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Biblical Times, a Musical 'Prelude' and More at the Pacific Playwrights Festival

The Costa Mesa company’s 26th showcase unveils two standalone productions of new shows, plus a quintet of staged readings. 


"Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical" first appeared as a staged reading in 2019 at the Pacific Playwrights Festival. This year, it anchors the festival as a full production. From left, Caroline Pernick, Bella Hicks, DeAnne Stewart, Hannah Corneau and Karen Ziemba. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Matt Gush
 

If new plays are indeed the life blood of theater companies, then it stands to reason that any such company dedicated to developing and producing new scripts is at the forefront of American theater.

 

Count South Coast Repertory as among the most prominent in that regard.

 

SCR has long championed nurturing the works of both new and established playwrights, and for more than a quarter century, its Pacific Playwrights Festival, colloquially known as PPF, has provided what amounts to a more than month-long celebration of new plays.

 

Endeavors like this require a firm commitment of resources, not just of capital but of time and manpower. So it should come as no surprise that just one company alongside SCR – Chance Theater – has a program devoted to new plays.

 

The Festival – overall, and for 2024

 

Anchoring this year’s PPF, the 26th overall, are two world premieres: On the Segerstrom Stage, “Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical,” book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messé, and lyrics by Sean Hartley and Messé; and, on the Julianne Argyros Stage, “Galilee, 34” by Eleanor Burgess. The two spaces and the Nicholas Studio will also host staged readings of five new plays.


Andy Knight is co-director of Pacific Playwrights Festival and director of TheLab@SCR, the theater company’s play development initiative. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory

Andy Knight, co-director of PPF and director of TheLab@SCR, the company’s play development initiative, said it’s “very important for us to have a new play ethos built into the fabric of our programming. It represents the depth of what a theater can be, where a theater is and what’s next.”

 

Knight calls PPF “a development mechanism but also a celebration of new works. It’s a way for a whole team – writers, directors, designers – to share that process with audiences.”

 

He said the process “also helps us understand the needs the plays have as we develop them further. Moving onto a production, we already have a leg up (regarding) some of the very specific needs this play has and a handle on aspects the team is either sure of or doesn’t know.”

 

Knight characterizes this year’s festival as “expansive. It really does feel pretty expansive from a holistic sense of the word where the plays themselves have a sense of scope in the writing but also offer a wide range of experiences.”

 

While PPF, Knight said, is consistently similar, each year “its identity changes a little each year based on the plays we’re presenting.”

 

In SCR’s PPF press release, Knight was quoted as saying that this year’s playwrights appear to be “setting aside the caution that’s been ever-present in our lives throughout the past few years, and showing it’s possible to aspire again.”

 

Asked by Culture OC to elaborate, Knight said all seven of this year’s playwrights appear to be “aspiring … to challenge themselves and audiences and theater companies to essentially make great art that doesn’t compromise – that says things that it needs to and wrestles with things, as opposed to only introducing something, and that aspires to look at things from all different perspectives and angles.”


Knight finds it noteworthy that both anchor plays, “Prelude” and “Galilee,” “came through the development of the festival” as staged readings: “Prelude” as a “concert reading” (script plus music) in 2019, “Galilee” a year ago.


“It’s always exciting to introduce a play to our audiences as a reading and then have them come back, whether the following year or two or, as with ‘Prelude,’ five years and have them see it in three dimensions,” Knight said. “Has it changed and grown? Does it look as it did when they pictured it in their mind’s eye?”


Jonathan Gillard Daly and Hannah Corneau in South Coast Repertory's 2024 world premiere of "Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical" which anchors this season's Pacific Playwrights Festival. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Matt Gush

Musical ‘Prelude’ nearly a decade in the making

 

In 2015, lyricist Sean Hartley first approached Craig Lucas with the concept of adapting “Prelude to a Kiss” into a Broadway musical. It has taken nearly a decade for the upcoming new production to reach SCR’s stage.

 

Keys to its development, Knight noted, are its start at SCR (in 1988), and SCR’s “long relationship with Lucas, one of the luminaries of modern American theater, and such an incredibly smart, perceptive, funny, theatrical writer.”

 

Knight said while the new musical “fundamentally follows a similar plot” to the original, Lucas, Hartley and composer-lyricist Daniel Messé “have written a modern piece – a ‘Prelude’ for 2024.”

 

SCR artistic director David Ivers said “what’s fantastic or surprising about” the new show, which he’s directing, “is that the source material is fantastic: a Tony-nominated play by one of our country’s most important playwrights and book writers.”


“The question is,” Ivers said, “how do you get out of its way and also functionally lose like 60% of it so you have a musical?” Ivers said his job as director “is to ask that question and to make sure Craig, Dan and Sean’s writing is reflected in the way they’re hoping the musical version of ‘Prelude’ materializes.”

 

“One of the gifts to us,” he said, “has been Craig Lucas. I’ve gotten to know him as the most brilliant, voracious detective of his own play, willing to try to find any solution to how the writing can best serve the story. That’s the highest compliment I can give any writer.”

  

To read Culture OC’s feature story on SCR’s “Prelude to a Kiss: The Musical,” click here.



The cast of "Galilee, 34." From left, back row: Benjamin Peltesen, Eric Berryman, Jeremy Rabb, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Cruz; front row: Teresa Avia Lim, Raviv Ullman and Sharon Omi. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Nicholas Pilapil
‘Galilee, 34’ dissects the earliest Christians

“Galilee, 34,” Knight said, “looks at Jesus’s disciples in the year 34 Common Era, a year after his death, as they try to figure out the path forward. Will his message be preserved or corrupted? Are they spreading his message in his name or are they starting a new religion?”

 

Knight calls the script “expertly researched, incredibly dynamic and incredibly funny” and said “the reason the play is so effective is that Eleanor is taking very famous historical and liturgical figures and writing them as human beings who are deeply flawed.”


Burgess’s “really smart writing,” Knight noted, “brings humanity to this type of story, making it incredibly effective. You forget you’re watching people who’ve been deified. They really are human beings trying to navigate the world during an extremely tumultuous time.”

 

Knight said “from the first time we read it in late 2022, we knew collectively as a group that we had to have it in PPF and that it was too special not to share with our audiences.” The script is, he said, “a good example of how fast you can develop” a new play from staged reading (the 2023 PPF) and this month’s full production.


Playwright Burgess told Culture OC the play “has been brewing in my soul for a very long time – my whole life, really. My family background is part Catholic, part Jewish, and I spent my childhood hearing about both traditions.”

 

Burgess said as a history major in college, she “was totally fascinated with these stories and this history and the way it evolved, what it has meant over time and the disagreements people have had over it.” Even that far back, she said she knew she was “always going to write a play about” the ancient world in the aftermath of the death of Christ.

 

The high school history teacher turned playwright said “the proximate cause for writing this actual play is when I became a mom” (in 2019). “I was fascinated with the Virgin Mary, thinking a lot about that she was a mom, not a fresco, a statue, or a cloud in the sky, but a mom with a real child she held when he was a real tiny baby.”

 

Those musings, she said, “kind of lit this fire” within her that those surrounding Christ “were all real people capable of doubt, jealousy, disagreements, grief and uncertainty. So that was the trigger.”

 

Prolific playwright Eleanor Burgess devoted more time than usual – roughly three years – to researching and writing “Galilee, 34,” which looks at those closest to Jesus in the tumultuous aftermath of his death and examines their thoughts, feelings and motives. Photo courtesy of Eleanor Burgess

Burgess said she asked herself, “What if we take this sort of holy, sanctified history and make it flesh-and-blood history that feels like you could be sitting down at a family dinner table – but because of who this family is, its relationships and disagreements have global and historical stakes.”

 

Of the 10 principal characters, the playwright notes that “five are in every scene and trace their arc from scene to scene”: Miriam, the mother of Yeshua (Jesus), Yacob (Christ’s younger brother), Miri (Mary Magdalene), Shimon (Simon Peter) and Saul (St. Paul of Tarsus).


Burgess said she “started to actually write pages in spring 2019.” Whereas she generally “usually works quickly,” completing a new play “in a couple of months,” “Galilee” wasn’t typical.

 

“This one took a year for the first draft because it has so much history and context and a lot of characters who all have to have histories and back-stories and an arc.”

 

A “year of slow and steady reading” during which Burgess wrote while “simultaneously” conducting “a lot of research” yielded a first draft in 2020. A table reading in 2021 and a closed reading in 2022 each triggered “substantial changes.”

 

Burgess said since last spring’s PPF reading, she has made “a ton of changes” to the script, including “one big rewrite directly after PPF.” More revisions have been made more recently during rehearsals as Burgess welcomed input from director Davis McCallum, dramaturg Charles Haugland, and comments and “really smart questions” from cast members in a process she terms “collective discovery.”


Burgess told Culture “the most challenging thing” about realizing her ideas was “letting go of the research and not making a documentary – stepping away from it and saying ‘It’s a story about characters, and we have to be on that journey with them.’ It’s not a documentary and it’s not a research paper. It has to feel alive and real.”


Both Burgess and director McCallum address the storytelling style of “Galilee, 34,” wherein the characters are aware that they’re telling a story and playing to an audience.


Burgess said the play “is about stories that didn’t get told. Except for Saul, none got to write a gospel – so there’s an element of the characters wanting to set the record straight. ‘I didn’t get to tell it then but I get to tell it here and now to you here in Costa Mesa. No one was ready to hear this in the year 34, or in 1034, but maybe in 2024 they’re ready to hear these things I have to say.’”


McCallum, who like Burgess is working with SCR for the first time, said upon reading the script, his “first response” was “it’s a family play despite the fact that it’s set in a particular historical moment. The characters and family relationships are recognizable and relatable and human. Second, it’s really funny. The humor leapt off the page.”


Davis McCallum, in his first time directing a play at SCR, is at the helm of “Galilee, 34.” Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory

McCallum said he “grew up in a religious background and responded to the questions of faith that circulate in the play and events that happen, which have repercussions for the future of Judaism and the invention of Christianity. I found that constellation of ideas exciting.”


The director draws our attention to “a really key line in the play where a character says to the audience ‘None of this happened, but all of it is true.’ That contradiction is revealing for what the style of play is. It’s not striving for historical accuracy, but telling a story that reveals the truth about these characters and their relationships.”

 

McCallum said he has no doubt SCR’s audiences will be struck by the fact that the characters in “Galilee” don’t sound like those we’re used to hearing in various plays or films drawn from the same period.


The director said Burgess, as a playwright, “has a strong voice” and qualities of “intellectual brilliance, a sense of humor and warmth” McCallum said Burgess has injected into the play and those who populate it.

 

“It’s just very funny,” McCallum said. “The No. 1 thing is that these people don’t talk like they’re in a Bible story. They’re more like a family sitting around the dinner table discussing the legacy of a person who’s no longer with them. Characters go in and out of dialogue and directly address the audience. Occasionally they use colorful, contemporary, slightly profane language.”


Staged readings help nascent new plays find their footing

As in years past, this year’s PPF offers staged readings of five all-new plays. On the program this year are “You Are Cordially Invited to the End of the World!” by Keiko Green, “Meeting for Worship” by Ana Nogueira, “The Brothers Play” by Arya Shahi, “An Oxford Man” by Else Went, and “Fremont Ave” by Reggie D. White.

 

Knight noted that not just Lucas and Burgess “are playwrights we’ve worked with here through PPF”; Nogueira’s play “Which Way to the Stage?” was a 2019 staged reading. With 19 actors, her “Meeting for Worship” is, Knight said, “the largest PPF reading we’ve ever done” and a play that “makes sense dramaturgically.”


Shahi’s “The Brothers Play,” Knight said, uses just five characters to trace “the intimate, intricate relationships within a family.” White’s “Fremont Ave” is, Knight relates, “almost epic in scope in charting a family’s experiences across generations.”

 

Green’s “You Are Cordially Invited…” is, according to Knight, “a play that’s looking at using theater as creating time to tell a story, but also for theater to be an event in itself.”

 

Knight said Went’s “An Oxford Man” depicts the coming of age of transgender pioneer Lawrence Michael Dillon, noting, “It’s not a bio play in the traditional sense. It riffs, in an imaginative way that takes liberties with reality, on the life of” the British doctor, theologian and author.


While discussing “Galilee, 34,” director McCallum outlined a philosophy that accurately reflects the process undertaken by SCR, one new play to the next, one year to the next.


“When you direct the world premiere of a new play, I think you have an incredible responsibility to try to realize that playwright’s vision for how this play will meet the world for the first time.”


2024 Pacific Playwrights Festival

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa


When:

  • “Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical” April 17-May 4

  • “Galilee, 34,” April 21-May 12.

  • Staged readings: May 3-5: 1, 4 and 8 p.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Sunday


Admission:

  • “Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical”: $34-$112

  • “Galilee, 34”: $29-$105

  • Readings: $20 (individual readings) to $85 (all five plays)

  • May 5 panel discussion with playwrights: free of charge


Contact: 714-708-5555, scr.org




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