Dramatic performances in the area encourage audience members to play a role in the production, too.
By Christine Fugate
Around the world, a new type of theater is emerging, knocking down the fourth wall, or the imaginary line that separates the world of the characters on stage from that of the audience members. This new genre enables actors and directors to communicate directly with the audience about the material, storyline and themes in a given play—typically in the form of a post-production discussion. Many credit Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theatrical director and writer with this innovative movement; in the 1970s, Boal developed Theatre of the Oppressed, an interactive form of theater that tasked audience members with acting out solutions to a play’s inherent social problems. Many Theatre of the Oppressed productions were politically motivated, with a focus on community issues and injustices, but they all had a similar effect: creating synergy between theater and real life.
Two local organizations, Bare Bones Theatre, led by playwright, dramaturg and Laguna resident Lojo Simon, and Theatre for a New Generation, spearheaded by Donna Inglima, director of youth theater, education and outreach at Laguna Playhouse, are following some of Boal’s guidelines by engaging their audiences as well. Simon and Inglima, each a storytelling tour-de-force, offer programs that encourage audience members to delve deeper into a production’s plot, social context and political or historical lesson. The result? An innovative, hands-on opportunity that promotes a better understanding of ourselves and each other through theater and its endless storytelling capabilities.
Simon got started as a playwright while working in La Jolla, Calif., as a journalist by day and a volunteer in her daughter’s school plays by night. Already immersed in telling other people’s stories through journalism, Simon became increasingly intrigued with playwriting. She took a weekend class in the subject through Idyllwild Arts Academy’s Summer Program and hasn’t looked back. Eventually, Simon entered the Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) program in playwriting at the University of Idaho. “My MFA studies catapulted me into a new area of writing,” Simon says. In 2012, she moved to Laguna Beach to begin working as a playwright and to join the artistic staff at Laguna Playhouse, where she served as literary manager and resident dramaturg.
A year ago, Simon decided to try out a new theater concept, one where the audience doesn’t just watch the show and leave, but actively participates in a discussion afterward. “I started Bare Bones Theatre as a way to bring a different theatrical experience to Laguna,” Simon shares. “I’m interested in presenting readings of mostly new work in combination with community conversation about the topics raised in the piece.”
Simon’s process begins with selecting a play and then casting from a core group of actors she has worked with over the years, to whom she sends scripts by email. From there, the rehearsal schedule is kept to a bare minimum: There is only one afternoon rehearsal prior to a show. No sets, lights or costumes are used—only music stands that hold the actors’ scripts, which keeps the audience’s focus on the dialogue at hand. After the performance, a professional facilitator, preselected by Simon, leads a discussion related to the material in the play.
Of course, such an innovative form of theater necessitates an out-of-the-box venue. Before the initial production, Simon contacted artist and friend Sandra Jones Campbell about hosting the first show in her Laguna Beach art studio. “Sandra’s artistic process lives and breathes in that space and that’s the energy I want to create in the evening of Bare Bones Theatre.”
Bare Bones Beginnings
“Joy V’ey,” a comedy about two grandmothers who vie for the title of Best Grandmother during the Christmas and Hanukkah season, was the very first Bare Bones Theatre production. Co-authored by Simon and fellow playwright Anita Yellin Simons, the storyline deals with issues such as child-rearing, family dynamics and how to navigate an interfaith holiday season. Simon asked Orange County resident Rabbi-Cantor Marcia Tilchin to lead a post-show discussion on interfaith families following the performance. “The most memorable moment for me was that no one wanted to go home,” Simon recalls. “I had anticipated that we would talk for 15 minutes. It was 45 minutes later and people were completely engaged. Everyone had something to say. It was fantastic.”
Shortly thereafter, Simon wanted to bring the theme of grief and loss to the interactive stage. She selected Jonathan Fitts’ “White or the Muskox Play,” a drama that follows the journey of a grieving daughter who travels to Alaska to scatter the ashes of her father. Dr. Andrea Deerheart, founder of The HeartWay, an organization that aids people during life transitions, led the discussion. “Andrea calls herself a death doula and is not afraid to talk about death. In fact, she encourages people to talk about it,” Simon shares. The performance and discussion led to exactly what Simon wanted Bare Bones Theatre to accomplish: “The event gave people an opportunity to talk about something that is difficult. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?”
And, more recently, Simon brought “Bakersfield Mist,” written by Stephen Sachs, which tells the story of a bartender who is convinced that her thrift store purchase is actually a Jackson Pollock art piece, to the stage. The post-performance discussion was led by Jonathan Burke, president of the Laguna College of Art & Design. And “Bakersfield Mist” was just one of six shows that Simon will have put on this year, with three in the spring and three in the fall—some of which took place at Laguna Playhouse. The final show for 2016, “The Good Father,” written by Christian O’Reilly about two strangers whose lives change after they meet at a New Year’s party, will take place at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 14, at Sandra Jones Campbell Studio.
Meanwhile, at Laguna Playhouse, teenagers have a similar opportunity to engage with theater in new ways under Inglima’s leadership. In 1998, Inglima joined the playhouse and began working with former youth theater director Joe Lauderdale to expand its offerings and opportunities for young people. Notably, in 2001, Inglima and Lauderdale began to discuss how they could reach youth that were not part of Laguna Playhouse’s programs. They decided to start a new series of performances specifically geared toward teenage audiences. Soon after, the production of “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank,” by James Still, was a hit and Theatre for a New Generation (TNG), an offshoot of Laguna Playhouse’s Youth Theatre programming, was born.
Since then, TNG, which is today an annual series produced by Inglima, offering four to six showings of a contemporary or historical play over a single spring weekend, has presented countless productions designed for students, educators and parents. Many of the shows pertain to mature historical or cultural events, such as the Holocaust, and the goal is to help teens become more comfortable with difficult or complicated material by allowing them to engage with it differently than they would at home or at school.
In “Number the Stars,” for example, a play based on the book by Lois Lowry, Laguna Beach resident Jill Donello’s son and Laguna Playhouse Youth Conservatory student, Jake Donello, played the role of a Danish resistance member during World War II. The experience impacted the teen on an emotional and intellectual level. “Although his individual role was small, the preparation provided him with a depth of understanding of history and personal stories of those who lived through the Holocaust,” Jill Donello shares. “People often don’t see the depth of empathy that children develop when taking on different roles and being surrounded by others doing the same.”
The Bigger Picture
In addition to examining significant historical happenings, the TNG series also explores relevant topics such as sexual identity, teen pregnancy, alcohol, drugs and bullying. Productions such as “Give a Boy a Gun,” by Todd Strasser and adopted by Inglima, and “The Wrestling Season,” by Laurie Brooks, are among those shows organized by Inglima over the years, and that examined issues of gun violence and sexuality, respectively. And such heavy topics require a subsequent open dialogue to help teens navigate the issues at hand; after each production, similar to the Bare Bones Theatre’s program, a discussion takes place with a carefully chosen local expert.
Following the performance of “Eat (It’s Not about Food),” by Linda Daugherty about eating disorders, for example, Inglima brought in Dr. Tom Bent, a family doctor and chief operating officer of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. Bent moderated a discussion between Nicole Bourquin, founder and executive director of the Eating Disorder Foundation of Orange County and a licensed marriage and family therapist, and the audience. “There’s a lot of silence around eating disorders. It’s about being an advocate,” shares Inglima, who recalls the very powerful impact that the play and discussion had on teenage audience members. And for Inglima, some of that impact is a result of the teenage actors themselves; choosing teens to play the roles in a given play is just as important as selecting experts when it comes to the success of a production. “For a child or teen coming and seeing themselves reflected in the story gives the message … [of] ‘I could … [get through] that,’ ” she says.
Coming spring 2017 is “Hana’s Suitcase,” by Emil Sher and based on the book by Karen Levine. The book and play recount the true story of a Japanese educator and director of the Tokyo Holocaust Center, who receives a suitcase from Auschwitz in 2000 marked with the name Hana Brady. As the play unfolds, the educator seeks to uncover information about Hana and her family, whose Czech town was invaded by the Nazis.
Regarding the post-show discussion, Inglima is in touch with Brady’s niece, Lara Brady, who lives in Canada now. She is hoping, with the help of some fundraising efforts, that Lara and her father, George Brady, can travel to Laguna Beach to spend time with the cast and audience and partake in the May 19-21 production. “It’s about reaching beyond your own borders and finding a commonality. We are part of a bigger picture,” Inglima says. “The actors and the audience step into history and experience the human condition at the most basic level.”
And that is a similar goal at Bare Bones Theatre, which also aims to bring people together. “I’m grateful that the community in Laguna Beach is open to a variety of theatrical experiences and that they are willing to engage in honest conversation about things that matter,” Simon adds. “I’m interested in using theater as a vehicle for creating community.”
BARE BONES THEATRE
For details about upcoming shows, tickets or to join the Bare Bones Theatre mailing list, send an email to BareBonesRSVP@gmail.com
THEATRE FOR A NEW GENERATION
606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, CA 92651, 949-497-2787, LagunaPlayhouse.com