It is early on a Sunday morning when Marshall Pailet arrives at Chance Theater, his new home as this year’s resident playwright. The Santa Ana winds have swept out the cold, and the business park in Anaheim Hills where Chance is located is already warming up. A set piece — a tall installation of a cave — looms over Pailet as he discusses his journey to the current production of Triassic Parq, which he co-wrote and is directing for Chance.
Though Pailet is young — he graduated from Yale just four years ago — he already has a lifetime of experience in theater. He got his start acting in a local theater in Washington DC and made the transition to Broadway while still a child. He has been living in New York since then.
Growing up, Pailet attended performing arts schools, where he was able to explore many theatrical avenues. In middle school, having already appeared in The Sound of Music on Broadway, he began studying ballet. “Most of the students there were ballet dancers. They were training at the School of American Ballet. I started dancing at the school and I really fell in love with the art form,” he recalls.
While continuing his pursuit of ballet and acting into high school, Pailet also tried his hand at writing. His father helped get him started. “My dad is a storyteller. We used to tell each other stories all the time,” he says. Because Pailet was in musical theater, they focused their efforts on creating a musical.
“We had an idea to write a musical about a child’s relationship with his imaginary best friend, the Loch Ness monster. It was kind of our bonding thing,” he explains. “Then one day I wrote a melody and he wrote the lyrics to it, and then he wrote a scene and I wrote another melody,” he says of the process. When he was just 14, Loch Ness was accepted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers’ (ASCAP) workshop for emerging composers and songwriters. “They didn’t treat me like I was 14; they criticized me like I was an adult,” he recalls.
At the end of high school, Pailet came to a crossroads. He felt he had to choose between a career in ballet or going to college. The impact ballet had on his body was a big part of the decision, he explains. “I was having more injuries than I would have liked. I didn’t see a very long career for myself.” Pailet took the path to college instead, attending Yale University.
Originally, he attended the Ivy League university to study music composition, but his plans changed when he became frustrated with the program, which he felt was limiting his work. “I thought they were telling me to compose like Beethoven and Bach. What they were really telling me was, we want you to understand how Beethoven and Bach composed so that you can do your own thing. But I didn’t really get that at the time,” he explains. Dissatisfied, he switched his major to intellectual history. “I fell in love with it. It just did good things to my brain,” he says of the subject. It has also proven beneficial to his writing. “A lot of it really stays with me and influences the stuff I work on,” he adds.
After college, Pailet decided he was not suited to the life of an actor and instead focused on writing and directing. “Acting is so much more than being onstage and creating a character. It’s a lifestyle. It’s about auditioning and rejection. It takes someone who has to do it and can’t not do it, like the way that I feel about writing.”
It didn’t take long for Pailet to find some success. In 2010, fresh out of college, he debuted two original musicals in major fringe festivals. He collaborated with friend Drew Fornorola to write Super Claudio Bros., a spoof of the immensely popular Super Mario Bros. Nintendo game series. Charlie Fink, founder and co-artistic director of the New Musical Foundation, produced the premiere for the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington DC. Pailet also directed. The show won best musical honors at the festival.
The same summer, Pailet debuted Jurassic Parq, a musical he co-wrote alongside friends Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo, at the New York Fringe Festival. It was the first version of what is now Triassic Parq. As Pailet begins talking about the show, the soft chuckling that peppers his conversation grows more frequent. “The point of the Fringe show was just to have fun with friends. The germ of the idea was that it would be funny to have actors acting like dinosaurs and having people problems, but holding their arms like this.” Pailet bends his elbows close to his chest, mimicking the short arms of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. He stops and laughs. “That was really as far as it went.”
The musical beat its creators’ expectations when it took the festival prize for best musical. “The response was not what we were expecting. People were telling us how funny and profound it was, and it wasn’t really as funny and profound as they said. But we realized that if we executed it really well, it could be.”
Re-creating the Parq
For the past two years, Pailet, Norbitz, and Wargo have been revising their unexpected hit. In July 2012, they premiered a revamped revision, retitled Triassic Parq, at New York’s SoHo Playhouse. Reviews were mixed, but they included praise from Eric Grode in The New York Times as well as David Cote in Time Out New York. Woody Harrelson even came to see it. Pailet says the show premiered heavily revised. “We did a lot of work between the Fringe and the SoHo production to the point where it was almost unrecognizable. We’ve done even more work from then to now. Maybe 30 per cent of the show is rewritten entirely.”
The basic premise is the same. “On the surface level it’s a parody of Jurassic Park from the perspective of the dinosaurs. But for me, it’s the human story of a young girl.” As Pailet puts it, the plot is more than a little “absurd.” In the film Jurassic Park, scientists genetically engineer a group of cloned dinosaurs to be solely female. But their plans for an amusement park go awry when some dinosaurs begin mutating into males, resulting in destruction and mayhem. (Fans who want a refresher can catch the IMAX 3D re-release of Jurassic Park in theaters for one week starting April 5.)
So what is all that like from the musical perspective of the dinos? “We have a group of female dinosaurs, and one of them grows a dick, and I guess chaos ensues.” Pailet laughs at his wording. “But at its core it’s a story about coming into oneself.”
Bundled up in the absurdity are crises which Pailet says are not unlike issues people deal with day to day. “It’s about a young girl coming to terms with what it means to be an adult, to be a sexual being and a religious being, and to exist in a world where you feel you don’t quite belong.” The revamped version of the show may surprise some with what Pailet says is “a very human story…All of these characters are at points of existential crises. When the show starts, they know who they are and what defines them. Whatever defines them is taken away very early on, and they have to struggle to rediscover their identity.”
The co-writer and director is fully aware of what people think when they first hear about the musical. “So much of the show is managing and defying audience expectations. When people hear there is a parody musical of Jurassic Park, they have a very specific set of expectations. They think it will be campy, there will be silly costumes, and it will be empty mindless entertainment. Which is not what our show is,” he reflects. He is fine with this perspective, as long as it changes by the time the audience walks back out the door. “If we can get them to enter laughing and exit thinking and feeling, then I think we’ve done our jobs.”
A piece of Joe Holbrook’s set is aimed at achieving this goal. Getting up from his seat, Pailet goes over to a tall metal pole sticking up about 10 feet off the ground. “What’s fun for me is when the audience walks in, we’re going to have this fence,” he says. He pulls a piece off the pole and walks it across the room, attaching it to another pole at the other end. Metal wiring reminiscent of the steel cable fences in Jurassic Park is now strung between the poles.
“The audience walks in and is on the human side of the fence,” he says, explaining the point is to make the audience initially seem like spectators. He then walks the wiring back across the room, opening up the space again. “Right when the show starts, we take the fence down, and the audience realizes the fence is behind them.” He gestures to the wall behind the seating area, which has identical wiring attached to it. “The idea is that the audience is on the wrong side of the fence.”
This set piece is entirely new to the production, as is nearly everything else. “All the actors, the whole production team — it’s all new,” Pailet confirms. “We’re not remounting the New York production. We’re creating a production that is uniquely Orange County and is uniquely Chance.” Kelly Todd, a resident artist at Chance Theater, has provided all-new choreography. “Kelly has come up with some beautiful work and has the actors moving in ways they’ve never moved before in previous productions,” he says.
He is also quite content with his cast. “They each bring something unique to the roles,” he says of his six-person cast. “Kellie (Spill) and Micaela (Martinez), who play our T-Rex girls, have made me completely re-envision who those characters are. Keaton (Williams), who is our lead, is doing a wonderful job, and his voice is like silk. It’s a real sexy voice,” he says with a laugh. As for the rest of the cast, “They’re doing a wonderful job.”
As this year’s resident playwright at Chance, Pailet will workshop two new musicals with the company. “I’ll get to see them up and with actors singing the words, which is a lot more helpful than what happens in my brain,” he says. “It’s a luxury most writers don’t get, and I am so excited for it.” Most likely to get the workshop treatment are another former Capital Fringe Festival musical, Who’s Your Baghdaddy, or How I Started the Iraq War, as well as the first musical he wrote as a kid with his father, Loch Ness. He anticipates one will show in the summer and another in the fall. This means commuting out from New York, but Pailet is happy to do it. “I love everything except for the driving,” he says of Southern California.
Outside of his work at Chance, Pailet is teaming up with the New Musical Foundation for another new piece, which “is still in its infancy,” he says. Yet another musical in the works is Funk Pond. When asked about it, the writer covers his face for a moment and laughs. “It’s about fish,” he says, testing the words as though he’s not even sure if they’re viable. “Fish who are in a funk band.” The giggles win out, but he finishes by saying it will be a fun show.
Also in the works is a project Pailet has to keep mostly mum on due to contractual obligations. He has been working on an undisclosed project with DreamWorks, along with his former collaborator on Super Claudio Bros, Drew Fornorola. “They’ve been great to me,” he says of the company. “They’re very supportive.” Apparently, the company is working on expanding into theater. Pailet will not say if this is what he is working on, but he does say he expects the project to be finalized this year.
While he calls New York home, chances are Southern California audiences may start to develop a familiarity with Pailet as his sets down roots here with his residency at Chance, starting with the self-proclaimed absurd yet human musical parody, Triassic Parq.
Triassic Parq. Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, 92807. Opens Friday. Wed-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Feb. 24. Tickets: $25-45. www.chancetheater.com. 714-777-3033.
***All Triassic Parq: The Musical production photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio