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LA Stage Times

Alfaro and Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga

by Amy Tofte | October 25, 2013
Amielynn Abellera, Tony Sancho, Michael Manuel, Joe Hernadez-Kolski and Justin Huen in "Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga." Photo by Ed Krieger.

Amielynn Abellera, Tony Sancho, Michael Manuel, Joe Hernandez-Kolski and Justin Huen in “Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

It’s been a busy year for Los Angeles playwright Luis Alfaro. His solo performance of St. Jude (Center Theatre Group) just wrapped at the Kirk Douglas. Mojada, his Medea adaptation, premiered at Victory Gardens in Chicago. Painting in Red was part of a reading series presented by Playwrights’ Arena (Los Angeles). Alleluia the Road will premiere next month with California Shakespeare and Campo Santo (San Francisco). He’s playwright-in-residence for Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

This week he adds Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga with MainStreet Theatre Company at the Lewis Family Playhouse in, yes, Rancho Cucamonga — a new collaboration of an original work and MainStreet’s first commissioned work for young audiences.

The Path to a Commission

As MainStreet producer Mireya Hepner began planning the theater’s 2013 season, she was determined to finally create a commissioned work for the Rancho audience. According to Hepner, funding a commissioned work has always been a hope for the theater, which is dedicated to producing “high-quality theatrical productions especially for children and families.”

“But our regular budgets could never make that happen,” says Hepner. “So I began looking at guidelines from the [James] Irvine Foundation, and they were looking for projects by California artists and adaptations, which is what we do.”

Robert Castro, Luis Alfaro and Murry Hepner

Robert Castro, Luis Alfaro and Mireya Hepner

Hepner approached director Robert Castro (a Southern California native) about a possible collaboration with Alfaro, creating a staged version of Aesop’s fables specifically for MainStreet and a Southern California audience. Alfaro and Castro last worked together on Ladybird, another play for young audiences, at La Jolla Playhouse in 2002. The team was set, the grant application submitted, and it resulted in $40,000 in funding to support the two-year project.

Hepner is excited. “All of our shows here are very theatrical and meaningful,” she says. “It was never going to be the Aesop’s fables you remember from third grade. It’s really deep and beautiful. And I was particularly interested in Luis’ singular voice.”

An award-winning playwright and a 1997 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Foundation Fellowship, Alfaro is known for his adaptations and socially-conscious plays that sometimes embed the playwright within the community for which he is writing. His work has been performed around the country while Alfaro lives in Los Angeles (his hometown) writing, performing and serving on faculty at USC.

Once the grant was secured, the two-year journey for Aesop was broken up into a development/planning year and a creative/production year, which has added actors and designers to the team. This has been a longer creative process than MainStreet had previously experienced and, in a perfect world, Hepner would work this way more often.

“I don’t just do budgets,” says Hepner. “I bring people together to create beautiful stories. But because our timelines are always so fast, there isn’t usually time for me to be this involved.”

The Process

Amielynn Abellera

Amielynn Abellera

In the planning year, Castro suggested the play truly reflect its Rancho audience by being physically set in Rancho. Alfaro, who has made a career creating community-centered plays, embraced the idea. After his own research and background work, Alfaro was immersed in the Rancho community to influence the direction and flavor of the script. Hepner continued to play a key role.

“I’m very hands-on as a producer,” says Hepner, “but for this one, because it was so collaborative, all of us — designers, actors, Robert, Luis — we’ve all been very involved.”

Castro adds the Rancho community itself to that list of collaborators. Originally from San Diego, Castro currently lives in New York, making frequent trips to the West Coast for projects and teaching. He serves on the faculty at UC San Diego. He first met Alfaro as part of a mentoring program at the Mark Taper Forum before directing Ladybird at La Jolla in 2002. Castro says he still identifies as a Californian and, through the MainStreet process on this project, “we’ve all become honorary citizens of Rancho Cucamonga.”

Alfaro shares Castro’s passion for Southern California.

“I think I’m very Los Angeleno because I love driving,” says Alfaro, “and I’m also always out in the city. I love the city.”  A self-proclaimed “coffee shop” writer, Alfaro was intrigued by the Aesop project as a way to engage himself with the Rancho community, sometimes setting up his laptop to write pages at a local Starbucks when it opened at 4:30 am.

Once the production was cast, Alfaro began tailoring the script to the individual actors and attending rehearsals whenever possible in order to makes changes or write new scenes. Castro, knee-deep in the rehearsal room, describes an organic process with the performers.

“It’s so ripe with possibility at every turn,” says Castro. “So lots of surprises and revelations occurred in the rehearsal room. [Alfaro] is inspired by us and we’re inspired by him.”

Alfaro feels bolstered by both Hepner and Castro. His previous work with Castro provides what he describes as a “complete trust in the process,” developing ideas with the actors that will improve the script and the story. He also finds Hepner’s insights valuable.

“She’s really been the dramaturg,” says Alfaro. “She also has a say in the text. And I really appreciate it. I think she knows that audience better than all of us.”

Michael Manuel and Amielynn Abellera

Michael Manuel and Amielynn Abellera

Hepner took the lead in setting up museum dates and interviews between Alfaro and local Native Americans and other community groups, giving the playwright insight and access to their stories and traditions.

As they enter tech week, Castro admits the time has come to make final decisions and put an end to explorations and re-writes.

“Of course, we’d love more time to investigate and have more experience with the actors in really creating some wonderful things,” says Castro. “But the schedule is such that we have a final deadline. We have to be more ruthless now and pick and choose ideas.”

The Play

Aesop takes the familiar fables (think Tortoise and the Hare, the Ant and the Grasshopper) and places them in the retelling hands of a young bear who has come down from the foothills to escape a fire with her family, only to be left behind.

Alfaro describes the play itself as a “lifting of the corner of the Victoria Gardens Cultural Center” and revealing the fables as they relate to the local community. Key players include the ant, the lizard and the cactus, while key themes range from sorrow to survival. The entire play takes place at night.

Hepner believes this concept in and of itself has created something unique to her community that audiences will recognize.

“Because MainStreet is part of the Lewis Family Playhouse — which is owned by the city of Rancho Cucamonga — the city is very much a part of [the theater community],” says Hepner. “I’m very excited that the people who live here and work here will get to see something that’s really about them.”

Castro has also rediscovered the classic Aesop fables he thought he knew. He finds this version filled with timely insights and universal appeal.

Michael Manuel, Amielynn Abellera, Tony Sancho, Justin Huen, Joe Hernandez-Kolski

Michael Manuel, Amielynn Abellera, Tony Sancho, Justin Huen, Joe Hernandez-Kolski

“We’re thinking about those things happening in the world right now that [young people] need to think about or contemplate,” says Castro. “Maybe they’ll remember something [from Aesop] that might stay with them. Like these themes and wisdoms that we try to live our lives by, that we want [to acquire] to be citizens of the world.”

The actual poetic language of the script wasn’t fully developed until casting was complete. Alfaro knew his stories and primary characters, but the mechanics of dramatizing them began in the rehearsal room.

“When we started auditioning people it became clear to all of us that we’d make the bear — Aesop — a girl and that all the other characters would be played by men,” says Alfaro. “It became a kind of Greek chorus or Greek theater where the men serve as the ensemble and they all play all of the characters. They represent all the communities that she meets in her travels.”

Within each community, or group of characters, Alfaro has adopted a particular style of language from Mexican coro traditions to characters speaking group sentences together. Alfaro suspects these explorations alone will have a lasting impact on his future work as a writer.

“It’s opened up my life to telling something more complicated when you have to keep it really simple,” says Alfaro. “You have to keep subtext but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have all the other stuff. That’s what gives the play its power. I’m enjoying the challenge of becoming a lot more simple writer.”

Alfaro has found the research process, imperative to creating the play, has been influenced by a rugged, natural world coping alongside a modern community — where native herbs grow in the shadows of freeways and commercial real estate.

“We were guided through the history of Rancho Cucamonga in this process,” says Alfaro. “We are so fortunate and grateful to the community. We met with this Native American woman at Hot Dog on a Stick in the mall. Where else does something like that happen?”

Theater for Young Audiences

Tony Sancho, Michael Manuel, Amiellyn Abellera, Joe Hernandez-Kolski and Justin Huen

Tony Sancho, Michael Manuel, Amiellyn Abellera, Joe Hernandez-Kolski and Justin Huen

MainStreet has specialized in stage adaptations of children’s literature, with more than 20,000 students seeing its productions every year, as well as added public performances. Hepner estimates about 7,500 will see Aesop. And, while Castro will return to Europe in a few weeks to continue work on an opera, he finds the young audience aspect of Aesop an added bonus, bringing theater to future audiences and art makers.

“Young audiences have a special place in my heart,” says Castro. “I always see the potential of empowering them with the wonder and joy and the necessity of art in one’s life. And a transformative experience can happen with anything. So I shuttle between all kinds of projects. I don’t put any hierarchy on art-making, I think everyone should have access to it.”

This is Alfaro’s third play for young audiences — after Ladybird and Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman and Other Superhero Girls, Like Me (Getty Center in 1999, East LA Rep in 1999 and 2007, Mark Taper Forum’s Taper Too at Actors’ Gang in 2000). He believes he’s learned some lessons about writing for modern youth who are Google-savvy and bombarded with story-telling from traditional media forms such as film and TV, as well as video games and shorter online forms.

“I completely approach it like an adult play and high art,” says Alfaro. “It’s not unlike a regular commission because the audience is not unlike the one you regularly perform for. I’m writing a play for adults that kids will really enjoy.”

Hepner hopes Aesop will become the first of more collaborations and commissions for MainStreet — a model both in its invigorating creative process and in the finished product for audiences.

“As anyone who runs a theater, we all want to do the first production of something wonderful,” says Hepner. “I would love to do more new plays, but it’s all about funding.”

Hepner is already looking for ways to re-create the Aesop collaboration experience. And if Alfaro is any indication of how the process works for playwrights, the pressure-cooker of creation within the fertile atmosphere of Rancho could be the true selling point.

“I like the thrill of it,” says Alfaro. “I wouldn’t have had the kind of career I’m having right now if I hadn’t taken a lot of risks…Writing at 4 am and having to turn in a scene at 9 am is kinda thrilling.”

Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga, Lewis Family Playhouse at Victoria Gardens Cultural Center, 12505 Cultural Center Drive, Rancho Cucamonga 91739. Opens Sunday. Sat 1 pm and 4 pm, Sun 1 pm. Through November 10. Tickets: $16/$18.   www.lewisfamilyplayhouse.com. 909-477-2752.

**All Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga production photos by Ed Krieger.

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LA Stage Times

What Women Want for LA Theater

by Steve Julian | March 8, 2013

For more than a century, International Women’s Day has sought to draw attention to the needs and desires of women around the world. It is marked by over 200 formal events today in the United States — even more in the United Kingdom.

In Los Angeles, we asked women who play various roles in theater this question — what do you want to see for the coming year?

Here is a sampling of the responses.

Amy Levinson

Amy Levinson, artistic associate/literary director, Geffen Playhouse

“Truth be told, my gut reaction is to wish that this question were no longer relevant, but answering in the realm of reality, I am looking forward to a season of plays with great female characters.  I have been bowled over by the complex, exciting women who populate the crop of plays I’ve read this year.  The female protagonists are multifaceted, exciting, “˜take life by the horns’ kinds of women, some of whom grapple with the very idea of womanhood in a post-feminist age. And it’s no coincidence that many of these plays were written by women.”

Evelina Fernandez

Evelina Fernandez, Actor/Playwright – Latino Theater Company, LATC

“Obviously, I’d like to see more plays by and about women, but especially women of color. I was raised by strong, passionate, intelligent. funny sexual women, and I want to see those women on LA stages. LA is a majority minority metropolis, and I would like LA theater to reflect that more consistently. It’s a matter of survival, really. We’re all headed in the same direction toward a multinational identity of mixed ethnicities, cultural and geographical origins, and LA is in the forefront of that path. I would love for LA theater to be the most courageous, the most innovative, to be the vanguard of the future of the American theater and its audiences. In regard to Latinas/os in LA theater, I would love for LA theater to stop the ongoing notion that we are new, foreign, unusual and unfamiliar. Latinas/os come from all walks of life. We are not just kind-hearted nannies or housekeepers, or humble Latino gardeners or day laborers, or misunderstood gang members. We are as diverse as the city itself.”

Emelie Beck

Emilie Beck, director and c0-literary manager, Boston Court

“It is not enough to wish for institutions to add more female artists to their rosters. The wishing will not make it so, and it would not address the root of the issue. What is needed is a complete paradigm shift in the way we approach women as theater artists from all sides: practitioners, gatekeepers, tastemakers, and audiences. This is a difficult task, not just looking up at the icons of Miller and Williams, among many other men, but also from where we work in the shadow of Hollywood, which offers us lessons in formula and box-office success.

“From the time of Aristotle, the definition of story has been set out and adhered to with a masculine hand. And women have fit themselves into this standard in the same way we have entered most male-dominated professions: by taking their suits and cutting off the legs to make skirts. The truth is, women often have different ways of telling a story, less linear and myopic, more lyrical and layered. Though, of course, the less generalized truth is that we each have our own distinctive style. And by opening up the overriding ideas of what’s acceptable, we open ourselves up to stories told in unique voices from both men and women.

“What I hope is for all artists to be empowered to create work that is not defined by the ‘should’ or ‘supposed to’ ideas that have guided recent decades of work. What I hope is that both women and men push past the unofficial pro-forma guidelines that have produced only more of what we already know. What I hope is that we can expand theater to be the art form of depth and investigation that comes from each of us sharing our own unique voice. And what I hope for women in particular, is that we can free ourselves of trying to look and sound like men in our evolution as artists, and instead, to look and sound like ourselves, whatever those individual definitions may be.”

Murry Hepner

Mireya (Murry) Hepner, producer, MainStreet Theatre

“When I think about women in LA theater, I think about how many amazing women there are who are actively working in this community, especially on the creative end.

“For example, on my upcoming production of The Phantom Tollbooth, we have a woman director (Jessica Kubzansky), choreographer (Sarah Gorman), musical director (Janice Rodgers Wainwright), lighting designer (Jaymi Lee Smith), costume designer  (Tina Haatainen-Jones) and stage manager (Julie Haber).  I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, or if this is the case at other theaters, but when I look back at the creative people that have worked on our shows, a large proportion of them over the past seven years have been women.

“On the Ovation rules committee, where I serve, women represent about half of the group (Phyllis Schuringa, Dolores Chavez, Jeanie Hackett, Toni Sawyer), which seems about right.  They are all dynamic, smart, and deeply committed to raising the bar and honoring excellence in Los Angeles theater.

“So… I think what I’d like to see most of all is an acknowledgment of the many talented, creative, smart women who are so vital to the creative output of LA theater.  We should use International Women’s Day to celebrate!”

Lisa Wolpe in "Hamlet." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Lisa Wolpe, artistic director, Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company

“As a female theater artist who has seen significant growth in the world theater culture in my lifetime, I am happy to see so many more wonderfully intelligent female directors and actresses working on the stage now than there were when I was younger. I am hoping that the trend toward more diversity in casting will strengthen, and that the percentages of women of color working as directors and actors will steadily grow. I see many American theater organizations committing to positive change in this area, and I am seeing lots of smart women emerge ready and capable of making tremendous contributions to the fascinating stories coming out onstage.

“I just began my stint as Distinguished Artist at the Center for Collaborative Art at Whittier College with a lecture that considers the question: “Might a woman have written the Shakespeare plays?” I’ll be presenting material on Mary Sidney, from Robin P. Williams’ book Sweet Swan of Avon. Mary Sidney was one of the most influential writers and patrons of the arts in Elizabethan times, to whose sons the Shakespeare plays and sonnets are dedicated. It’s possible that she had a big hand in writing the plays, and the evidence that is coming out about her influence is fascinating.

“It’s wonderful to read about the marvelous female writers, politicians, artists, and leaders who came out of the English Renaissance. For me, it’s powerful to consider the great female cross-gender work done in theaters stretching across time and space from artists like Charlotte Cushman and Sarah Bernhardt to Japanese Takarazuka. Whether I am watching “Makers” on PBS or studying the uppity women of 500 years ago, I will always remember that my life in art would have been impossible if the feminists and humanists who came before us had not fought for the rights of women to be allowed to free their voices onstage and in the world.”

Barbara Beckley

Barbara Beckley, artistic director, Colony Theatre Company

“I don’t have a few paragraphs on this one — just two sentences.  In LA we have an abundance of brilliant actresses of a certain age, and it was my honor to work with three of them in the past year — Anne Gee Byrd, Bonnie Bailey Reed, and Mariette Hartley.  Younger actors can learn a lot by sharing the stage with experienced professional artists like these women, and I hope to see many more of them on LA stages in the coming year.”

caryn desai

caryn desai, artistic director/producer, International City Theatre

“What do I want to see in the coming year for theater?  I can’t say that what I want to see has as much to do with being a woman as an artist.  There are many women leading theater companies, and there are great women directors, writers and actors.  What we need is incentives to keep good artists working, maturing and thriving in their craft.  Artists need to be paid.  We all need to do a better job communicating with the people who can make a difference in supporting theater.  We must communicate with our subscribers and our audiences about the important role subscribers play in the development and future of this most human art form.  Without subscribers, theaters (and I am talking about theaters who are paying artists) cannot afford to take risks or venture into new unproven work.

“If every play had to be sold individually, non-profit theaters would be out of business or be forced to offer safer choices.  Subscribers provide a base of support for a season — not just one play.  And this makes it possible to include newer, lesser known and riskier choices.  If good playwrights are to be encouraged, their work needs to be produced.  Subscribers are instrumental in sustaining theater.  There should be a campaign to educate the public — at least the public who cares about the future of theater.”

Sabra Williams

Sabra Williams, director of outreach and The Prison Project at Actors’ Gang

“I would like to see arts in education become recognized as being as a crucial part of the development of children’s lives and success in the future, as math or English. I’d like to see the state start to support the transformative potential of arts in rehabilitation and re-entry — for the sake of the incarcerated and the society they are coming back to. For me, as an actress, I want to help create a world where what happens on stage is regarded as invaluable as a conduit for social change and is supported financially in order to become sustainable.”

Dale Franzen

Dale Franzen, director of Broad Stage

“I think women want to see relevant stories that move and illuminate. They can be from any culture, any time, as long as they tell a story that claims the heart and soul. We go to theater to be elevated, to laugh, to share and cry.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

Mary Chalon

Mary Chalon, actress, co-founder of Parsons Nose Productions, associate director and producer

“We now live in a time and place in this country where women can be heard, seen, appreciated, respected, and valued, not merely for their individual attractiveness and appeal to men, but also for their intelligence, wit, capabilities, hard work, and senses of humor. Our stories of growing up, finding passions, seeking careers, falling in love, winning, losing, marrying, mothering, aging, leading, deserve to be told by both talented female and male writers, in serious ways, humorous ways, and with wit, style, and substance.

“Our young girls in this country need to grow up listening to the voices and seeing the stories of real women, who lived before them, come alive in the theater. It’s our history, and time can fly by all too quickly. I remember seeing what a struggle the women’s liberation movement was in the 1960s and ’70s, and its results are now so taken for granted. We can so easily forget about past times that shape who we are, unless we are reminded. The theater can do that for us so beautifully. Moments in the early 21st century will be behind us soon too. Let’s tell these stories. To help that to happen let’s see more funding given to developing new and young playwrights who write for and about women.

“Think of Lorraine Hansberry and what she did for young African American men and women with A Raisin In The Sun, or William Shakespeare’s character, Rosalind in As You Like It, and of 20th century playwrights such as Beth Henley and Wendy Wasserstein. Let’s nurture our young writing talents consciously and tenderly, and give our newer female writers places to try out their work, as well as honor fine writing for women from long ago.”

Amy Ellenberger in FLASH Festival Play. Photo courtesy of Chalk Rep.

Amy Ellenberger, founding member, Chalk Repertory Theatre

“As a performer and founding member of a female-run theater company, I simply want to see women represented in proportion to our society.  That means more women in leadership positions, more female directors, more female playwrights being produced, and casts that feature a balance of men and women.  I would also like to see women valued economically for their work.  There are some fantastic female leaders and artists operating in small to mid-sized theater companies with small budgets and little to no compensation.  It would be great if some of the larger theater companies would invest in these women to help lead the theater community into the future. P.S. If you want to see some women in action, check out the show we just opened, Mommune.”

Janet Miller

Janet Miller, independent director and choreographer

“In theater, I always hope for more opportunity for women”¦Period. More women artistic directors, writers, directors, designers, stage managers, choreographers, actors. And especially for women in that “˜over 50’ category. We have much to offer, so just ask us to join the party. Actually, in many cases, we bring the party, and lots more besides.”


 
 

Jean Bruce Scott

Jean Bruce Scott, producing artistic director and co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry

“We need more stories with leading female roles about important timely topics, more women writers writing those stories, and more women producers and directors willing to tackle them. Theater, which gives audiences the opportunity to see more of the tougher issues on our stages, can start discussions which may just lead to change.”

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LA Stage Times

Ovation Nods to Rancho Cucamonga’s MainStreet

by Robin Migdol | October 8, 2012

Ted Barton with Royce Johnson, Jeremy Lelliott and Tracy Thomas in “A Wrinkle in Time”

Bring your kids to the 2012 Ovation Awards — they’ve finally got something to root for.

A producer of family-oriented fare, MainStreet Theatre Company has been nominated for four Ovation Awards. The company, funded and run through the city of Rancho Cucamonga at Lewis Family Playhouse, received four nominations in the large-theater categories. Three of the nods were for the group’s May staging of A Wrinkle in Time — production of a play, John Zalewski for sound design, and Brian Gale for lighting design. The fourth was for Tom Buderwitz‘s scenic design in a production in October 2011 of Honus and Me.

For a company whose audience is mostly made up of schoolchildren and their families, the recognition is especially gratifying. MainStreet producer Mireya (Murry) Hepner says her mission has always been to produce shows that are on par with adult theater, so to be honored alongside shows like Waiting for Godot is “huge.”

Robert Castro and Murry Hepner

“My big thing is integrity, and I always say that we do shows in a very sophisticated way. I didn’t want to come in and do children’s theater as what people think of as children’s theater,” Hepner says. “I wanted to do theater and it happens to be for young audiences.”

Rancho Cucamonga founded MainStreet Theatre seven years ago through its community services department, which provides the majority of the funds for productions (in addition to grants and ticket sales). Hepner is the only full-time staff member, and she and her stage crew are city employees.

All shows — three every year, each based on a popular work of classic or contemporary children’s literature and geared toward a different age group — perform at the 560-seat Lewis Family Playhouse, built in 2006 in the Victoria Gardens Cultural Center. During the week, school groups attend matinee performances.

One particular challenge of family theater, Hepner notes, is to maintain an audience when the shows are meant for children. Unlike adults, kids’ tastes change dramatically as they get older and most kids eventually outgrow children’s theater.

Jeremy Lelliott and Amanda Pajer

“We are constantly having to get new people in,” Hepner says. “My challenge is to pick a season where the little kids have something for them and the kids that are getting older still have something that’s for them. Kids that are five and kids that are 10 might not necessarily like the same thing.”

MainStreet also aims to dispel the notion that theater for kids is necessarily any less meaningful or artistic than shows for adults.

“I think that’s the hardest thing for me — to get people to realize that it’s not a place where you drop off your kids and it’s like a babysitting thing. It’s theater,” Hepner says.

Based on its recognition by the Ovation Awards, MainStreet’s production of the Madeleine L’Engle classic A Wrinkle in Time seems to have succeeded in doing just that. The adaptation is by John Glore, associate artistic director of South Coast Repertory, which produced it in 2010. The MainStreet version was directed by Robert Castro.

Castro’s vision for the set design elevated the material from a children’s book to an “opera”-like production, Hepner says. She even received letters from kids after they’d seen the show featuring detailed drawings of the nuances of the set.

Ted Barton with Tracy Thomas, Jeremy Lelliott, Royce Johnson

“I can’t even describe it, it was so spectacular, so beautiful. It was very clear; there were hardly any props. Just actors on stage, light and some projection and costumes and sound,” Hepner says. “It was clean, beautiful, sophisticated storytelling. I think it resonated with people because they didn’t expect that from a theater for young audiences.”

Castro says he read the book for the first time in order to prepare for the show (his fourth with MainStreet) and was inspired by L’Engle’s references to American culture from the ancient Mayans to the present day.

“It really reminded me of the holistic worldview that the ancient Americans had — social, political, economic, philosophical, spiritual, science,” Castro says. “What’s so beautiful about it is it comes from this womb, this world called A Wrinkle in Time, and at the center of it is that heartbeat, a kind of pure, relentless beating heart that is at the core of everything that Madeleine L’Engle does as an artist and as a person.”

The material posed unusual challenges for a stage production — how to portray time-traveling, or a show character’s transformation from old woman to centaur — but those challenges ultimately fueled the creative team’s determination to unpack some of the book’s complex themes. Castro says his and the other designers’ mission was to create a show that could be enjoyed on many different levels.

Royce Johnson and Tracy Thomas

“It could be a girl looking for her father. It could be a wild, crazy, Mad Hatter ride. Or it could be a deeply profound piece on how we see ourselves in in the world we live in, our own landscape, and maybe there’s other realities out there, other possibilities. Can you relate to those? Can you open your heart to them? Can you learn from them?” Castro says. “We were really interested in having multiple experiences occurring simultaneously, in terms of wherever someone could jump into this story.”

Castro will team up with MainStreet to direct two more plays in the next two seasons. First up is Aladdin’s Luck next January, followed by MainStreet’s first commissioned work, a collaboration with playwright Luis Alfaro, for the 2013-14 season. The play is set to be an adaptation of Aesop’s Fables told through a modern, Chicano perspective.

For now, MainStreet is deep into performances of Pinkalicious, staged by Sha Newman, a musical adaptation of the wildly popular children’s book that Hepner says is “completely the opposite” of A Wrinkle in Time. It tells the story of a young girl who turns pink after eating cupcakes and features tap dancing, puppets, blues and gospel music and bright colors for MainStreet’s youngest audience.

Hepner and Castro hope that their Ovation nominations inspire the theater community to take notice of the quality of work being produced at MainStreet and other family theater companies.

Emily Morris and the Company of “Pinkalicious”

“What I’m hoping is people better understand that children’s theater isn’t just that stepchild of theater proper — it’s maybe one of the most important aspects of the theater community, because it’s the beginnings and origins of theatergoers and perhaps more important, theater-makers,” Castro says. “If we’re all trying to create theater that could transform and shape the culture of America, it starts with the children. We should see those productions and the work for young audiences as vital and necessary to the progress and success of future generations.”

“I think that theater for young audiences or families sometimes has a stigma attached — as though it can’t be taken as seriously, or somehow isn’t of the same caliber as theater that is only for an adult audience,” Hepner says. “I hope that this recognition will dispel that stigma, and that all sorts of people who might have been reluctant to make the trip out to Rancho Cucamonga will be curious enough to come and see what we’re doing.”

And, couldn’t Pinkalicious win MainStreet’s next Ovation nomination?

“You never know,” Hepner says with a laugh. “You never know.”

Pinkalicious the Musical, MainStreet Theatre Company at Lewis Family Playhouse, 12505 Cultural Center Drive, Rancho Cucamonga, 91739. Sat 1 pm and 4 pm; Sun 1 pm. Through Oct. 21. www.lewisfamilyplayhouse.com. 909-477-2752.

***All production photos by Ed Krieger

Robin Migdol is a graduate student working toward her master’s degree in specialized journalism at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. In between seeing as many musicals as she can, she has also written for the California Aggie, the Stanford News Service and the Palo Alto Weekly, and worked in communications at the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance and Stanford Hospital & Clinics.

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LA Stage Times

MainStreet Theatre Provides Memories Children Cherish

by Ashley Steed | September 4, 2009

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, presented by MainStreet Theatre Company, opens Sept. 26; plays Sat. & Sun. matinees at 1 and 4 pm for general public; until Oct. 10. Tickets: $13.50-$16.50. Lewis Family Playhouse, Victoria Gardens Cultural Center, 12505 Cultural Center Dr., Rancho Cucamonga; 909.477.2752 or 877.858.8422 or lewisfamilyplayhouse.com

A first time theater experience, especially for a child, can have a profound effect. It can spark something from within and create a hunger for more. It can excite, engage and captivate like no other art form. Even with today’s abundance of entertainment — videogames, TV, movies and the internet — nothing compares to live theater. That is why children’s theater is so important.

MainStreet Theatre Company, owned and operated by the City of Rancho Cucamonga, is “determined to continue to give children, who are experiencing theatre for the first time, memories they will cherish their entire lives.”

Mireya Hepner

Mireya Hepner

MainStreet’s producer and only office staffer, Mireya Hepner, believes they are “the most well=kept secret in greater Los Angeles. We are a resident professional company at the Lewis Family Playhouse in Rancho Cucamonga,” adding, “and we are an Equity theater.”

The company started from scratch in 2006 and is going into its fourth season, beginning Sept. 26, with an adaptation by Jody Davidson of the beloved children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff. Directing will be John-David Keller, who directs shows for children at South Coast Repertory.

The season continues in 2010 with a musical adaptation of Cinderella with book by Phylis Ward Fox and music and lyrics by David Coleman (playing Jan. 30-Feb. 13), directed by Mark Rucker. An adaptation by Jonathon Bolt of the classic book Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson will finish the season (May 8-22).

“This is a special place,” says Hepner. “We produce high-quality productions with a terrific design team and Los Angeles actors. All our actors and designers are Los Angeles or Southern California based.” She adds, “And the best thing is everyone wants to come back, which is great!”

In fact, MainStreet manages to get very well-known directors and designers. “Most people who work here are not what you think of as children’s theater practitioners,” mentions Hepner. For example, Rucker (Miss Nelson is Missing, James and the Giant Peach and Cinderella) likes to come back and direct every season. Other notable artists include lighting designer Brian Gale, set and costume designer Victoria Petrovich, designer Christina Haatainen Jones, director Robert Castro and musical director/composer Deborah Wicks La Puma.

Ferdinand the Bull

Ferdinand the Bull

“My background is not in children’s theater,” admits Hepner, “and my aesthetic is very eclectic.” She laughs, “I’m the only one who would ask Robert Castro (who’s directed Dreams of Anne Frank and Ferdinand the Bull at MainStreet) to work for us.” Robert has a very artistic and sophisticated aesthetic so is not usually the type of director other people might think of when doing a show for children. Right after finishing Ferdinand, he went right into rehearsals with Peter Sellers on Othello. And I love that because children deserve the same type of artistry as adults do. Most of the directors I hire are not known as children’s theater directors.”

She has also started an artist-in-residence program. “David Wood (author of James and the Giant Peach) is currently a part of the program which started last year with a grant from the Rancho Cucamonga Community Foundation. David was the first one. He was in town for a week and did a series of events in conjunction with our production of his show, such as talk backs, school visits, library story time, an actor workshop and a lecture for college teachers and the theater community.  In the spring we continued the program by bringing flamenco workshops to local schools in conjunction with Ferdinand.

“We received another grant this year to continue the program. We’ll be using it for a variety of things at the Lewis Family Playhouse, not necessarily tied to MainStreet.”

Hepner is bent on making not just great children’s theater but great theater period. “We’re responsible for a lot of kids’ first experience in theater. It’s important to encourage them to give up video games and get out there.

“Also, we’re a part of a greater thing; not just the playhouse but also the community.” She adds, “The aesthetic can be anything from little kids to adults.” For example, for Anne Frank, seniors in the audience were in tears.

“We’ve started to get a loyal following; the community has responded really well. I always tell them this is their theater. And those who come, come back. Especially the schools, they book every show. The schools are very vocal about attending the theater. There are five different school districts and we serve mostly K-5. After school performances, the kids write to us about what a great experience it was.”

In terms of educating the children “we don’t push education, rather, we let the work speak for itself. They see it and get excited (about theater).” Hepner also writes study guides for all the plays and posts them on the theater’s website for teachers to use. “We also have two morning shows where we have talk backs with the kids.

“We are educating through art,” she proclaims. “For example, during Anne Frank, one kid raised his hand and asked, ‘Who is Hitler?’ And how do you answer that?”

Most theater organizations in LA are artist-owned-and-operated. Has it been difficult to be owned by the city? Hepner answers, “We may be owned and run by the city but it’s really our own community theater.” She elaborates, “Because we get a large majority of our funding from the city, we have to be mindful that we’re spending the money wisely. Yet, MainStreet does have artistic freedom. It’s great — I get to produce plays instead of writing grants all day long,” she exclaims.

“It’s nice because we get to do theater for the love of it and we pay union salaries. We believe in it enough to know people should get paid.”

From A Year with Frog and Toad

 A Year with Frog and Toad

Being a fairly young company, MainStreet is slowly building up a reputation. “We are, indeed, a part of the theater community. Thanks to the new Ovation voting system, we’re getting more voters out here. And they’re always glad they came.”

About the theater being in Rancho Cucamonga:  “It’s not as far as you think! MainStreet really is a jewel box.”

MainStreet offers children a first glimpse of what theater can be. “We are creating audiences of the future. It’s important to keep them coming back.” Part of MainStreet’s mission is to produce “plays that will make children laugh, think, dream and set free the power of their imagination!”

Hepner stresses “there’s no dumbing down of information for the children. The playbills are all very serious.

“I’m happy we’re able to tell stories. And because we don’t dumb down the productions, adults also really enjoy our shows.” It proves children’s theater isn’t just for kids at all. It’s also for the adults who want to get in touch with their inner child. After all, there’s nothing like being encapsulated and enthralled by the magic of theater.

Feature image of Heather Corwin, Nick Mongiardo-Cooper, Jesse Carrion, and Armando Ortega by Ed Krieger. Mireya Hepner image by Julie Haber. Story images by Ed Krieger.

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