The Santa Ana winds are blowing through Orange County when playwright Carla Ching and director Bart DeLorenzo meet at South Coast Repertory before Fast Company has its first preview. An hour before show time, people are already gathered outside the venue, enjoying the blue skies while they wait for the house doors to open. Ching arrives first, taking a seat in a conference room painted gold for the theater’s 50th anniversary, to talk about her play.
Ching is no stranger to the Santa Ana winds. She’s originally an LA native, but Ching’s theater career began in New York, where she had moved to attend college for film and English. She only “stumbled” into theater, as she puts it, after looking for a sense of community and finding it in Peeling, a pan-Asian performance collective in New York City.
She went on to hone her playwriting skills through various groups and initiatives, such as The Women’s Project Lab (2008-10) and the Lark Play Development Center Meeting of the Minds (2011-12). She has had various fellowships, and she’s a member of New Dramatists and Ma-Yi Theatre Company’s Writers Lab, as well as former artistic director of the Second Generation (2g) theater in New York. Ching’s other plays include TBA, The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness, Dirty, Big Blind/Little Blind and The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up.
Writing Fast Company
The idea for Fast Company originally came to Ching after she attended a think tank put on by the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project — an initiative that provides seed grants for new plays that explore concepts of science and technology.
Soon after that event, Ching was struck by the idea of game theory — the study of strategic decision-making that can help one anticipate another person’s actions — and she was awarded a commission by the project in 2011 to develop a play on the subject. “I started doing some research and I thought, this is fascinating — the idea that you could predict how somebody is going to act, and then act accordingly. That was the first kernel,” Ching says of creating Fast Company.
“Then I started throwing a lot of other stuff against the wall. Cons came up for me. Magic. The idea of misdirection and having somebody look over here and having something happen over here,” she says. The combined inspiration of game theory and cons led to the idea of centering the play on a heist.
As groundwork for the play developed, the next questions became: what would be stolen, and who would steal it? Cue a real-life news story about Nicolas Cage’s stolen Action Comics No. 1 comic book, which sold for more than $2 million around the time Ching was developing the play. “I thought, well that would be a fun thing to include — this super-rare comic book that had had sort of a famous legacy to it,” she says.
Ching then had the “what” (the comic) and “how” (a heist based in game theory) questions of the play worked out. When it came to the “who,” she drew inspiration from her favorite flick, The Royal Tenenbaums, about a dysfunctional family in which every member has a unique talent. Ching’s fictional family is made up of a crew of grifters, led by their mother, Mable.
In the play, one member of the family cons another out of a big score. “I thought it might be an interesting way to get at the issues of the crazy things that we do to each other in family with the lens of a caper film or heist,” she explains of her decision to make the crime crew a family.
The product of the Ensemble/Sloan commission was a reading of the play at the First Light Festival of plays, where commissioned plays are presented. The reading didn’t go as well as Ching might have hoped. “I had a really tough reading,” she recalls. At that point, the play turned out to be too dialogue-heavy and theory-laden. “I never had had a reading like that before, where my heart stopped . . . It was too heavy in every way,” she says.
She set out to lighten up the play, both by making the idea of game theory more accessible and by introducing comedy. “I never thought of myself as a comedy writer, but I realized I had to figure out how to give the play some buoyancy by exploring those aspects of it,” she explains. “I usually have to end up going to what is the most screwed-up thing that can happen or what is the most awful thing that people could say, and I find humor in that.”
The result of rewrites and workshopping the play through SCR’s Pacific Playwrights Festival this year led to the current fully staged production that Ching says has changed “quite a lot” since the play’s inception. The lead actress, Jackie Chung, has been with the play since its first workshop, Ching says, “so if you asked her, she would tell you how very much this play has changed over time.”
Ching is not a playwright to step into the wings when it comes time to mount a production. “I tend to like to be closely involved,” she says. “I have been here through all of tech, and will be here through previews too. So I am kind of a hands-on playwright.” She says she has “a very collaborative relationship” with director DeLorenzo.
DeLorenzo, founder of the Evidence Room theater company, has a long list of directing credentials, including the recent production of Shar White’s Annapurna starring Megan Mullally (of Will and Grace fame) and Nick Offerman (known for TV show Parks and Recreation) this past spring and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline at A Noise Within in 2012. At South Coast, he has directed Shipwrecked!, Doctor Cerberus and Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Last year, he was given the Alan Schneider Director Award by Theatre Communications Group.
As if his ears are burning, DeLorenzo enters the room shortly thereafter, having just come back from overseeing a few last-minute things before the first performance. “Carla has been a rare collaborator on this project. I’ll get mushy if I talk more about it,” he says. “To be honest, I have worked with a lot of new plays, but I have never had a playwright at as many rehearsals and as involved. Luckily, we get on, and we’re sort of on the same page with almost everything,” he adds.
“She is a very kind of spontaneous re-writer and addresser of issues,” DeLorenzo continues, explaining that Ching doesn’t hesitate to speak up when something isn’t working, and at times makes changes on the spot.
Working with playwrights on new plays is something DeLorenzo is familiar with as a director. Most recently, he directed the premiere of Donald Margulies’ play Coney Island Christmas 2012 at the Geffen Playhouse in winter 2012. Working with new plays, he says, is exciting “because you help define the world of the thing.” He points out, though, that he is cautious not to take away from the vision of the playwright. Ching says that finding this quality in a director is “super-rare.”
One thing they both agree on is that the play needs to move quickly. DeLorenzo’s solution was to implement automation and video components. “As you know, in video, you can create a world in a moment,” he remarks, whereas traditional methods of moving scenery — such as using stage hands to move set pieces — can hinder the feeling of a fast-paced plot. Video projections make for easy scenery changes, as do set pieces moved by machinery. “We use every theatrical trick in the book,” he says.
During the preview, the set does indeed glide effortlessly into and out of place, while video on the set’s surface lends 1950s-style graphics to transitions between scenes. Video also enables the bare walls of the sets to change facades so that they look like entirely different rooms.
Ching was involved in casting the play, which turned out to be more difficult than she or DeLorenzo may have anticipated. While they brought on Jackie Chung to reprise the lead and found Emily Kuroda, a former Ovation award nominee widely known for her role on the TV show Gilmore Girls, the two male parts were hard to cast. “Literally, we called everybody we knew in New York, everybody we knew in LA. We saw probably 30-plus actors,” Ching says.
DeLorenzo explains that the parts require certain skill sets. For example, the character Francis (played by Lawrence Kao) has to be adept at slight-of-hand. Nelson Lee, who pays the brother of Francis and Blue, also has to be quick on his feet — see the play and you’ll find out why.
Though the long search made them a bit nervous, Ching and DeLorenzo are both happy they sought out perfect fits for the roles. “It’s such an exciting cast,” Ching says.
Working at SCR
The season for South Coast Repertory’s Julianne Argyros Stage is packed with new plays — a move DeLorenzo calls “brave and exciting.”
“They really care about new plays here. They really want them to succeed, and my god, they provide you the tools to do it,” DeLorenzo says. “I know when they decided to do the play, they immediately turned to Carla and said, ‘Well, what do you need?’ And she asked for two two-day workshops, which were incredibly helpful . . . so by the time we arrived at rehearsal, which was a few months later, we all felt very confident about the script we were about to embark on. And not a lot of theaters do that,” he continues.
Ching chimes in. “They [SCR staff] really seem to be interested in helping make the play what the play needs to be,” she explains. “Like top to bottom, from the crew on the deck to the artistic administration here, everyone seems very supportive. Which is pretty amazing.”
Fast Company, South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa 92626. Opens tonight. Tues-Fri 7:45 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm and 7:45 pm. No 7:45 pm performance on Oct 27. Through Oct 27. Tickets: $21-72. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555.
**All Fast Company production photos by Debora Robinson/SCR.