5 Questions For ERIKA SOTO of ANW's Mrs. Warren's Profession

About six years ago, I was invited to produce a diversity showcase for the University of Southern California's BA Theatre students.  Through that process, I was introduced to a beautiful tapestry of actors of color, all about to graduate and take the entertainment business by storm.  As a recent arts graduate myself, I knew that place - the optimism, the promise, the potential of those first years after graduation.  I also knew that the first years after graduation were perhaps the toughest: the transition from the academic bubble to the “real world” is one of soul-searching, managing rejection, and many times self-making opportunities.

What struck me about the students in this showcase was how grounded they were.  They knew what was possible and they had a plan, a tangible plan, for how to attain it.  One of the students who really caught my eye was Erika Soto.  I recall her saying that she was motivated to focus her work on classical theatre.  I recommended that she look into A Noise Within, a classical repertory company at which I had recently served as a directing intern.  Erika was already acutely aware of the company, its work, and its players.  Something told me that I would see her on A Noise Within's stage one day.

Well, that day is now.  Currently, Erika Soto is giving an inspired and well-honed turn as Vivie Warren in the Michael Michetti-directed production of Mrs. Warren's Profession by George Bernard Shaw.  The show is running until November 18 at A Noise Within, and it is a production not to be missed.  After opening, I took some time to chat with Erika Soto about her experience working on Shaw's play at A Noise Within, and in “the biz” in general.

Adam Faison as Frank Gardner, ANW Resident Artist Erika Soto as Vivie Warren. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Roger Q. Mason (RQM): How did you get involved with A Noise Within?

Erika Soto (ES): I was asked to audition for the production of George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell, and before starting rehearsals for that I did a staged reading of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. I later played Thomasina in the fully staged production!

RQM: Why is it important for us to keep making classical theatre?

ES: Oh, wow, for so many reasons. But I think classical theatre is classical because it thematically transcends time and place. I think it's important to have a healthy ongoing narrative about the human experience through the telling and retelling of great stories.

RQM: Mrs. Warren's Profession is considered one of Shaw's “problem plays”. What was the first thought that went through your mind after the first read through?

ES: My FIRST thought was “I can't wait to get started on this!” But I really see it as a beautiful examination of what actually happens to people in their struggles to navigate complicated relationships. Personally, I don't see a problem with plays and characters being messy and complex; that's life!

RQM: How are parent/child relations different and the same between Shaw's time and now?

ES: I think this question could have as many different answers as there are parent/child relationships! I don't know that I have an answer for that. What I can speak to is the “fresh” quality of the production you mentioned. I think we accomplished that through being as present and honest with ourselves as individuals in our roles as possible. Our director, Michael Michetti, encouraged us to approach the play with our modern and current sensibilities and shy away from any kind of “classical, Shavian ‘acting'”. The result is, I think, a 124-year-old play that feels familiar and rings true to a 2017 audience.

RQM: What's next for you either at ANW or elsewhere in the world?

ES: I'm looking forward to being a part of the spring season at A Noise Within and continuing my work in commercials, film, and television. There are exciting things in the works—to be revealed soon!


Ashton's Audio Interview: Judith Scott - of the feature film GUESS WHO - stars in “Mrs Warren's Profession” at A Noise Within

Enjoy this interview about “Mrs Warren's Profession” By George Bernard Shaw staring Judith Scott (of the feature film GUESS WHO where she played alongside Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher & Zoe Saldana) at A Noise Within, running until Nov 18th. You can listen to this YouTube interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage.  For tickets and more info Click here.


Playwright Mike Poulton Tirelessly Adapting TWO Into The Nth IMPERIUM

A Noise Within commenced their 26th season September 3, 2017 with the United States premiere of Mike Poulton's adaptation of Charles Dickens' A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Mike Poulton's last stint on the Broadway boards in 2015 netted his adaptation of WOLF HALL eight Tony nominations, with one win. We had the opportunity to ask a few questions of this acclaimed adapter/writer from across the Atlantic. 

Thank you for taking time out for this interview.

Your adaptation of Charles Dickens' A TALE OF TWO CITIES premiered at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton in February 2014. Any edits to your script from then to your current United States premiere at the A Noise Within?

Yes. I made several changes for the subsequent U.K. tour, after the first, very successful, production in Northampton. We had two extra actors, and I had to simplify the crowd scenes. In each venue we had a crowd of local volunteers, and the rehearsal time for them was limited, and the movement complex. It all worked very well.

What creative forces brought you together with A Noise Within?

A Noise Within must have heard about the successful British productions. I was very happy to approve a new U.S. production – I always seem to get a warm reception for my work from enthusiastic audiences in America.

How set do your scripts remain once you first produce them?  Or do you allow your work to be fluid for subsequent productions?

I rarely play the same script twice. I'm forever tweaking - and improving, I hope. I've done seven versions of GHOSTS – all of them with radical changes. An audience is a developing thing – so should be an adaptation.

What originally sparked your interest in classic literature? Did you read a lot as a child?

Yes. As a child I was a voracious reader and theatregoer, and a precocious critic. It continued through school, university, a career at Oxford University Press, and then into the theatre.

Your wrote your first adaptations in 1995 - Anton Chekhov's UNCLE VANYA and Ivan Turgenev's FORTUNE'S FOOL. Any particular incident that triggered your desire to begin adapting the classics?

Impatience with the unperformability of overly-literary translations. In the 60's translations – of Chekhov or Ibsen, say, were, for the most part, nit-pickingly accurate, but un-sayable for an actor. I felt the need to capture the spirit of a piece, and translate it into speakable language. Also, speech patterns tend to blur in academic translations. Astrov, for example, has different rhythms from Vanya, or Serebryakov.

What aspects of a classic work attracts you to want to adapt it? Do you read a book passage and envision it vividly acted out?

Yes. I always play scenes in my head. If the scenes I'm seeing demand to be performed on a stage, then I follow my instincts. Actors are very grateful for juicy parts.

I just saw the A Noise Within's production of your adaptation. Here are some of the differences from Dickens' original I noticed, please correct me if I'm mistaken:

You simplified Lucie and Charles' children from two to one still in Lucie's womb. Yes. Making Lucie pregnant heightened the danger.

Besides Sydney and Charles in Dickens' book, bank manager Mr. Lorry is also in love with Lucie.

Mr. Lorry's affection for Lucie is fatherly.

You changed character "#22-to-be-executed" from an adult seamstress into a young female child.

The young child – in England, we played her aged 15. The changes you saw were a decision of the director. I'm never against change from directors and actors when it serves the text.

Do you have a set rules of thumb in your process of adapting?

No, there are no rules. The first decision is whether or not the work is adaptable – some novels should remain novels. Then each project demands a different approach. It would be soul destroying to have a ‘rule of thumb,' I think.

Now in the present, can you allow yourself to read for pleasure? Or do you get that urge to reconstruct the tome into a play?

It's difficult to separate the two. These days I can't read a book without mentally seeing parts of it played out on a stage. Even to the extent of casting, costuming, and lighting it. I've become a sort of living theatre.

Most of your works have been produced on the British stage. Do you remember your first impression of being "on Broadway"? Was it anything like your colleagues that already had been on Broadway had told you?

I love Broadway. And I love Washington, D. C. – two completely different experiences, and very different audiences. I've done four plays on Broadway and a number out-of-town. It's impossible not to be caught up in the whole Broadway/Tony Award buzz. But for me, home is The Royal Shakespeare Company. I suppose the best of both worlds is to bring my RSC productions to the U.S. My first impressions of Broadway took a while to sink in. I slept on the flight over, and was straight into a very intense, but exciting rehearsal room. One rehearsal room is very like another. I suppose Broadway didn't really hit me until we were up and running, and one became aware of red carpets and flashing cameras, and people thrusting microphones at me. I like the enthusiasm.

American actors have been known to revere and honor British actors. As a British playwright, what is your opinion of American actors vs. British actors?

It's not a contest. We have great British actors, and I've worked with great American actors. We have Judi Dench, you have Meryl Streep. I rather think our drama schools – the good ones like RADA and LAMDA, and a few others – are more rigorous and demanding than most of yours. And I suppose most of our lot aren't really interested in the star system – they just want to do good work.

Do you prefer working on one project at a time? Or multi-tasking on several adaptations?

I like to work on one project at a time. WOLF HALL took me three years. My current RSC project IMPERIUM has taken me the same time – we're in rehearsal at the moment. But there are always revivals, and other projects in development. I've been working on some plays for ten years and more. But I won't go into production until I'm absolutely happy.

Any adaptations you're working on you can share with us?

IMPERIUM is the big one – six new plays, each an hour long, opens at the RSC in Stratford early in December. I'm also working on plays about Hitler, Dreyfus, and two new adaptation of works by Schiller.

Any class piece of literature you'd still love to tackle?

THE ILLIAD.

Thank you again.

For available tickets and show schedule of Mike Poulton's adaptation of Charles Dickens' A TALE OF TWO CITIES through November 19, 2017; log onto www.anoisewithin.org


WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE FAMILY IMPLODES (On Stage and Screen)

Paul Simon wrote that there are 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, and that sounds about right.  But it's much harder to change the world around you when things are going wrong. Even harder perhaps to change oneself.

Because when the world breaks down and things aren't working out as we hoped, then we need someone to blame.  It has to be someone's fault.  Your husband, your wife, the Arabs, the Jews, the Aristocrats.  But if it's yourself?  Then how do you deal with that?

YEAR BY THE SEA, a movie written and directed by Alexander Janko, adapted from Joan Anderson's memoirIn the opening scene of this movie, Joan (Karen Allen) is at her older son's wedding reception when she finds out from her realtor that her husband Robin (Michael Cristofer) has put their home on the market without even bothering to tell her.  Her son the groom gives a toast without even mentioning her.  Her other son doesn't even ask her to dance.  She has somehow become a non-person even to her nearest and dearest.  The only friend she seems to have is her publisher (S. Epatha Merkerson), who keeps asking Joan when she's going to write her next book - which is curious, since we never even see Joan open a book, much less make any attempt to write one.  In any case, Joan finds a coupon ad for a rental cottage in Cape Cod, and she impulsively calls and rents it rather than go off to Wichita, Kansas with her husband for his new job (whatever that may be - we never find out).

The good news about this movie is that Karen Allen's smile is still an elixir for whatever ails you, lighing up the screen with her inner glow.  The camera still loves her, and her likeability quotient is as high as ever too.  You want to like her character, just as you want to like this movie, a true independent with lovely shots of seals playing on the beach and small town eccentrics doing eccentric things.  But this is where the bad news comes in, because writer-director Alexander Janko has no clue how to write a screenplay.  Even more, he's clueless about his cluelessness, saying at the Q&A after the screening that "the creative aspect of this movie was never a problem" - ha!  It's a huge problem when your main character says "my sons are going to hate me" for leaving their father, and then there is no follow-up phone call or scene addressing this.  When she tells her husband, "We had a successful marriage, we did a great job raising our kids," but the one time she tries to reach her sons (at her husband's prompting), they don't even pick up the phone and apparently never call back.  And then what's really the state of this marriage?  Did these people ever love each other?  Michael Cristofer does an admirable job trying to invest his character with some sense of reality when in fact there isn't any - he's just a type, not a human being.  And every time there's a scene between him and his wife, it is interrupted by the wife of psychologist extraordinaire Erik Erikson (how specific is that?), who wants to go dancing on the beach, scarves flying like some Cape Cod protege of Isadora Duncan.  Instead of genuine emotional discovery, we get self-help slogans and New Age psychobabble. And still, Joan never even makes a notation in her journal until suddenly in the Third Act she turns out a memoir at the same time that Mrs. Erickson is writing hers (pre-sold, of course).  Because it's just that easy!

It's understandable that Mr Janko has discoveries of his own to make about screenwriting and directing, since he has made his living up until now as a movie composer.  What is less understandable is how terrible the score for this movie is.  There are so many songs, and every single one so on the nose.  I mean, it's just cheesy to use a song about feeling depressed when you're feeling depressed.  Isn't that in Movie Scoring 101?  Against all odds, I still think this movie is worth catching - first for the seals, and then for the luminous, inventive performances of Karen Allen and Michael Cristofer.  Just imagine how great they could have been if they'd actually been given something to act!

Alan Blumenfeld and Kevin Hudnell, 2 Venetian Jews

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare, directed by Ellen Geer - There are only 3 more performances of this remarkable production at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga - on 9/17 at 7:30, 9/23 at 3:30 and 10/1 at 3:30.  I urge to catch this show before it closes.  The cast is excellent, none more so than Los Angeles theater stalwart Alan Blumenfeld.  His Shylock is a proud Jewish man in a city that hates Jews, and that does not allow a Jew to hold any job that a Christian can do.  He is a legal alien, and he has become a money-lender because this is the only way he can provide for his family.  He has in fact become the most successful Jewish money-lender precisely because of his pride - he is determined to succeed in spite of all the obstacles that the Christians have put in his way.  The object of his deepest affection is his daughter Jessica, but early in the play we see she has fallen in love with a cavalier young Christian man, and she elopes with him, taking a huge portion of her father's wealth with her.  So when rabid anti-Semite Antonio comes to him for a loan of 3,000 Ducats for his friend Bassanio, Shylock draws up a contract demanding a pound of flesh if Antonio defaults on his loan.  Director Ellen Geer and her artistic associates have edited the play a bit to emphasize the cruelty at the core of it.  When Portia - played wonderfully by Willow Geer - recites her "The quality of mercy is not strained" speech, it seems deeply hypocritical, as she delights in Shylock's destruction, just as she has earlier delighted in the defeat of the Prince of Morocco, wishing that "no more of his hue come to court me."  Far from seeing the play as a triumph of "mercy," the Botanicum production shows us a narcissistic, self-satisfied society with no problem demonizing the Jew as "the other."  Far from diminishing the play, it has never seemed so gloriously cogent to me before.

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

A TALE OF TWO CITIES, adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott at a Noise Within - "It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times" is the famous opening of Charles Dickens's novel, A Tale of Two Cities.  Regarding Mike Poulton's adaptation, I would call it "the best of adaptations and the worst of adaptations" - well, maybe not the worst, but definitely lacking.  What it does best is to create the terrifying reality of the French Revolution, that began as a blow for populist justice and morphed into a frenzy of bloodlust and revenge.  The staging at A Noise Within is very inventive in creating tableaux that bring this national nightmare to blazing life.  This is embodied in the character of Madame Defarge, brought vividly to life by Abby Craden.  Madame Defarge's need for justice is entirely understandable, but her thirst for revenge has become insatiable, and Ms Craden forces us to experience the erotic urge that this has come to represent for her.

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

Where Mr Poulton's adaptation is lacking, however, is in developing characters of any depth that we can understand and care about.  There is simply so much plot - so much story, so many twists and turns - that it's hard to get beneath the glossy surface of the scenes from the French Revolution and feel anything for those who are trapped there.  This is not an easy problem for any adapter - Dickens's novel is bursting with storylines, and it has dual heroes - Charles Darnay (Tavis Doucette), who is at first accused in British court of being a French spy, only to end up a prisoner in the Bastille; and Sydney Carton (Frederick Stuart), a lawyer's associate who is responsible for Darnay's London acquittal.  But who is Darnay?  It's hard to get a grasp on his character in the midst of his continuing peril.  And who is Sydney Carton?  Well, that comes through more clearly, thanks in large part to Mr Stuart's memorably persuasive portrayal. Carton is intriguing but quite an enigma.  I could have used more scenes deepening his motives, especially with Lucie, the central female figure, to make his actions at the conclusion feel more inevitable.

I did love the theatricality of this production, as well as its ambitiousness.  At the very end, a young actress gives a speech in the shadow of the gallows which was genuinely heart-wrenching.  It demonstrated what happens when the human family gives way to self-destruction.  I just wish this production had more of that.