The Los Angeles-based comedy improv troupe Robot Teammate is crossing the country in October to make its New York debut at the SoHo Playhouse as part of the Fringe Encore Series. The troupe will be performing its original scripted musical, Turbulence!, which won Best Musical, Best World Premiere, Critics' Choice, and A Little New Music's Award for Outstanding Songwriting at the Hollywood Fringe this past June.
Since this marks the ensemble's debut on the East Coast, performers/writers/producers Chris Bramante, Molly Dworsky and Kat Primeau were happy to participate in a roundtable interview about this exciting event.
How did the opportunity arise for Robot Teammate to make its New York theater debut with Turbulence!?
Molly Dworsky: Our Fringe audiences have come to know us as passionate creators of new comedy musicals and have honored us by filling the seats of our venue and telling their friends to come, too. Our hard-earned reputation garnered interest from an important stranger this year — a theater scout from New York who saw Turbulence! He reached out to us see if we'd like to co-produce the show at his theater, the SoHo Playhouse, for its Fringe Encore series. We were elated and said yes immediately!
artwork: Monica M. Magana and Dan Schaffer
Has any member of the cast worked in New York theater before? If so, what were the circumstances?
Chris Bramante: Beyond writing and performing in playwright colloquiums when I was studying at NYU Tisch, this will be my very first actual New York theater production. When I think about it that way...well, hot dog! I'm even more psyched than I already was, which was quite a darn bit.
Kat Primeau: I did an Off-Broadway Playwrights Festival years ago, performing Dana Lynn Formby's beautiful short play, Armed with Peanut Butter, and later spent time interning at Culture Project, a political theater company. I had the time of my life, dropping postcards off at theaters around Manhattan and feeling the electricity of the sidewalks powering me along as we endeavored to make the world a better place through art.
What's the most exciting aspect of bringing the show to the SoHo Playhouse?
Molly: While Robot Teammate has traveled for the weekend here and there around the Southwest for festivals, two-day residencies and workshops, we have never undergone a cross-country trip together, nor have we tested a run of a show outside of California. This will be groundbreaking for our team, and we all love this work and each other so much. We are over the moon about sharing the experience of New York theater performance with each other.
Chris: I'm excited about being a mere few blocks away from Blue Ribbon Sushi. But even more so, getting to assemble and meet with other artists bringing their work to the Festival and this super dope venue. As a Hamilton obsessee, the fact that the theater used to be owned by Aaron Burr (sir) is also a fun bit of something.
Kat: I love viewing theater from all around the world. It's always a treat to see different artists' processes and products. I love meeting new producing entities and getting insight to what work and subject matter interests them. It's consumer research, understanding what artists and audiences are hungry for. I'm really looking forward to connecting with international and regional companies also participating in the festival. An opportunity to travel with your craft is always amazing, especially when it reunites you with old producing partners and new potential collaborators!
Martians from Turbulence (photo by Matt Kamimura)
What are you most looking forward to experiencing in the Big Apple?
Molly: I'm sure it's slightly different for everyone, but I'm excited to not have to worry about driving or parking! I can't wait to walk everywhere and use great public transportation. Also, connecting with dear friends in New York will be a top priority.
Chris: New York is a second home to me, as I lived there for five years, first studying at NYU Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing and then working my first job in media at ABC News. I cannot wait to see all my friends, family and professors who are still living and thriving in the city. I've been performing with Robot Teammate out in Los Angeles for over five years and so many of my beloved people have never gotten the chance to see my little musicbot family. I hope the current student body of the Department of Dramatic Writing attends. Ya see, kids? Study hard and show up to class and then one day you can stomp around in shiny silver hot pants just like this alum.
Kat: I can't wait to spend time with my friends from Ohio University, eat a ton of bagels and actually see Autumn again!
How do you think New York audiences will receive Turbulence!?
Molly: We hope our show can transcend coastal preferences and be as well-received in the theater capitol of the world, if not more beloved, than it was in Los Angeles. Because our show is feel-good, family-friendly and only an hour long, we think it can be like a chocolate cookie of a show instead of some of the more hardy and harder-to-swallow meals like the serious/dramatic/two+ hour shows. This show is fun, and we know people tend to need an escape from a scarily un-fun reality right now.
Chris: I think they will love it. Hey, it's a fast-paced, zany comedy with catchy synthpop tunes at an affordable ticket price. It's theater that a tourist can pop in and pop out of. Perfect for a family that can't afford the higher Broadway prices but still wants to experience a theater production in New York.
Robot Teammate's 2016 Fringe Show - poster by Dax Schaffer and Monica M. Magana
Have you had any interaction with New York improv theater companies yet? Have they offered you any tips or guidance?
Kat: We are performing at the New York Musical Improv Festival at the Magnet Theater on October 22nd with a really incredible team we met at West Coast Music Improv Festival earlier this year, American Immigrant. We are excited to see them and a bunch of talented musical improvisers while we are in town, and are reaching out to our friends in comedy for advice and support. I have to give a shout-out to my theater company buddies at the TEAM and Theatre for New Audiences who have been especially helpful so far!
Since winning a bunch of awards at the 2017 Fringe, what kind of interest has the show engendered and how has it benefited the company?
Chris: It has given us a chance to bring our show to the musical epicenter of the planet, so that's incredible. We hope to create lasting connections with theater communities out here while we're in the midst of the run.
Molly: It seems that successes come and go so quickly in Hollywood (or anywhere). We've enjoyed putting our laurels on our promotional materials, but it's a challenge to get our art in the right hands — to someone who could really make a difference for our creative careers. Mostly, the awards give us confidence to keep working toward our dreams and confirms that what we're doing is really resonating with our friends and fans.
Is anyone going to squeeze in some New York theater while you're there? If so, what do you want to see?
Chris: Yep! As a huge animation fanboy, I really just gotta see Anastasia. I love it too much to not. I would also love to take my shot at the Hamilton lottery to see the new cast (was lucky enough to see Lin, Leslie, Renee and the original cast two years ago). Most certainly I want to check out Sleep No More. Would love recommendations! What should we see?
Kat: My first goal is to get to the Hayden Planetarium and convince Neil deGrasse Tyson to come to our show. Second goal is supporting friends who are performing currently in the city. Third goal is exploring some immersive productions, new musical workshops and recommendations your readers leave us in the comments! Fourth is watching Broadway shows on tape at the New York Public Library.
Molly: We'd all die to see the Tony Award-winning Dear Evan Hansen, but we know we're not alone in that desire. We'll all definitely be visiting the TKTS line during our days off and drinking in whatever we can of your magical city. Hopefully this run of Turbulence! won't be Robot Teammate's last trip to New York together and we'll get to visit and see more shows as often as possible.
Turbulence! will play at various times from October 13-22 at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street. Exact showtimes and tickets can be obtained by visiting the theater's web site.
After a very deep sleep from our two-show day and celebration, I rose early so I could get a jump on the day. Our tour will be over before I know it, and I've seen hardly anything of the city that wasn't from the hotel to the theater.
The weather will be quite warm and sunny today so I throw on a thin t-shirt with my linen button-up, jeans and my Asics sneaks - I do plan on being comfortable in my walking tour. And since we do have a show tonight I'd like to pace my feet, as they are still smarting from overuse.
Today I head to the Chekhov House-Museum. It is the house he lived in with several members of his family and where he wrote over 100 short stories. It shouldn't be too far of a walk - like one and half miles.
As I head out I pass through a massive traffic square with massive statues on one side, an underground tunnel to cross the street and enter the subway and the entrance to a park on the other. I walk through a gorgeous, enormous park with a fountain and the original McDonald's (yes that's the very first McDonald's in all of Russia) and a sandy pathway down the middle with trees on either side and the streets going one way and the next on the outside. The traffic is epic so I stay in the center on the pathway. This goes on for a almost a mile until I come to another towering gorgeous statue and a rather complicated intersection and the choice to go down one of three streets that will take me into the area of the Chekhov house.
As I wander down the street of choice-ended up being the middle one-I notice that the street is lined with many different countries' embassies. Brazil. Finland. Jamaica. I found it odd that they were on the same street. Same block even. I also found it odd-or maybe just unexpected that it was those countries. Finland sure-but Brazil and Jamaica? Yeah mon!
When I got to the intersection where I was to take a right, I paused for orientation. Another absolutely massive intersection with a tunnel and 6 different directions you could go in any of 8 lanes and a building that takes up the entire block. It is simply huge and sprawls across the whole block and even boasts a garden. I go right about two buildings and it's right there.
Or it should be. But I don't see it. Did I pass it?
I consult my map. I consult the buildings. I walk back the direction I came from and watch the bouncing ball on the map move further away. I walk back toward where the Chekhov House is supposed to be and stand where it's supposed to be. I look around in 360 degrees and am baffled. There is nothing where I am standing but a large grey wall obscuring a garden and possibly another building but absolutely nothing that would resemble what I was to expect for the Chekhov House Museum. I am stymied. And pissed off. I pride myself on being able to read a map and navigate with the best of them. And I can't find the Chekhov Museum. What the blankity blank blank? Alright, I guess it's time for Plan B.
I consult the map for Arbat Street. It's a famous street that I've dreamt of since I first read The Master and Margarita. The Master and Margarita is a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov and was notoriously censored. It was also the first Russian play that I did (18 years ago), and it changed my life. So, if the Chekhov Museum is going to play hide and seek with me, I will go enjoy some other illustrious literary wonders illuminated by a different Russian author.
I walk to a market and stop for a bubble water and tiny wrapped cheeses and grapes. I walk more. Good Lord, where is Arbat street? I know that the main street that says it's Arbat - probably isn't the Arbat I'm looking for because that is supposed to be a smaller one of those diagonal walking streets. It's probably all souvenir and chotchkies shops anyway, but I continue. I will find victory.
Another good mile and I finally am upon what is known as New Arbat. It is a fancy walking mall along the main street. There is a small skateboard park. Super fancy shops and restaurants. It's where the cool kids are hanging on this warm afternoon. There is an actual mall. I go inside. It is a seven floor indoor department store that is the equivalent of a Barney's or the coolest Nordstrom you have ever seen. Everything is shiny and chic and organized by designer and I get every kind of look, from "No, not her in the running shoes" to "Oh, maybe she needs some new sneakers…"
When I return to the walking mall I come across a Black Star Burger that has a line around the corner for a dessert that I can only deduce is a giant, crazy ice cream sundae with macarons and marshmallows and other unidentifiable floating objects that hoards of friends have gathered to share this delectable delight together on this hot afternoon. I decide to just sit down for a minute and watch people enjoy this obscenity that is dessert. My feet hurt.
There is an entrance to a little indoor mall. I pop in for another water and some air conditioning and come across a bakery that has fancy breads like we ate in St. Petersburg. They are absolutely beautiful handcrafted artisan creations. The gentleman baker in an apron behind the counter tries to speak to me. I mutter Spasibo and wave in a way that says "No, thank you" and try to telegraph the message inside my brain that says "I'm sorry I came to your country without learning your language." I can see at this moment that was incredibly rude because I would love to talk with you about this gorgeous edible creation that you've obviously labored over, but alas I will have to wander away in shame.
The real Arbat street is around the corner so I walk to it. It is a walking street and it is mostly souvenir shops. I stop into one and purchase a couple of little Babushka dolls and realize that for someone who never leaves the house without a hat, I have been walking for two and a half hours in the midday sun and am a little woozy and irritable.
I decide to grab an Über back to the hotel. We have our last show tonight, and I am beginning to feel as if time is evaporating. It is also starting to look like rush hour in Moscow, and it will be 20 minutes! Maybe the subway. It is all in Cyrillic and I don't have the patience to try and figure it out. I just want to sit in some air conditioning. This was not the walkabout day in Moscow I was looking for. But inevitably at some point on tour or when traveling, there is a day that doesn't go quite as anticipated. Today is that day.
When the Über arrives, it is a white Mercedes and my driver is named Sergei. He greets me and turns the air conditioning on high and quietly sits in traffic as I sit and watch the people walking on the sidewalk pass us and I simply don't care. Our hotel is 1.5 miles and it takes 40 minutes as I sit and drink a bottle of water and doze off and feel like a spoiled American. But I will say that it was the best $11 I spent the whole trip.
Once I return to the hotel, I have the quick switch of grabbing show clothes and racing out the door. Tonight is our last show in Russia.
As I walk to the theater I realize I have walked 6.5 miles already and that is before the show. The weather has shifted and the wind has started blowing. By the time I reach the theater, it has started to rain. I am greeted by the three security guards with whatever the Russian version of “Hey” is. Two of them are bald. I can see that my bribery of them with candies yesterday has made me memorable today. I shake out my hair and my scarf and droplets land on the security glass. They laugh and pantomime flipping their hair to tease me. I rub the top of my head as if I was wiping the rain off my bald head and they all burst into laughter and give me thumbs up.
I pop my headphones on and walk my warm-up and make-up and dressing and pre-show ritual. I feel restless and cannot put my finger on why.
We do our pre-show huddle and decide to do this show for our director Tina & writer Richard. They are the reason we are here and tonight we will honor them. Do our best to make them proud. There. It's settled. It's not about me. Whew.
Tonight's show is met with the same trepidation that we experienced in last night's show. However this time we understand. This will be an earned experience that we share together. We are just getting to know each other and trust is something that is built.
When Vershinin arrives on stage for the first time, it feels like the first time for me as Masha. If I can make Vershinin fall in love with me, I can hold the heart of the Russian people. The show races forward. and I struggle to hang onto it. This last time until the next time that can never be too soon. This last time that disappears as quickly as it began. This last time before an audience that I can hear gasp and weep audibly as I say my goodbye to Vershinin as quickly as it seems he first stepped on stage. This last time the breadth of this story of this family is reduced to us three sisters standing before an empty abyss that is filled with a sold out silent crowd that I can hear sniffling with us.
I pack for our adventures. Workout clothes for tech from 10 – 12 pm. Then a show for the press at 2pm. More dry workout clothes. Then a break and then another show at 7 pm. And a change of clothes for a reception after the show. Yellow dress? Red dress? Red dress.
I sling my bags over my shoulder, throw on my headphones and walk to the theater.
We do a dance call on stage and walk through transitions. I feel keenly aware that the staff and crew are seeing all of these shenanigans of the show out of context. In my mind there is a secret fantasy where we could clear the house and have a private tech for just us. As if we were doing a nude scene in a movie. However that would make it difficult to run the timing of the supertitles that need to match our lines.
At the break there is really only time to peel off sweaty clothes, try to dry under humid conditions, figure out how to prop the dressing room window open without opening the blind that separates us from the walkway to the stage door and eat a protein bar.
Focus is the name of the game.
I give myself extra time for my ritual back stage.
I can feel myself start to stiffen and auto-pilot waits in the wings.
Too much work has been done for auto-pilot to steal what is waiting.
Luckily this isn't about me. It's about Masha and her experience. It is about the show and telling the story.
Just touch one person's heart.
Yes, it is a house filled with critics. They will either love you or they won't, but all we can do is do what we came here to do.
We gather in the wings for our pre-show ritual.
No feathers. No fluff.
The pre-show announcement comes on and there is silence.
The lights go down, and we start the show.
We get through the opening dance.
It becomes abundantly clear to me in those first few moments that the only thing we can do is to do it for us. And hang on to each other for dear life because right now that's all we got. Each other and this story.
The house is about three-quarters filled and it is all press.
We get to our next big song and dance and there is silence.
As we move forward and just do our thing, we start to hear a few chuckles sprinkled through the house. They seem to escape before they too can be silenced.
We finish the show and are met with moderate applause. Applause that says you aren't the worst thing we have ever seen, and I'm not sure how I feel about your interpretation of Chekhov, but we appreciate the effort and can see that you worked really hard.
Well, at least we got that under our belt.
I change into dry clothes and walk out to rain. A downpour.
I skip past puddles to the sushi restaurant. Yes, again. I have a seaweed salad and brown rice. Just needed a little comfort food.
A deluge of rain continues and the sidewalk gutters overflow. There doesn't seem to be much of a difference in the stride of the people walking on the street.
And then before I know it, my food is gone and so is the rain and I feel recharged.
I go down the street to a little market I'd discovered that has Coke Zero. I grab one and peruse the Russian candies. I choose a bag of chocolates that looks like dark chocolate filled with marshmallow and another bag of chocolates that I have no idea what they are but they have this amazing picture of a baby with a Babushka scarf that is so adorable I want to eat it.
When I get back to the theater I give the security guards chocolates and they look at me as if I am trying to bribe them. I am.
Kendra is pumping in the dressing room.
We decide that trying the candies are our only salvation.
The dark chocolate marshmallow ones are actually not marshmallow at all. It is more like a marzipan except that it is so super sugary it crunches.
The cute tiny baby candy is however the most delicious thing in the world. It is like a chocolate wafer covered in a cross between milk and dark chocolate with maybe a little caramel. Good lord it is amazing. I hand the rest of my piece back to Kendra and instruct her that I am only allowed to have a single bite of that no more than once a day no matter how I try to negotiate with her.
As the rest of the crew returns we dry off, regroup and prepare for our show. The best thing about a two-show day is that by the second show you are already spent and any obstacle that was in the way has been removed. The second wind of a second show when you already gave your all carries the gift of not caring what anybody else thinks. And balls to the wall, let's do this thing.
I give myself extra time to stretch and warm-up. My show shoes are so worn out (I really should have replaced them before this trip but I am superstitious and couldn't find the exact same pair) that I put gel sole inserts into them which makes the shoes a little tighter and will have to be removed for this second show for the following reasons:
My feet are swollen and I need the extra space.
My plantar fasciitis is aggravated and the gel inserts have been changing the arch of my foot.
The bones in my feet feel like they have been bound and there is no escaping it so let's just get back to the way Masha feels in the shoes as is.
We join up for our pre-show ritual.
We decide to do the show for Moscow. The city of Moscow. For the people of Moscow. This is for them.
Hey, it's already looking up.
We do the dance and move through the beginning of the show. I can feel they are with us even though maybe they don't know what to make of the show yet. It is as if I can feel their apprehension. It occurs to me that they need to know we are going to take care of them. That we are going to take care of this play. They are recognizing the chart of the story. They are seeing that Chekhov's Three Sisters is in our birthday cake song and dance. By the time we get to the transition from the first to the second act, which is a tango with furniture, and then we become the band, they can see that we are following the play. They see their Three Sisters in our Track 3, and it's as if they can finally settle down into the play. Collectively. At the beginning of the second act. And from there we can hear their audible responses to the play. Sighs, laughter, recognition, oh's and Da's. They are getting everything. Every little nuance.
At the end of the Second Act, Irina has a speech describing Moscow, and they broke out in delight. The acknowledgement of their city, their brutal history, their sophisticated culture. There were little bursts of Russian clapping.
We have a line in the Third Act when the fire has happened.
Tuzenbach says: In 1812 Moscow was on fire. Man, weren't the French surprised.
And they laughed.
No one has ever laughed on that line.
Because it isn't funny unless you understand that the Russians set Moscow on fire so it wouldn't be taken by Napoleon in 1812.
Come the end of the play, we were received with Russian clapping and flowers, and we went off and came back amid a partial ovation.
After the show we gather in the lobby, and Eugenia and Alice and Vladimir are there to walk us to the Festival headquarters where our reception will take place.
There is a fresh breeze blowing out the rest of the rain. The air is crisp in its cleanness. As we all meander along these Moscow streets and I take in the buildings and the street lamps and the clouds that I can see moving across the sky, a silence falls over me. Everything seems to fall away for a moment.
A moment where I can feel my feet beneath me. Not the pain from before just the aliveness of my steps. I can feel my legs as they carry me, my hips as they sway, my core as it balances me, my shoulders tall and proud. I can feel every cell of my being awake and present to the voice that whispers in my ear.
This is what living the dream is.
This is what it feels like.
This is what it tastes like.
This is what it smells like.
It is not a destination.
It is this here now.
Remember this moment. Memorize where it lives in you.
You can call upon it again when nothing seems to go your way.
And those moments are living the dream too.
This is where it lives.
It lives in you.
When we arrive at the headquarters we go down into the basement and into a red room with white Rococo wainscoating and these candelabra sconces that look like they are melting down the wall. There is a beautiful table filled with fresh veggies and breads and meats and cheeses and fruits and wine and vodka.
Alice, Richard and Eugenia
The festival director gives a speech. It goes a little something like this.
In Russia, there are only two kinds of theatre. Drama and entertainment.
(The space between the two is elaborated with very deliberate hand gestures putting entertainment on the right side and Russian Drama all the way on the left side-also illustrating that there is nothing in between.)
There is Russian Drama and entertainment.
We expected you to bring us entertainment. And you brought us Drama. Russian Drama.
Well, okay. Thank you for that. Again I am crying.
Then more speeches and more tears.
Then Richard gets up for a speech.
With the eloquence of a writer he is able to express the depth of gratitude that is felt for the work that has gone into making this dream come true for all of us and now everyone is crying because he is crying.
It is a proud moment.
Even prouder as we discover that this room that we are in was originally a printing shop. Anton Chekhov used to sit in the corner that I am seated in when he was still a doctor and he would write his short stories which later were printed in this same room. The room where we celebrate now was the beginnings of what led to his beautiful work and eventually to The Three Sisters and now to us retelling his story.
In some way, I feel as if we have come full circle back to where it literally began.
It is Sunday. I am tired and migraine-y. I feel like my veins are filled with molasses.
I put on my same jeans and my Never Give Up SGI t-shirt and take the elevator to the basement to see a similar type buffet as St. Petersburg with the addition of hot dogs and a cream filled napoleon-style dessert.
I am not awake enough to join the group, so I have a little eggs and cabbage salad on my own and go back to our room.
These are the days on tour that I don't love the most. After a week of non-stop hustle & bustle and travel and lugging and walking at least 7.5 miles every day - oh and the shows we did the week before we left and all that running around to get ready to leave the country and now we are finally here in Moscow and I'm winded walking a flight of stairs.
I feel silly that I've come all this way, and I have to give myself a little lie in. My whole life I've dreamed of standing in the middle of the Red Square and now it is less than a mile from my door and I'm balking. I guess I really am human and considering that we are doing two shows tomorrow, I remind myself that I am here to do a job. This is a tour not a vacation.
I opt to take advantage of the empty room, chant for an hour and take a very long shower. I pack my rehearsal clothes and snacks and lie back down for another hour. I open the skylight and enjoy the fresh air and I feel the full weight of my body on this very firm twin mattress.
I wander downstairs and begin my stroll toward the theater down our tiny little street. It is warm and there are high puffy clouds. There is a small white church in the traditional onion-dome style. The domes are bright blue like the sky. It has an equally small flower shop in front of it filled with red and pink flowers. As I approach the first intersection of a major street, the volume of cars and people quadruples. For a moment it feels like New York City, except the streets are spotless and I haven't seen a homeless person in a week.
There is a stride amongst the people walking that is swift and un-self conscious. Maybe a better way to say it is they come across like they aren't concerned about how they look. But there is a sense of style and formality about them. Being from California, I forget how casual we are. There are no flip-flops here. A sense of self-regard in how they carry themselves which comes across in the clothes they wear. In St. Petersburg, the fashion all felt a little bit like it was the late 90's or early aughts. There were women of every age wearing dresses with sneakers or cute flats. Here the people instantly feel a little more sophisticated - is it simply because they are Muscovites? Perhaps.
As I arrive at the theater, I put on my lanyard and stop for a selfie. The theater is beautiful in it's terracotta red, and it feels welcoming. Not austere or grandiose. I walk past security and hold my lanyard and smile and the security guards partially nod in my direction. I walk around to the back of the theater and come to a security desk with turnstiles. I smile and hold my lanyard and they motion me on.
I walk through the green room and directly onto the stage where I find our writer Richard and our stage manager Aaron tech-ing the lights for the beginning of the fourth act.
Let's go higher on the shutter to the top.
Alice - whom I discover later is the person who translated our show into supertitles - translates Aaron's adjustments to the theater's team.
I find Tina working on our costumes and help her distribute to our dressing rooms. Once everyone has arrived we are led through a labyrinth of doors operated by key cards up and down stairs into the lobby where we will rehearse until they are ready for us on stage.
The lobby is grand and lined with tall French windows facing the street. There are these incredible show posters and production stills. The hardwood floors make our voices echo and as we do our dance call the room resonates with our songs. We tease about maybe if we do it well enough in the lobby we will get to do it on the stage. I get goose bumps as we sing “Meadowlands”, our a cappella number that is a Russian folk song. This song comes in the transition from the second to third act when the fire has burned down a third of the town.
I feel heavy under the weight of the history in this city that I cannot quite comprehend. Not because the people I speak to are so serious. It is something in the way they speak and hold themselves. It is as if they have assimilated themselves through this historical lens and allowed their individuality to shine while honoring what has brought them to where they are. Yes, it feels like honor and self-respect.
Then we are off to dinner. Eugenia offers to take us to any of the three within walking distance. David MacIntyre and I opt for the sushi restaurant. I've always enjoyed Mac's company. He and I both have a lone wolf streak in us and sometimes it's nice to connect even when it's about not feeling a part of the group. I order a rice bowl with steak and veggies and Mac orders the ramen burger and is presented with black nitrile gloves to wear while eating the burger. Neither of us think sushi as our first meal in Moscow seems weird, and we thoroughly enjoy ourselves. (It was either that or Le Pain Quotidien, which I can get at home.) I sit on the front steps of the theater and eat my bowl while FaceTime-ing with super hubby.
Are you okay babe?
I'm tired today. Hoping that rehearsing the show will help me motivate to get to the Red Square after rehearsal.
Take it easy, honey. Be careful and don't worry. I won't tell your mom you are going to the Red Square at midnight.
And that was the half hour.
The theater is a 400 seat house. Simple and beautiful. The backstage is giant and able to accommodate Broadway-sized shows.
About half way through our rehearsal I start to get some adrenaline back. Everything still feels tight though.
Yes, we had a spectacular show in St. Petersburg.
Yes, perhaps they spoiled us and it might be anti-climactic tomorrow.
St. Petersburg is not Moscow.
I can feel the difference in the air. But instead of it feeling like pressure, it is beginning to feel like specificity and focus. That pinpoint of light where everything else falls away and you can see clearly.
We finish up and pack our things to go. I let Kendra know I will meet her at the hotel later, and I slip away into the night. It is actually night here. It has only just gotten dark at 10, but the sun does go down.
Now that I've got my feet underneath me again I head toward the Red Square. It has been raining and the air is heavy. As I wander and let this city's life carry me I am thrilled to see so many people on the street. Folks hanging out in front of bars and restaurant patios are filled. When I come to the end of my street it is the main thoroughfare that goes around the Red Square and back and forth to the Moscow River. To my left is the Bolshoi. It is impressive and takes my breath away a little bit. I double check my map to make sure it is the Bolshoi Ballet. With it's giant fountain in the front and the chariot of four horses coming out of the top of it, it looks a little more like a government building than a house for art. I don't know why this is my next thought but it is…
Am I supposed to be impressed?
Yes, I believe you are.
This is a thought that I feel many times around Moscow.
I feel my size in relation to everything around me. I feel tiny.
I find an under-the-street tunnel that will take me to the other side as there are no cross walks.
I wander the direction lots of people are walking and I come to the gates of the Red Square. And as I walk through I am not un-impressed. It is everything that I expected.
The square is flanked by a church to the left and then to the right the super long red wall that is the Kremlin. At the end of the square is St. Basil's Cathedral. And then on the left is this super white lights extravaganza of a building that turns out to be a mall known as the GUM. Okay I didn't expect that and am actually a little disappointed that one of the largest and most known squares in the world next to Tiananmen Square has a mall. I am a little offended. I guess I had an expectation that Red Square wouldn't feel like visiting Rodeo Drive.
The square is filled with people of every size, shape and color, all doing the same thing I am. Taking photos and selfies and videos and pointing and marveling.
The clock tower rings out twelve bells to announce that it is now midnight. I will not tell my mother that it was midnight when I came as she had asked me not to go anywhere alone. Sorry Mom but I feel completely safe. (sheepish shrug)
I look at the map to see how far it is to the hotel. Now is probably a good time to head back-before the adrenaline exits my body and leaves me in a lump on the side of a Moscow road.
As I walk back and gawk at all of the awe-inspiring buildings, this same thought comes back to me.
Am I supposed to be impressed?
Is that the point? For me to be impressed?
Am I supposed to feel small?
Am I supposed to supplicate myself?
Was that the intention?
Is this part of a larger subliminal ploy for the militarization of a country where the good of everyone must work toward supporting the state?
This conversation is supplanted by the third giant and grand theater I pass. I stop to weigh the cultural ramifications of the importance of art and it's grandeur even if it is meant for the purposes of supplication.
I decide to table this entire conversation with mom until further investigation or maybe not even then.
Maybe hanging out in my brain trying to assess the positive and negative traits of Communism isn't the best use of my energies right now.
When I return to the hotel, I have walked 5.6 miles. Not bad considering the beginning of the day was spent prone in my bed.
The only job that I am now tasked with is to rest and prepare my heart, mind, body and spirit for our shows tomorrow. The first being our run-through that will be a show for the press. And our second being at 7 pm.
This is what all of your training was for, I tell myself.
The next morning I rise early and pack the last of my things after a quick shower. I go downstairs and wait for my Ubër. A black Mercedes arrives and takes me to the Tikhvin Cemetery, where Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky is buried. He is best known for Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Notes from the Underground. Can't come all this way and not pay my respects to such a literary legend. Additionally, I will go in search of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Russian composer of such classics as The Nutcracker & Swan Lake. But underneath all of that is my hidden intention to spread some ashes that I have brought with me of a dearly departed friend. Maybe it seems morbid to some, but I can think of no greater place to give my friend to rest. At least I'll always know where to find him. Amongst the greats.
I walk down a long pathway with tall cement walls on either side and arrive at two different entrances to the cemetery on either side of the pathway. There is a woman standing in front of the left entrance.
Dostoevsky? I ask.
She points to a tiny kiosk with a tiny elderly woman behind the counter. I can barely see her face behind the desk.
She motions to the entrance on the right and points on a map that is printed in English as she speaks in Russian. I am to understand that I can go just into the right side for 200 rubles and find his grave here. Or I can go to both sides of the cemetery for 300 rubles. Is this lady upselling me? At the cemetery? I purchase my 200 rubles ticket and enter the right side.
The morning sunshine streams through the tall trees and dots the headstones. The map that is in English immediately poses a minor problem. The headstones are all in Cyrillic.
I count the number of headstones that match the map to find Dostoevsky. A weed trimmer hums in the background. His resting place has a small fence around it and is quite elegant. My favorite part of the headstone is the back. They definitely took 360 degrees into consideration.
Apparently there were famous sculptors consigned to do the headstones. And by the time I get down to Tchaikovsky's you can feel the one-upmanship progressing.
Everything you could hope for in a cemetery is here complete with stillness, an ever so slight breeze so you can hear a gentle rustling in the trees and the even more slight warmth in the air that proclaims another perfectly weathered day is ahead.
There is a ginger and white cat with one ear that has clearly suffered through more than one battle who claims this side. The cat watches me approach and rolls over in the sunshine declaring his hard won victory. Every minute of battling for this patch of sunshine was worth it.
I could spend the entire day here. As I wander I look for an appropriate spot for my friend's ashes. Eventually I find a tree that actually splits into two trees from one trunk. Maybe my friend will also become more than the single life I knew him in.
Upon leaving I notice a small river outside the cemetery. There are three older women in Babushka scarves seated on the bridge. They are sharing a snack. The scene is timeless.
Returning to the world of time, I race to the front to grab a taxi and pass an artist who has watercolor paintings depicting the same scene I just witnessed. I do regret not picking one up in my haste.
Once I return to the hotel, we load our luggage for the station. The train station to Moscow.
When we get to the station we go through a system of back alleys and parking lots with all of our luggage to find the entrance for large groups with lots of luggage. As we go through the same kind of X-ray machines that are at the airport, I see a grey and white cat in a carrier. The cat's meows sound like the chirping of a bird.
As we walk with the hundreds of travelers also heading to Moscow, we have to stop several times to re-gather our group and ourselves. I can hear the cat's chirps in the distance. It reminds me of the yellow bird that Irina talks about in the play at the end of the third act. How she tried to set it free and it never left its cage. I think about how happiness can be its own cage and how expectations are sometimes never met. I think of how fortunate I am and can make no sense of how it got this way.
About 2 hours into the 5 hour journey a little piece of paper is passed back to us. It is Happy Birthday in Russian. It turns out that it is our writer Richard's birthday and the plan is to memorize this Russian version of Happy Birthday to sing to Richard. At some point. Later.
The trees and landscape and water we pass on this train remind me of home. And the train to San Diego. I find this strange and comforting.
When we disembark, we do the luggage shuffle again and are greeted by the smiling face of Eugenia. She is here from the International Chekhov Festival to get us safely from the train station to the hotel.
The first thing I notice when we get off the train is the warmth of the air. The kind of humidity that warms your bones. And then I see all of this pollen floating in the air. If it were cold it would look like snow falling from the sky, but instead it is almost like cotton in the air. Or a dandelion without a stem. Vladimir tells me that it is actually quite dangerous and to not get any in my eyes.
Eugenia is speaking on her cell phone in Russian while pointing to the chap who is there to help her to get luggage carts and she simultaneously communicates all of this to us in English.
I stand guard with the luggage and pull my scarf over my nose to protect the sore throat I've been nursing for two days.
Once we exit the train station and go through the gates, I see the Russian army and machine guns. Not doing anything but just standing there next to this large Russian truck that could easily scoop up a good 40 people if necessary. They look bored. I am not one to spook easily so I just assume that their intention is to make sure people know they are there.
We pile into a large Mercedes sprinter van as our luggage is loaded into another and head toward the hotel.
Moscow under first inspection is a massive, sprawling metropolis with all the first-world problems of a massive, sprawling metropolis. St. Petersburg seemed large with all its canals, but next to Moscow, it instantly feel quaint, charming and provincial. I finally see some graffiti and what appears to be a modern day propaganda poster and what looks like an abandoned building amidst gargantuan buildings. It looks like they were just added onto until the single building takes up an entire city block. But mostly, everywhere is construction and cranes.
As we head down a small street/back alleyway, we find our hotel. The Pushkin hotel. While checking in, I concoct a plan with Tina for magically making surprise birthday cake happen for Richard before they have to be at their next appointment in 37 minutes. We check in and I zip into our room to drop my luggage. The room has a skylight which we instantly open and a couple of those little pollen spheres float into our room.
I dash out of our room and grab Elizabeth and we proceed with Mission Birthday Cake. The lady at the front desk gives us very specific instructions to a grocery store that is around the corner. When we get to the corner we can see why her directions were so specific. There are hoards of people going in every direction on an incredibly busy street and construction that has torn up all of the sidewalks and changed the entrances to all the buildings. We find the coffee shop she described and the escalator down into the underground market she recommended. It is super fancy. If Dean & Deluca in New York opened a location in Russia, it would be this market.
I go in search of champagne while Elizabeth searches for dessert of the chocolate variety or apple pie. She finds both tiny rolled chocolate cakes that look like Ho-Hos and an apple pie. Score. I nab champagne and find a fancy blue and white plate with gold scrolling for a price that I don't care to calculate from rubles into dollars because I believe it is destiny and good fortune that has brought me here, which is further confirmed when Elizabeth returns with tiny hand made paper toothpicks with little mini clown like people on them. We nab a #1 candle. High Five. Best teamwork ever.
While paying for our goods, I try to ask the cashier lady if she has a plastic knife. I pull it up on my Google translate and display it to her in Cyrillic. She has no idea what I am mean. There is a young, hip gentleman with a couple of buddies who asks me if he can help? Yes, I need a knife to cut the cake. He asks her for us. She says no. I thank him and he waves us on our way. I ask in the coffee house upstairs and they hand one to me.
We sprint back to the hotel and prepare the cake on fancy plates and run through Happy Birthday in Russian, and we all go down the hall. We knock on Tina and Richard's door, to the very shocked surprise of Richard. Hooray! We have the fastest cake and champagne party ever before they take off to meet with the translator for our next show, which is tomorrow!
Ack! Food. We need food.
Luckily, to the delight of the rest of our group, Elizabeth and I already spied that next door to our hotel, yes right next door, is a Georgian food restaurant.
What? For real? Yes.
Our good fortune continues 50 steps from our front door. This restaurant is like a mini dream come true to Moscow welcoming committee. It has an outdoor patio and blankets for your lap and pillows and cushions and seating for all of us and an expansive menu that has delicious options for everyone. I have the pumpkin soup and salad. Pretty much every meal I am having soup and salad and couldn't be happier.
Once we all finally order, we have a toast.
The Prozorov family in Chekhov's “Three Sisters” never actually make it to Moscow, but we have. It's taken us 4 years to get here.
Did we finally crack the code for happiness? Or have we discovered the real lesson about life: that maybe everything doesn't always work out and no one ever gets what they want and that's okay. Or maybe, just maybe, if you believe hard enough that you can and work hard enough so you will, then maybe the stars will align and give you everything you ever wanted.
Or maybe we will just enjoy what Moscow has in store for us with no expectation of anything other than the experience of it.
To say that all of us were a little tense would be an enormous understatement. There is quibbling. Our show is so tightly choreographed that the slightest shift can throw off the whole train. We had a chair issue. This chair thing, with up to ten moving chairs in play at any time, can derail everything. A moving oscillation that, if it doesn't land right the first time, it won't ever be right. The stakes are huge and the fears about the chairs are just a representation of how huge.
Why couldn't I have been an accountant? Or have a regular job? One that doesn't require that I stand in front of thousands of people and bare my soul. But sometimes there is a simplicity in it that cannot be found anywhere else but through the eye of the needle. Sink or swim, we were going to do this show.
I've got my headphones and my Dior ultra dark fancy eye make up. I don't have time for perfection - I have time to smudge and breathe and smudge and line and wand and line and spray and jewelry and hose and girdle and dress and spray and blot and wig and pin pin pin…pin-- Good god there are so many pins, but tonight it goes on right and tight and this show is going to happen and we are going to give it to them our way. And love it or not, they will come with us.
The house is packed. 400 plus.
First bell. I sneak off to the back stage area behind the scrim. Do my preshow ritual in the blue of backstage.
The cast files into the backstage area. We have our huddle. Vladimir comes by with bubbling enthusiasm.
Break your legs!. He cheers to us.
Break your legs!
We choose him for our show mantra. Our prayer to do the show for. But first, we breathe…together. 1, 2, 3 Vladimir!
3rd bell and preshow announcement.
I assume it says turn off your cell phones but nothing about photography because as long as you don't flash you can take photos all you like. Perhaps it says, be nice to the Americans. Let's all be on our good diplomatic behavior. They've had an easier history and as a result feel entitled to be treated special. Whatever it says, they start clapping. Their enthusiasm matches that of Vladimir.
The air is electric as time evaporates and the lights go down and me and my two sisters take the stage and sit as one. The music starts and…
We are off. I make a little mistake in the opening dance, nobody but me knows…and maybe the pen of our director, and the rest of the cast who just saw it, but it doesn't matter. No feathers no fluff. (Their version of break a leg)
Stick in there.
We finish the dance and there is applause.
If there is applause after the dance, then they want to be with us. And they are.
What transpires over the next 90 minutes is that indescribable ephemeral thing that is exchanged between the performer and the audience. You were either there or you weren't. Me and my castmates and that audience. It is magic. To try and put more of a name on it would be tantamount to finding words for your first love or the first time you knew you were free. It's sacred. It's an intimacy that is shared.
Come curtain call, I am in tears. I mean, I already am because of the play and it's the end of life as all of us know it. But then comes the clapping - the rhythmic clapping Russian audiences are known for. We have our dance reprise, and then we say thank you to the audience, and then we are joined by our director. It is a tradition for the director to join us onstage. Tina Kronis, this is your moment. To come home and stand on a Russian stage again. More tears.
And then come the flowers. Patrons come to the edge of the stage and hand us flowers. I've never received flowers from someone I didn't know before.
One woman comes with only 3 roses.
One for each sister.
I kneel down to receive my yellow rose.
I am crying. She is crying.
This woman takes my face in her hands.
She kisses me on each cheek saying:
Thank you, thank you.
I have no idea who this woman is, and all I saw of her was her eyes as she kept kissing me on each cheek. I had been so worried that I couldn't comprehend the extent of Russia's history and what it must've been like to grow up there that I had to surrender the whole idea and just speak from my heart and try to touch another person's heart. She was my proof. The language of the heart will always win out across any barrier.
If I never stand on another stage ever again, I will always have that moment.
After the show there is a tradition of being hosted for a reception.
It is just a reception for us, given by the producers and the theater staff and those who worked on getting us there without even knowing us. There are fancy little cakes and bubbly drinks with fruit and mint and perogi-type delicious dough balls encasing meat.
There are toasts. This elderly man who has apparently run this theater for 50 years gives a toast. I can't remember everything that was said, and I'm sure all of us took something different away from the night and his speech but it was something to the effect of how important Chekhov is and the gift of seeing ourselves in his writing and such.
"You could've been Russian with your understanding of the play and its nuances and its humanity. And now we raise a glass to you. You are now Russian and have a place to come back to."
Now to load out the show and pack it up for Moscow.
When we left the theater we discovered a few people who had waited outside for us to come out. This is now at least 2 hours later! There is a woman who doles out flowers and candies to us and then later sends me a Facebook request. We passed the front of the theater and there are 3 or so older couples who say hello and holler "Thank You & Spasibo!" to us from across the courtyard. It appears as if they have been sitting and chatting and waltzing and enjoying the late night dusk and breeze that lightens the evening air.
Some of us stop for snacks at a 24 hour grocery.
We found everything from fresh fruit I've never seen before to cheese and snacks and these weird cookies which were like a strawberry meringue, to crab-flavored chips that were refrigerated.
Back at the hotel we all converge on Caitlin and Elizabeth's room - they seemed to have the most space - to toast from the vodka that had been given as an opening night gift and to share snacks. There was a giant bag of these chocolate candies of various flavors of cherry, orange and coffee.
We toast and laugh and enjoy. I went to my room to see if I could reach super-hubby Jeff.
The sun is finally at its lowest, and it appeared to be night. For at least 2 hours it will be. Until the sun rises again at 3:30 am.
I will take advantage of this darkness for a restful sleep after a job well done.
When I finally wake, it is 9:30. Ear plugs are amazing things. I slept through Kendra getting up and pumping 3 times and showering and heading off to breakfast without waking me up.
I throw on jeans and a scarf around my hair and go down to breakfast. The gal behind the buffet asks me something in Russian. Not only am I barely awake but I really should have learned to speak some Russian before I came on this trip. In very careful English she says:
Room number? Ah, yes. 202.
Spasibo. Thank you.
I love a buffet in a different country. I have absolutely no idea what I am going to get. An egg soufflé type thing that I can't quite figure out. It is fluffy and cut into rectangular squares and for the next 2 weeks I eat it every where - I never do figure it out)
A variety of pork breakfast items. Hard boiled eggs. Yoghurt.
Beautiful cabbage salads of a few varieties, and pastries. Good Lord. Gloriously flakey, unique, filled and topped pastries of many varieties. None of which I can eat. Save it for the blog about food.
As I leave the hotel for the theater, I am very pleased that I downloaded my Here We Go app recommended in Money magazine. Offline maps - yes! We are outside of the city center but it is still quite bustling. Giant apartment buildings that kind of look like the projects - but only in their uniformity and size. A cat comes towards me and acts like he wants to be petted and then darts off through a tiny portal into the underground of a building. There are flower pots hanging below the street signs.
All of the streets are marked in Cyrillic only, however the map has the street names in the English alphabet, and they don't match.
Theater Buff. A large austere building with a beautiful, inviting courtyard.
I go to the stage door and there is a man just coming on shift as he puts on a tie. I point to my Track 3 t-shirt and he motions to wait. I type on my google translate I am here to rehearse and again he motions to me to wait. He hands me a wrapped candy instead and puts on his security guard jacket. The candy is a caramel kind of something with nougat chunks. Tasty. He takes me to the lobby. Shows me the pictures of artists on the wall. “Famous” he says. He takes me to the theater and sure enough I find our crew. I say thank you.
There is a gold mantle on the stage. It is a huge step up from our previous mantles. This one looks like it goes in a house. Off stage right is a giant birthday cake. I wish we could use it but Olga would have to wheel it on stage.
We go down to a rehearsal room that has mirrors and ballet barres. We have a long warm-up. It takes a good full hour before my body, that has spent the previous 30 hours straight seated, wakes up.
We rehearse and work a few spots. Lunch up to the 6th floor. I have the cold borscht and whitefish with eggplant and rice with dill. There are all of these beautiful fresh veggies cut up to nosh on. Cucumber, red peppers and radish and what appears to be flat parsley.
There is a compote drink that is sweet but I am not sure what the fruit/veggie inside it is. Would taste great on ice with some fresh mint. I will not have ice for the next 14 days. For the same reason that you can't get ice in Mexico, or China or many other places in the world. Because you shouldn't drink the water.
Vladimir is our producer. I met him for the first time at the airport. He sits at the last table that is set only for one. I ask him if I can join him as we at the 3 sisters table have had more than one meal together. Vladimir is originally from St. Petersburg. You can see a sense of pride in this fact. The same kind of pride you can see in the people on the street.
He tells me that he has lived in the US since he had to leave in the 1980's. He was given the option to go to another country or go to jail. I can see that he misses it. He has been producing mostly music acts. This is the first play he has brought to Russia. Quite a risk. He will stay on after us to tour a jazz band.
It turns out that the American Consulate is actually the one hosting us. They found the money through grants and endowments.
(When we meet them later there is a fascinating conversation about how it all works and how it has shifted with our current administration. The mandate has become that public affairs and culture aren't a priority and 30% across the board-across the world is expected to be cut by the end of the year. They don't usually bring plays over here but this has been in the works for a couple of years now. Quite a risk.)
I ask Vladimir how people feel about Putin. He says that critical-thinking people have never liked him. But he was very popular in the beginning. He says that people are realizing how corrupt things really are. The night before we arrived there were hundreds of people arrested from the square in St. Petersburg and the Red Square in Moscow. People, mostly young people, had flooded the squares protesting corruption. He says the young people don't have any fear of the government like the previous generations do. He hopes that they won't have to and they will be able to shift the tide.
I ask Vladimir how Russians feel about Americans. Do they hate us?
There is a pause. "Wary. They are coming around," he says. He urges me to understand the massive amount of anti-American propaganda that is spread and has been spread over decades. I mention that our own Cold War propaganda has dominated our view for decades too. He asserts that it is not the same though. Some is warranted on both sides but the tactics and lies on the part of the Russian government are…I'm not sure I heard clearly what the next part was. I feel keenly aware of my fixed point of view and maybe we all have one of our own country.
We finish and go back to the hotel to clean up. Vladimir is taking us into St. Petersburg to the theater tonight. The Bol'shoy Dramaticheskiy Teatr. The company is doing a version of Dostoevsky's The Gambler. It will be avante-garde and very Russian.
No, you should not have worn the cute shoes, Dylan. You should have worn the flats and you know it.
Yes, you were a genius for bringing a power bar because no, we will not have dinner before the show.
No, there is no Diet Coke in Russia. Not before the show, not when I am still on California time and it is 3 am to me. No, none for you. And yes, it will be 10:30 pm before you sit down for dinner.
The theater is stunning. A very well visited palace. Vladimir has arranged a tour of the theater's museum. I am blown away by the production pictures and costume watercolor drawings and the stage dioramas. The level of drama and fervor and specificity in every aspect of production is extraordinary.
While the tour director was taking us through, an entire crew of young women ushers in black blouses with long black skirts assembled in the stairway and chatted until they were silenced by the person who was obviously in charge, who then pointed at us.
During this tour, they pointed to a production they did of the American play “Our City”. Did you mean “Our Town”?
Yes, yes, yes. My apologies. Our Town. We didn't believe it could possibly work. Everyone is seated the entire play. But surprisingly, it did work. Maybe there is something to it.
One of the productions was Three Sisters and Masha's costume was on display. I got goosebumps over my entire body.
Once we finished our tour, the lobby and foyer and bar and common areas were all teeming with people. I noticed some people had bouquets of flowers. I wonder if they have friends in the cast.
The theater itself is delicious - a 500 person seating. We are all the way down in front on house right. The chairs are fancy, like dining chairs with a rococo flair and are individually linked together.
The show is a spectacular extravaganza of movement, dance, song, exploding enthusiasm and very deep monologues with the malaise of all that life's ennui can contain. It is rich and colorful and dark and mysterious and light as a feather. I have no idea what it is about as it is in Russian.
The most thrilling and informative part of the evening was the curtain call. Once it started there were Bravos and the Russian rhythmic clapping. People came down to the stage and delivered flowers to the cast. The cast went off and came back on. This went on for 10 minutes. It was such a beautiful exchange. A relationship.
Afterwards, onward to find nourishment. To a Georgian food restaurant. Vladimir's family is originally from Georgia - the country, not the state in the US - and he assures us this will be the best food we could ever eat. "It's just up here and around the corner," he says.
The Georgian restaurant had just closed, but Vladimir speaks to them and it turns out they will accommodate us if we can order just a few things from the menu. So, Vladimir chooses some items The owner shakes his head no. More choosing. More nos. Owner picks. Food on its way. I was happy that Kendra could advocate for my food needs. Chicken skewers as well. Done and done.
Must say it was the best chicken skewers and grilled veggies of my life. Or perhaps I really was that hungry. All of the spices were so delicate and made the flavor of whatever I was eating come out, rather than the spices being the only thing I was tasting.
At the end of the day, I had walked 8.6 miles, half of which were done in my booties. Yes, Dylan, booties still count as a heels!
As I flipped through my photos of the day to choose a couple to text home - walking along canals, lilac trees in bloom and brilliant sculptures - I wondered about what our show tomorrow might hold for us.
Would we receive an ovation in any small part like the one we'd seen tonight?
Would we receive flowers or will they boo us out of the country because we've ruined Chekhov's crowning achievement and disgraced ourselves in the process?
Because you lose a day with the time difference. It's okay, you get the day it back when you come home.
As we drive toward St. Petersburg it is unclear how long it will take us to get to the hotel.
We pass large industrial plants. Large apartment building complexes. Extensive complexes of housing. And everything is green. Tree lined streets and streets lined with trees in the middle with trains running through the center.
There are swarms of people walking everywhere. Apparently, outside of the city there are very specific spots where the transportation stops. And then you will see people just walking the rest of the way from wherever that stop was. There are paths worn into the grass in every direction. Everyone heading somewhere.
As we near the city, traffic crawls to a stop.
St. Petersburg's traffic is terrible. I am now beginning to understand why the driver wouldn't give us an ETA on arrival. From that spot it takes over an hour to get across St. Petersburg to the other side of the river where we are staying.
St. Petersburg has over 600 bridges. The canals are all manmade and it is surrounded by islands and rivers. It is spectacular and old. And there is a monument to history around every corner. A city of palaces. It feels a little lost in time but only from my eyes-it doesn't feel in conflict with itself at all.
Apparently, Peter the Great was really excited by the French and German stylings so he hired all of the best architects and engineers in Europe to plan out and build St. Petersburg to be the country's capital. You can see it and feel it in the city's feng shui. Walls of city blocks that go on and on in a perfect line, until the line is interrupted with something that was a mistake and they didn't want to correct Peter the Great or something was added on as the city expanded.
Once we arrive at the hotel, there is a camera crew waiting for us. Yes, I have lipgloss handy for this moment exactly.
Yes, liquid eyeliner was definitely the right choice. And yes, eye drops, you are my best friend.
Lights on. They film us unloading our luggage. And I have mentioned before how extensive this process is. It seems a little strange until I can see that they are filming Aaron's bare feet. They interview our director Tina while Richard checks us into the hotel. Then they want to interview the 3 sisters, but we only have 2 sisters cause 1 sister stayed behind to wait for a lost piece of luggage and is coming after its retrieval.
Dylan Jones & Mark Doerr.
Okay the Russian man interviewing us would settle for Masha and Vershinin.
Alright Doerr - let's tag team this thing.
I can honestly say this is the first time I've been interviewed in a different language. Vera, our host from the American Consulate, whom we've just met upon arrival, translates the questions for us.
Do I feel like I might be a little bit Russian after doing this play?
Da. Da, da, da. Yes. Yes, yes, yes I do.
Do I understand how important the heart of Masha and Vershinin is? That it is the heart of the people represented in these characters?
Yes. Then I'm sure I say something amazing (my secret internal communication was this: Yes, I treasure how revered and known this is and I promise that I will take the greatest of care with the hearts of the Russian people and the iconography of Masha and Vershinin and all that they represent.)
Then - hey we knew it was coming - the question is something to the effect of this:
I watched your trailer and there was a lot of movement and dancing and song and was this intentional or just some student approach to find a new way into the work to make it seem like a re-creation. Was this on purpose?
To which I answer:
Yes, absolutely everything in the play is intentional and on purpose and I think you will find that it is a distillation of the play, rather than an outside the box for no reason but provocation exercise.
He proceeds with:
Well, I mean you are from LA not New York so…
I refrained from my speech about how vibrant Los Angeles theater is and how we have so many incredibly talented people there.
Da. Yes, we are from Los Angeles.
Doerr handles his questions with ease and grace and we have a high five.
I feel pretty proud of myself for not launching into my speech about Los Angeles theater - any restraint at all, being this punchy, is a win. I mention this to Tina, since they are such a crucial part of this vibrancy. Tina, however has lived in Russia and studied at the Moscow Arts Theatre and provides a different perspective.
Yes, but this is Russia. They have a different relationship to theater. You can't really understand it until you've experienced it. It is an actual relationship.
Speechifying silenced. I look forward to the experience I will get to have and I say thank you.
The elevator is tiny. Breakfast is until 10 am.
There is a step up into not only our rooms but through every doorway. It takes a minute to get adjusted as to not trip over. I remember it being the same in China - something about not being sued all the time and different regulations. The step up into the room reminds me of a cabin on a boat. There is a large, tall French window, two twin beds, a desk and a fridge. Plenty large enough for Kendra and I to room - we've certainly had smaller.
She is my roomie on most of the tours and I am grateful for her friendship. She has just left her 6-month old baby boy for the first time and she is on the floor in the doorway of the bathroom with her iPad.
Do you want me to come back? I ask.
No, I'm going to FaceTime with Doug and the baby just for a minute.
She squeals with joy as they answer and then promptly bursts into tears.
She wraps the call up early. I give her a giant hug. We both cry. I can't think of a harder thing to do than what she is doing. I tell her how proud I am of her. I make a joke about how it can only get better from here and she won't ever have to do that again for the first time. Now laughing and crying and a fair amount of snot.
We plug in our plug converters and she sets up her breast pump.
This becomes our joke - the thing she says to me each time she has to pump.
I text Jeff letting him know I've arrived safe and sound and realize I am ravenous.
It seemed ridiculous to even me that I chose to bring food from Trader Joe's and my Nutri-bullet and powdered goat's milk so I could make smoothies with my protein powder. I even took cute pants out of my suitcase because the Nutri-bullet is surprisingly heavy. It is also at that moment that I realized my plug converter is only a plug converter for my Apple items. Another great reason Kendra is my roomie because she has brought an entire surge protected station.
Lucky you indeed!
But I will tell you I was happy as can be when instead of having to go find food I was able to pour some granola into a coffee cup, make a batch of milk from powder and nosh with a coffee stirrer.
It is midnight. The white nights are upon us and it is only dusk outside. As dark as it gets? I am very grateful for my eye mask and this twin sized bed.
Flight to St. Petersburg - It's finally here! Bucket-list-dream-come-true day!
We, the cast and crew of Track 3, Theatre Movement Bazaar's modernization of Anton Chekhov's “Three Sisters”, are flying to Russia as the first American company invited to participate in the International Chekhov Festival in Moscow.
The Three Sisters finally get to go to Moscow. If you are not familiar with this play-I hope you will be inspired to read it.
It will be me as Masha; Kendra Chell as my older sister/spinster Olga; Caitlyn Conlin as my younger sister Irina; Mark Skeens as my squandering brother Andrei; Elizabeth Ellson as Andrei's cheating wife Natasha; Mark Doerr as my lover Vershinin; Jesse Myers as Tuzenbach, Irina's intended; David LM MacIntyre as Solyony, not Irina's intended, but will stop at nothing until he is.
Then the masterminds:
Tina Kronis is our savant director/choreographer and her husband Richard Alger is our savant writer/technical master/everything else.
And last but not least, Loretta, Mark Doerr's wife, and Aaron Francis, our stage manager who never wears shoes.
TMB's tour group ogling an ornate building in St. Petersburg
Tina and Richard are the brains and bones of Theatre Movement Bazaar. This is my 3rd tour with them and with this cast - with the exception of Elizabeth Ellison, who is fresh to us.
I never like saying goodbye to my gorgeous husband Jeff Gardner. I don't do it often. By choice. And today was no different. My husband dropped me at the fly away. We hugged as we waited for the rest of the group to show up. I slipped him a card I'd written. We kissed and said goodbye. Only 2 weeks. I wish I could see his face tonight when he finds the card I snuck onto his pillow. And the one I hid in the fridge. Might be a couple of days til he gets to the napkin that I buried at least 7 deep that says - never mind, that's private.
The first bus is full so we have to wait for the next one a half hour later. Cutting it a little closer than any of us would like. I make a point of chatting with our skycap Emmett.
It is 2:20 when we get to LAX. Our flight leaves at 4:05! Elizabeth and Aaron have been standing in line for 40 minutes already -a line that is still 50 deep in front and behind them. I finagled my way to the front of the business class line and asked if they can help us since we are such a large group with so much luggage. You see we are going to perform in Russia and it is imperative that we get on that plane.
What most people don't understand is the extent of the luggage necessary when touring. The props, the costumes, the shoes - everything needed to take the show on the road. Gaff tape, glow tape, back ups of what is going to break in the trunks during transit that you won't find out about until you are at the theater and can't get a replacement. You get your one personal bag and then you check a show bag and when there are 13 of you plus a bag each that's 26 bags.
We are an extensive sprawling motley crew taking up entire aisles.
This is when I meet our producer Vladimir. In the midst of luggage and all of the global travelers of LAX's brand new International Terminal.
Once we get into the security line, I asked the security ladies if we were going to make our flight and if not, could they help us. She says that our airline never leaves on time because they always wait for everyone. I don't know if it is too early to read some cultural innuendo into this because I've never heard of such a thing.
Once we get through security it is 4:24.
They haven't started boarding yet? Sweet!
I grab dinner and snacks since I have no idea whether there will be any food served that I can eat. (My restricted menu-that is an entire other blog)
As we board the plane we are greeted by a crew of delightful, beautiful stewardesses in red dresses with matching scarves and shoes. Svetlana, Anatasia, & Oksana.
I am always shocked by how large a 737 airbus is. 12 seats across separated by 2 aisles-50+ rows deep…they are really big.
Our section of the plane consists of us, a group of 50 Russian school girls probably junior high school age, several groups of families at least 3 generations wide and at least a dozen infants and toddlers.
An hour or so in, Doerr can't find his glasses and while helping him look for them an Armenian woman in broken English asks what we were looking for. She had seen the glasses and placed them in a seat pocket for safe keeping. I get up to retrieve them and the flight attendant scolds me in Russian and points to the seatbelt sign.
Several hours into the 11-hour flight, we fly over Antarctica. On one side of the plane, the sun has been setting for hours. On the other side, it is a mostly still full moon and below I can see ice floes. I wonder about the separation of the ice floes and how much it's grown due to global warming. I wonder if Jeff has found that card on his pillow yet.
4 movies and 3 magazines later, we start our descent.
First sight of Moscow through the clouds is forest. Trees and lakes. A whole forest of birch trees and rivers. Then these houses. With terracotta roofs and painted green roofs and bright orange roofs.
The airport is a little confusing - customs is always perplexing. I don't like the sensation of having to be on my good behavior. Makes me feel like I did something wrong.
The signs are written in Cyrillic, English & Mandarin.
We have to go all the way to the end. Of the airport. And downstairs. And then to the other end. To wait for the bus that will take us to the tarmac to board the plane.
Funny that we had a 5 hour layover and our flight is leaving in 15 minutes?
Goodwin, her orange sweater and poor Leech (Chris Whitaker photo credit)
For the last two-plus years, I've been hearing what has seemed like a non-stop hymn of praise for the two-hander play Constellations by Nick Payne, which had its Broadway debut in January 2015 with Jake Gylenhaal and Ruth Wilson in the roles of the starry-eyed lovers - "perfectly-matched," as Ben Brantley wrote in the NY Times. A metaphysical play in which two young lovers break through the time-space continuum in the many expressions of their love - and all lasting little more than an hour? That sounds so absolutely up my alley. Yes, please, bring it on! I was so sad to miss the Broadway production, but high hopes for the Geffen production with Ginnifer Goodwin and Allen Leach. But what a miserable letdown it was! What an absolute bore! The 70 or so minutes did the opposite of "fly by" - it seemed to take hours before this production was finally put out of its misery, during which time several audience members had turned tail and fled the theater, some actually running. What happened? Ginnifer Goodwin did. She single-handedly destroyed what I'm sure is a wonderful play in the right hands. Director Giovanna Sardelli must bear some blame - first, for the tacky-looking set design and that hideous orange sweater that Goodwin's character wore, but most of all for casting Goodwin, who performed throughout in a flat voice and was completely unconvincing as both a scientist (ha!) and as a lover. She and Allen Leach seemed more like brother and younger sister, except with less chemistry. Seriously, this is the worst example of miscasting of a new play (or new to us anyway) that I can recall. I was so bored out of my mind, all I could do was sit there thinking about all the great Los Angeles women who would have shined in that role: Rebecca Mozo, Kate Morgan Chadwick, Deborah Puette, Kaci Rogers, Annika Marks, Vanessa Stewart, Jeanne Syquia, Lily Nicksay - the list goes on and on, just as the play did. Any one of them, paired with a decent actor like Mr Leech, could have been magificent. Hell, Flo from Progressive would have brought more to the role than Ms. Goodwin did, and the play simply makes no sense - has no meaning - without a great love at its center. What were you thinking, Ms. Sardelli and the Geffen team? What were you possibly thinking?
PROGRAMS A and B in the 2017 EST-LA ONE ACT FESTIVAL IN ATWATER
Stella Kim, Sharon Friedman and John Copeland in THE GUARD WILL ESCORT YOU TO RUFF-RUFF by Carole Real (Photo: Youthana Yuos)
Ensemble Studio Theatre of Los Angeles's decision to stage a festival of original one acts at the same time that the Fringe is going on 15 minutes away in Hollywood raises some serious questions about planning and strategy from their leadership, especially when so little is going on in theater circles after July 4th. Really, any time of the year would be better than right now, since who wants to compete with 375 productions just down the road? Isn't it difficult enough to draw an audience for a festival of new one acts anyway?
In contrast to the unpredictability of the Fringe, with its big highs and lows, the EST-LA Festival offers several pleasures with a certainty and stability attached. There is the pleasure of catching the work of veteran writers who have an assuredness about the way they spin a tale. And there is the pleasure of watching actors - many of them veterans too - who go about their business with nothing to prove, simply enjoying the work. There definitely is an Ensemble Studio Theatre style - basically naturalistic in approach, but drama or comedy stripped down to its essence - more comedy than drama, usually - and always providing the small casts with meaty character roles.
There are 3 programs - A, B and C. I've managed to catch A and B. B is still going on and has two more shows this weekend.
Sarch McCarron and Kevin Comartin in THE DARKEST PLACE by Karen Rizzo, the darkest one act in Evening A (Youthan Yuos photo credit)
Program A had 5 plays, all two-handers between a man and a woman. All were dark comedies of various shades. The standout of the evening for me was Deborah Pearl's Can You Hear Me Now?, in which Caitlin Gallogly and Will McFadden played a dating couple who alternately were breaking up with each other or on the verge of proposing marriage, depending on the strength of their cell phone reception and what they thought the other person was saying. While more a sketch than a fleshed-out play, the piece had some brilliant comedic twists and turns and was well-directed by Christopher Raymond, who had the actors walking in and out of each other's spaces in search of a stronger cell signal, which wittily dramatized the state of confusion that both were plagued by. So Lovely Here On Earth by Mary Portser was also a noteworthy short play. In it, Christopher Reiling appears to be interviewing Simone McAlonen for her suitability for a flight to Mars, from which she could never hope to return to earth in her lifetime. "No problem," Simone's character replies. But Mr Reiling's character has something else on his mind.
Program B has 3 longer one acts - more novellas than short stories: Provenance by Ian Patrick Williams, Writing to Mrs. Otts by Thomas Stringer and The Guard Will Escort You To Ruff-Ruff by Carole Real. All are entertaining, worthwhile efforts, featuring excellent performances. All contain deep criticisms of American consumerism, and the way business is conducted here. All, oddly enough, take place in the past. The first and third pieces both take place in the recent past, right after the financial meltdown of 2008. Writing to Mrs. Otts is specified as taking place "in Baltimore in the '70s," but it felt more like the '30s for some reason. Maybe it was the literary tone of the piece, which was leisurely and reminded me of something from Henry James by way of Nathaniel West.
Eve Sigall, Yolanda Snowball and Justin Shenkarow in WRITING TO MRS OTTS
Mrs Otts was also my favorite piece of the evening because it was the most successful for me in both creating a world and then having its main character undergo a believable and interesting change within it. John (an excellent Justin Shenkarow) is a young man just starting out in the real estate business. He wants to sell houses - that's where the real money is! - but in the meantime he's willing to do the grunt work of dealing with problem tenants for a landlord they did business with. One of these tenants is Mrs Otts, an elderly woman of undetermined place of origin, who must be evicted for unpaid back rent. It turns out the John looks remarkably like her nephew David, whose framed photo she shows him. The two form a bond on this basis, and John finds himself much more effected by her eventual eviction than he expected himself to be. This threatens his plans for being a cutthroat businessman, to the point that he must make a decision about which way his future will go.
Provenance is about a world-class forger being confronted by a very dissatisfied customer. It features a wonderful and emotionally-rich performance by Tony Pasqualini as the forger, whose love of life has not been dampened by the law having caught up with his game. Steve Burleigh does very well by the other role, but it would have been stronger if the author had delved a little further into this man's anger and who he is. As it is, Pasqualini gets all the best lines and Burleigh too often ends up playing the straight man. Keith Szarabajka directs with a sure hand, finding many ways to keep the action from falling into a predictable rhythm.
The Guard Will Escort You to Ruff-Ruff by Carole Real is the most ambitious of the three plays, taking place in "a large corporation in the U.S. and a factory in China, circa 2009." The product in question here bears a striking resemblance to "Hello Kitty." Sharon Freedman plays a temp in an office that is supposed to be overseeing working conditions in the factories that have been sub-leased to turn out the merchandise. She is shocked to find out the conditions which the workers have to endure, and which is reported in great detail by the Chinese inspectors. She is haunted by these reports - by the words of the inspector and the visions they conjure up - and she believes that she can convince her boss, played by John Copeland, to take some kind of action. However, Mr Copeland's character knows on which side his bread is buttered, and that's all he cares about. The author's anger and frustration come through loud and clear, but that doesn't necessarily make her play more effective. Throughout Ms. Freedman does a great job in finding different ways to be hopeful in the face of constant rejection - she somehow manages to be funny and sexy even in the direst extreme of frustration.
Program C runs from July 6-16 and will feature 4 new plays: Things That Matter, a musical by Ellin Hampton with music by Gerald Sternbach; How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? by Nick Ullett, directed by his wife Jenny O'Hara, in a premiere 32 years in the making; My Jesus Year by Tony Foster; and Between Friends by Katherine Cortez, whose searing play about a nightclub massacre, In The Valley of the Shadow, is just completing its run in the Fringe.
Every month or so, playwright Boni B. Alvarez and I have a kiki (Queer dictionary moment: kiki = chit-chat, coffee, shoot the…you understand). We meet up to talk shop, dream, scheme, and generally relish each other's company. Fresh off the opening of Boni's new play Nicky, you know I was eager for this month's talk. And I thought I'd invite your guys, our lovely Better Lemons readers, to the party.
Roger Q. Mason
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): I'll never forget how we met. It was 2009.
Boni B. Alvarez (BBA): Yes, it was my play Ruby, Tragically Rotund. My first production – with Playwrights' Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
RQM: I remember seeing that play and being wowed by the theatricality of the piece, the originality of the writing and the singularity of perspective. Until then, I had not yet seen a Filipino-American play on stage.
Boni B. Alvarez
BBA: The funny thing is I don't think of it as a Filipino-American play. I mean, obviously, it is. I am Filipino-American and there are a lot of Filipino and Filipino-American characters in it, but the inspiration actually came from reading a Maria Irene Fornes play. I think it was Mud and then I just envisioned a fat girl in a pig pen and that brewed in my head for about a year. I had always wanted to write a fat play, or a play of size. And what came out was Ruby, Tragically Rotund.
RQM: Did you start that play while you were at the USC's MFA?
BBA: Yes, it was my thesis play and Jon Rivera saw the reading and committed to it pretty quickly. We developed it and shopped it around. I graduated in 2007 and the production was in 2009.
RQM: That's sort of a fairy tale ending to the MFA experience. So many people bemoan the year after the MFA. You are broken of old habits by the MFA and then you are re-broken by the rejections that come thereafter, especially in that first year out because you're new, people don't know your work yet, and you're trying to establish those relationships. Some people thrive after that first year or so and others don't - they move on from the business. How was it for you coming out of the MFA and having a production right away?
BBA: You have something to look forward to. You know you're getting produced, but it also is a double-edged sword. It was two and a half years after graduation. The play wasn't reviewed as well as I thought it would be, yet audiences really loved it. It was a pretty sold-out run with a couple of extensions. It's kind of disappointing when you don't get that second production of a play when you hoped it would.
RQM: How's your new show Nicky going?
BBA: Really great!
RQM: What's it about?
BBA: It's an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov.
RQM: Uh oh! Folks better watch out. Boni is taking on the canon.
BBA: It's what I deem as the problem play. It was Chekhov's first play which he labeled a comedy. Contemporary audiences would be like, “Where's the laughter supposed to be?”
RQM: It's Dantean comedy: a journey from a low play to a high place.
BBA: Right! And I keep to the Russian origin. The lead is Russian-American. But the play is definitely inclusive of places and cultures of the world that we live in now. That's usually my goal as a writer. If the play isn't all Filipino, it usually will have a little bit of everyone in it.
RQM: You really inspire me. My mom is Filipino, so I identify as Filipino American. For many years, I didn't know what to say about that aspect of my identity in my work. I just kept coming to your plays and seeing your vigilance in exploring it on the page. You look at the Filipino experience in the US and globally. The East always has one eye on the West.
BBA: The American dream is always at the forefront of my plays. In some works, it's more obvious than others. It's a testament to the career that I've chosen. It's a dream - an elusive dream: to be a playwright who works enough to sustain an existence on playwriting alone.
RQM: So whenever we hang out, we often talk about The Business. No, I'm not asking for your trade secrets in public, but really though, how do you keep working?
BBA: I get really excited by a story. But, once that inspiration hits, it's not like you can just immediately sit down and write that story. You have to let that inspiration live through you and bubble up - what the story is and who the characters will be. Usually it'll be 6 months to a year in between that first strike of inspiration and the first word I commit to the page. At that point, it's boiling to come out of me. I get inspired by the people I work with: directors, actors, companies. I know that times are tough. With the whole 99-seat debacle that's happening in Los Angeles, it's probably wiser for a writer to sit at home and write two-handers and one man shows. But all of a sudden, Nicky has 14 characters. My next play has 9. I've just written a three-act 11-character World War II epic play set in the Philippines. I'm not shying away from the bigness, how grand or how large things need to be. I meet more and more actors. I want to work with people and have things for them to be in. I think that is a big inspiration.
RQM: Process - let's discuss. For me, my writerly coming of age journey has entailed announcing to myself and others that I'm not a “traditional” playwright. A lot of my writing happens through improvisation and experimentation in the room. The work is interdisciplinary too - there's music, there's movement, it's like opera but at a slimmer ticket price. A friend has called what I do librettism. I'm a librettist for performance experiences. Knowing that about myself was a huge relief. What about you? What are your writing conditions like?
BBA: So after an idea boils up, I start writing. I've been fortunate enough to be in a lot of writers groups with various theatres in Los Angeles so I have an avenue in which to write it in, a forum that has a structure to it with deadlines. Usually, I've been working on three or four plays at the same time, juggling between the projects. Now, I have to be more focused. There's usually a project I'm writing from scratch and then there's something I'm revising either for a production or a reading.
RQM: How do you compartmentalize the plays so they don't sound the same?
BBA: Sometimes they do sound the same. But, you know what, audiences aren't watching them at the same time. It's okay. I mean everyone has a trademark. I say that in jest, but also not.
RQM: What is Boni Alvarez's trademark?
BBA: Oh lord, I leave that up to the audiences, to the future. Maybe my trademark is that I've been emerging. It's been 10 years since I got out of the USC Dramatic Writing program and I feel like I am finally hitting a stride and that now most of my efforts are going towards storytelling and playwriting of some sort.
RQM: You are a career playwright. We can say that. We are going to say that.
BBA: Yes, okay. It's important to own it. I am a career playwright.
RQM: So 10 years…Is that about right? That seems to be the timeframe. I remember reading in the New York Times years ago when August: Osage County first came out that Tracy Letts was considered then an “emerging playwright.” I found that quite laughable at the time, considering the man had been working for years. But I guess emerging takes on many definitions and phases - even within the context of one person's career. You can be emerging in some new aspect or developing some new skill set to add to your tool box, and in that sense, you're emerging.
BBA: I'm emerging on the national level, to bigger theatres - getting on their radar through literary departments or other artists. It's an uphill climb being a playwright in LA. We live in the shadow of “the industry” - television and film. And it's hard to get the proper street cred as a playwright coming out of LA.
RQM: But yet you've stayed. So what keeps you here?
BBA: I lived in New York. I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area. My agents told me to move to LA. I never wanted to. There's a NorCal/SoCal thing and an East Coast/West Coast thing and I even had stuff in storage in New York while I was in school at USC.
BBA: I had every intention of moving back. But I found a tremendous community here. There's a humungous theatre scene here - so many talented practitioners of theatre.
RQM: How do plays that have developed here make it to the national scene?
BBA: You have to submit to everything. It detracts from your writing time, but it is writing, it's part of the process. They all ask for some kind of statement of purpose. Those statements help as a check-in for what you are doing, what you are working on. When you have to do a statement about your play, you have to think about why you are writing it. You have to be selective, too. I applied to this one thing year after year. I was a finalist one year. I didn't get it, but there was a private email from someone on the selection committee that said, “I'm a big fan of your work. I know it can seem like you are sending your script out into this empty black hole. You probably don't know if anyone is even reading it. It is being read, it is being appreciated. But it's not always recognized by the entire committee.”
RQM: Oh, the politics of readership.
BBA: There's politics in every committee. And so many points of view. If you are a director, you will judge a work from a director's point of view, what plays you'd like to take a stab at or if you're a producer, there are circumstances you have to take into account in selecting plays. You can't escape the baggage of who you are or your position. But you should also read it outside of that perspective as well.
RQM: And we can't be phased by any of that. We have to write our truth.
BBA: Right! You will write what you will write. And, hopefully, your champion reader will find it. I've been very lucky to have met a lot of generous people.
RQM: This is the people business.
BBA: And it's not just about the work. Are people going to want to work with you? Kindness is so undervalued and underrated. Just being nice - not pure as snow - but someone that people want to have in their presence and work with. For Nicky, we had over 200 submissions. We saw almost 100 people and I'm always amazed - wow they want to be part of my play. They want to be part of something I created.
RQM: And let's be real, some of them are coming specifically because it's YOU, Boni.
BBA: Yes, I realize that and I'm humbled. Some of my plays are mostly Filipino and I have fans who are not necessarily of the ethnicities of the characters I write for.
RQM: You know, according to Anthony Bourdain, we are in vogue. If restaurant trends are harbingers of larger cultural movements, Filipino-Americas are the new thing.
BBA: And we need to get ready to step into our light - the Filipinos of the world. Capitalize on the moment.
RQM: It is a really exciting moment to be a Filipino-American who tells stories.
BBA: I've got a question for you: as an Asian American playwright, do you feel a responsibility to include Filipinos or Filipino culture or African American culture in your work?
RQM: That comes back to my house and my home life. In many ways, my mother came to America to re-imagine herself outside of her Filipino life. Specifically, she came here to be a Western woman. That always bothered me growing up. She did not teach us any Tagalog growing up, amongst other things. My mother had a very difficult home life in the Philippines and she conflated her specific domestic situation with the Philippines as a whole. I had to come into my Filipino self on my own. I'd look on the internet and bombard her with purposefully mispronounced versions of useful Tagalog phrases like “I'm hungry” or “Good morning.” I made her correct me. Then, during the holidays, I went to my cousins' houses and it was like a different country. They served food from lace-doilied buffet tables; after the meal, the adults would sit around the television and give the kids space, and then the karaoke machine would come out. My aunt's house was decorated with a mixture of Chinese statuary and Filipino Catholic icons. I imagined that, were I born in a slightly different household, my world would be completed different. The Filipino world fascinated me, and I wanted to absorb everything I could from it.
BBA: Now this is fascinating.
RQM: I remember going to the Philippines in my 20s and being awed by the resilience, the vibrance, and the pliability of the culture. Here was a place that defined cultural fusion before the tastemakers started commenting on it. During that same trip, I went to Antipologos and looked down on Manila Bay. There was no middle class. It was ritzy Makati City on one side and the shanties on the other. That duality read like tortured poetry to me.
BBA: Well, the middle class of the Filipinos is not in the Philippines. They're all working abroad.
RQM: And also, the telecom industry is creating an emerging middle class there in the Philippines as well. That's another fascinating subculture. You discussed this in your play Dallas Non-Stop: a workforce that is trained to perform a version of self on the phone that is familiar and comfortable to the West. It's a kind of passing. Cultural passing. I am thousands of miles away but I know just what you need out of your hotel or your flight from Omaha to Detroit.
BBA: It's a type of global passing. You have Filipinos infiltrating the States, the UK, Japan, Israel, Australia. What's that show? There was a Filipino caregiver who won X Factor Israel.
RQM: Get out!
BBA: No, I'm not kidding you. Our people are all over.
RQM: Yes, we are! But, we digress. Back to your question, I've never really been able to speak to a monolithic identity, whether it's Filipino or Black American. On both sides of the family, my world is quite strange and unique so my work centers on speaking to that uniqueness as best and clearly as I can.
RQM: So, what have you got brewing next?
BBA: I have a reading of a new play, my WWII epic play Refuge for a Purple Heart as part of Echo Theater's Labfest in July. I have a played called Fixed, inspired by Calderon de la Barca's work.
RQM: Is this the lady boy play?
RQM: I am so excited right now!
BBA: It's about a family of lady boys who run a massage parlor in historic Filipinotown. This is going up at the Echo Theater in September.
RQM: This is literally putting a smile on my face right now. I am over here completely beaming. There is a play. About a house of lady boys. In September. In LA. Yasss!
BBA: The House of Malacanang.
RQM: Everybody needs to try and get into that house. Will there be tea?
BBA: Tea is always served, it might just be too strong for you.
RQM: Oh honey, yes! I just have a feeling. I can smell a smash hit from 4 months away.
BBA: You're a mess!
RQM: I always try to be.
BBA: You succeed, trust. So what's next with you?
RQM: My solo show The Duat is going up in July at Son of Semele Theatre. It's inspired by the shootings at UCLA which took place in the 1960s between differing black student groups on campus. This piece imagines a COINTELPRO informant's spiritual reckoning in the Egyptian afterlife. I feel really good about this piece - a great team and the script rewrites are coming together. Then I'm off to New York. My show The White Dress, the gender queer coming of age play, will be performed at the Araca Project in November. And then I'm filming a movie based upon my short play Softer, the gay slavery piece.
BBA: Look at you - so busy!
RQM: I'm doing what I Iove.
BBA: What is the picture of happiness in terms of your career?
RQM: What is it for you? I'll answer, but you go first.
BBA: Enough success to keep me writing plays. I'm at a point where I feel I need more productions. I mean, what playwright doesn't? But you can't just sit at home and write plays. You learn so much - the experience of being in rehearsal. Revising for production, really focused on the arrival of an audience. Audiences, they're a key element of the work.
RQM: The happiness for me comes in stages and waves. For the longest time, it was knowing what I was. And now that I know I write performance work with a foundation in playwriting, that happiness is fulfilled: I know who I am and what to do. But, as you know, happiness is addictive. So now I've got to get to the next happiness. Well, the next happiness is having a forum to do that work that's supported - my own theatre company, commissions, residencies. That's part of the happiness. The other aspect of the happiness is one that's always been there for me. I remember my first workshop production (and I'm saying that so you readers know the play is still available for world premiere rights). The play was Onion Creek, my Reconstruction-era Adam and Eve tale. At auditions, I remember seeing people in the hall trying their hearts out to come in the room and bring the strongest rendition of those sides. I saw firsthand that I was creating something larger than myself, something that people want to do.
BBA: It's a completely and utterly humbling experience.
RQM: Yes, and that's the happiness that sustains us.
Sometimes there's just too much happening. Too much to write about in a week in this surprising city, which appears to be so predictable and obvious – 80 degrees and sunny, ho hum – but has so many places that few people seem to see. Are the places hidden? No. But people drive by every day, completely oblivious. Which is great, because now the Twisted Hipster gets to tell you about them.
So you, sitting in front of your 48” flat screen, diligently plowing through your Netflix queue while keeping an eye out for anything of interest on those premium channels – I'll start with you.
So here's my only HIPSTER LAMENT of the week – for that vaunted reboot of TWIN PEAKSby David Lynch and Mark Frost (Showtime).
Jake Wardle, James Marshall and David Lynch behind the scenes of Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME
There are many fascinating scenes and brilliant, troubling visuals in the first five episodes – but oh that silly narrative! I don't require linear storytelling by any means – and I appreciate a good anti-narrative – but there's just no attempt to create genuine human beings or explore the darker recesses of human behavior. Many of us were delighted by Season 1 of the series in 1991, with its sense of an infernal corruption lurking beneath the Normal Rockwell exteriors of small-town American life. But Season 2 descended into self-parody and melodrama, becoming quite a bore. The 25 year hiatus has done nothing to help Lynch rediscover his movie-making mojo. For example: Detective Dale Cooper has mysteriously returned to earth with no sense of self whatever. He's just a blank slate. As such, he walks into a Las Vegas Casino and hits 30 jackpots in a row, winning $425,000 – all of which means nothing to him. Which is fine – nothing means anything to him now. But such a feat would draw enormous amounts of publicity in any world that I'm aware of, and yet it doesn't create even a ripple here. Even when he helps a sad old lady win two jackpots of her own - something she would certainly tell everyone about. So what world are we in anyway? Not one that will have any interest, I fear, for other than diehard fans of Lynch's self-indulgently nostalgiac convolutions.
Carrie Coon in the series finale of THE LEFTOVERS
On the other hand, a big HIPSTER TIP for the series finale of THE LEFTOVERS (HBO), "The Book of Nora." Even if you've never watched a single episode before, even if you've never liked a single episode before, you still have to check this one out. First, there's the magnificent acting work of Justin Theroux, Christopher Eccleston and, most of all, Carrie Coon, whose brilliance is almost beyond belief, given the very difficult journey she has been asked to take. But it is precisely that journey, and the wondrous narrative gamble that it involves, which makes this one of the great final episodes of any series. Kudos to series creators and final episode writers Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta. You have dreamed up such a rich and strange version of the world in your series, and you have saved your best for last.
Yes it's from 1989 (the real one, not the Taylor Swift version), but it never gets old. Then again, “The Call of the Wild” and “Loco de Amor” are pretty great cuts too. Hell, just put on this CD in your car on the grayest of days, and the entire sky will light up in Technicolor. But watch out – your feet are gonna be dancin' all over those pedals!
Moving on to matters of THEATER – which is exploding right now in Los Angeles, exploding with talent and purpose and fearlessness. Here are two shows closing very soon which I urge you to see. They are without doubt two of the best shows I've seen this year and I wish I had time to see them again before they close.
NEXT TO NORMAL by Bryan Yorkey and Tom Kitt at East-West Players has been extended until June 18 – see it. If you've never this power-punch of a musical before, see it. If you've seen it on Broadway or at the Ahmanson or anywhere else, then see it again. Because Deedee Magno Hall and Iso Briones, as the most troubled and troubling mother-daughter relationship in any musical this side of Carrie, are that good. So is the rest of the cast. Director Nancy Keystone has done beautiful work with the actors and has broken down the beats gloriously. This is not suitable for children, but it's perfect for any adult who has lived and loved and suffered in the modern world. And there are some lovely rock ballads.
THE GARY PLAYS by Murray Mednick and directed by Guy Zimmerman are 6 related plays presented in 3 separate installments by the Open Fist Company at the Atwater Village Theatre, and it has been extended one week, to June 10. So you have one more chance to see each installment: Part I is on Thursday at 8, Part II is on Friday at 8 and Part III is on Saturday at 2 pm. The plays are a real anomaly in the American cannon – epic in length and scope, yet intimate in feeling. Director Zimmerman describes them this way: “The series is uniquely the product of the LA theatre community – it could not have been created anywhere else. And Gary, an unemployed actor struggling with grief and self-recrimination after his only son's murder, is an iconic LA character.” There's so much more to it – and Jeff Lebeau's depiction of Gary in the first 3 plays is so remarkable, so memorable, he simply crawls into the character's skin. For my money, Part II is the best evening of theater I can remember seeing in Los Angeles, it just buzzes with emotional intensity. My only criticism is that it's almost too much to take in, like eating three rich meals in one sitting. I almost fainted from all the artistic calories, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything. Hope you don't either. And kudos to Martha Demson and the Open Fist Company of actors for bringing it all to such vivid life.
Favorite line, spoken by Rod Menzies as Daddyo: “I'm an old hipster, and I know what's what.” Yeah.