great chances to contrast a more private man versus his public persona.

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

    In addition to Gregg and Jordan, there were two other actors in this scene: Christian Henley as Stokely Carmichael and Rosney Mauger as Ralph Abernathy. We all moved as a team through much of the play and we had the best time. I would like to think that the relationships we formed while doing this piece enriched our performances and the audience’s experience.

  • The Story Behind the Photo: "She Loves Me"

    by 
    Tania Thompson
     | Jan 27, 2021
    She Loves Me
    Brian Vaughn and Erin Mackey in She Loves Me (2020), directed by David Ivers. Book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, based on the play by Miklós László. Photo by Jordan Kubat.

    About ​She Loves Me

    Romantic, charming and brimming with joy, this musical comedy reminds us that one kind deed can open up a world of possibilities. At Maraczek’s Parfumerie, clerks Georg and Amalia are constantly at odds. But outside of work, they’re each falling madly in love with an anonymous pen pal, unaware that it is the other. This nostalgic Broadway hit inspired by the story that gave us The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail is “as sweet and exhilarating as a first kiss” (New York Daily News).

    Sample Songs from She Loves Me

    There was a lot to ​love about South Coast Repertory’s production of She Loves Me (2020)—including the fact that it marked David Ivers' directorial debut as artistic director, had an automated set that opened to reveal a stunning Art Deco perfume shop and had a hugely talented cast. Erin Mackey (Amalia Balash) drew praise from audiences—think song like “Will He Like Me?” and “Vanilla Ice Cream.” With so much to love about this show, why did Mackey select the photo above as an important moment?

    What moment does this depict?

    This is a moment ​from the second act. Amalia has been stood up (or so she thinks…) by her pen pal, “Dear Friend” and was stuck at a restaurant with her least-favorite person ever, Georg. (Spoiler alert: Georg is “dear friend”!). Now, she’s home and sick. Georg shows up to her place to bring her ice cream and they talk/fight about what happened the night before and maybe…kind of…realize they like each other?

    How did you work to make this moment happen?

    This scene is such a blast! David Ivers (our director), Brian Vaughn (my ridiculously talented Georg) and I had so much fun staging this scene. It’s very physical—lots of physical comedy and timing to get right. I got to eat “ice cream” (in reality, a non-dairy coconut whipped topping) ​eight times a week and run around the stage, jumping on the bed like a crazy person. There was a lot of coordination to get it all right. Brian is such a fun, confident actor and I knew I could always throw anything his way and he would pick it up and run with it. And, David is such a smart and enthusiastic director; he wanted our staging and scene work to be fun and truthful and smart.

    What’s the power about this moment?

    What's is so beautiful about this scene is that you’ve watched these two characters hate each other for the whole show. They bicker and, eventually, say truly mean things to one another. But, here, they finally realize how much they complement one another. It’s a rather long scene actually and I love that the writers of this show trusted that two people onstage talking to one another and having revelations about their feelings can be so engaging and thrilling to watch. Plus, the scene ends with “Vanilla Ice Cream” and that’s just one of the best musical theatre soprano songs out there!

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

    Amalia in She Loves Me is a dream role for me. It’s a gem of a show and, dare I say, nearly perfect. I so appreciated David’s desire to not have the show be ONLY about the comedy. It’s a remarkably funny show, but the emotions of these characters are real and raw and heartbreaking at times. ​Our production didn’t shy away from that and I’m really proud of all of us for making that happen!

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

    by 
    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"

    by 
    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"

    by 
    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.