Recently, choreographer Natalie Greene and I discussed how we tackled Brecht in Cal Shakes’ current production of THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN. Take a listen to the podcast episode below! But SPOILER ALERT: Listening is only recommended once you’ve seen the show!
Recently, I've been considering how I can access more of my right brain while writing. This might sound redundant to some, since writing can be a creative act, and thus would tap into right-brain energy. However, I often feel that writing can become a very left-brain act for me, as I focus a lot on linearity, logic, and building a concrete structure. These aren't things to avoid, necessarily, but I do feel they can sometimes limit where I take my thoughts creatively. As I begin writing the script for Calafia, which occurs in a realm of fantasy, I want to allow my right brain to do some more conjuring without letting my left brain get in the way.
One way I thought of doing this was through movement. So, this week, I met with director/choreographer/teacher Michael Mohammed (director of the recent Town Hall Theatre production of The Song of the Nightingale), who gave me some ideas about how to connect movement of my body to the work I have to do as a playwright. Michael guided me through a handful of movement and gesture exercises. One of the most insightful was imagining the space I was in as a gravity room, where center stage has normal earth gravity, stage right has 200% gravity, and stage left has 0%. Walking back and forth, I was invited to explore the heaviness or lightness of my body. Then we layered on another gradient: emotion. What if stage right was anger at 200% gravity and stage left was joy at 0%? And what if you swapped the emotions? What if we tried fear or sadness?
For me, this opened up a new way of fleshing out my characters. I have already taken the exercise home and worked on it with some of the roles in Calafia. I'm discovering through posture and gesture what priorities or desires might exist for my characters. For the titular role of Calafia, for example, I learned that she would much prefer to stand in the middle with chest and head held high. And if circumstances cause her to head toward either the 200% or the 0% directions with her body, she begins to feel out of place or exposed. Her priority is to retain the status quo, but it might also be a cover-up for deeper emotions that she does not wish to express for fear that it will make her look weak or out of control. I don't think I would have learned this about her this quickly in another way, and this leaves me feeling very excited to continue bringing movement into my playwriting process.
Ryan Cairel, who plays Death in The Song of the Nightingale, started performing at color guard competitions in middle and high school. In the summer of 2005, he was a member of the Concord Blue Devils Drum & Bugle Corps. I first met Ryan while music directing Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre’s production of Cinderella, and I’m so fortunate to have him as a cast member for The Song of the Nightingale. Below, Ryan shares a bit of his performance background, and also tells us about an event that is very near to his heart: Roanne’s Race – a 5k/10k run/walk set up in memory of his sister Roanne Cairel.
MIN: So, what have you been up to performance-wise between Cinderella and The Song of the Nightingale?
RYAN: I participated in my friend's dance thesis and performed in her modern dance at Mills College early this year. I danced and choreographed for the Las Positas Dance Production for several years in different genres such as lyrical, modern, jazz, hip hop, contemporary, swing, and waltz. My favorites are contemporary and lyrical. I auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance in 2010 or 2011, and made it to callbacks. I was cut after that, but it was still an awesome experience. My only TV time was in the background of the news and running into the theater!
M: What has the experience of being in Song of the Nightingale been like for you?
R: Being part of the Nightingale cast has been a huge learning experience. I didn't think I could sing until this show (thanks to you, Min). It's been fun acting as well. I'm not used to saying lines because, as a dancer, I act without saying a word, but I'm getting comfortable with it. Playing Death is, actually, really fun for me. This role has me playing the complete opposite of who I am, but I love the feeling I get when in character. The whole cast and crew is great to be around. Since day one, everyone has been so nice, welcoming, and helpful. They are all so talented and hilarious! So much laughter, inside jokes, and good times.
M: How did you get into performing/dancing?
R: I got into performing after watching Roanne, my older sister by 11 months, on our middle school color guard team. I would stay during their rehearsals and, sometimes, watch her practice at home. She would teach me tricks on rifle and flag in our front yard. The next school year, she suggested I audition for the team with her. I was a little hesitant at first, but she convinced me to try out. After making the team, I had a blast at rehearsals and competitions and that's when I knew I wanted to be a performer. I joined the color guard team every year and did it all through high school. After high school, color guard performances were over for me. Roanne was taking dance classes at Las Positas College, so I followed her route and enrolled into the dance production class that has dance concerts at the end of every semester. I danced alongside my sister my first semester. She was diagnosed with colon cancer the next semester and didn't dance. I didn't want to do the production without her, so I took more technique classes, like ballet and jazz, to better my dancing. Roanne enrolled back into the production class the next semester because she missed dancing and performing on stage. I joined again because she did. We were in the class together for a few more semesters. She even danced in some of the dances I choreographed; it was pretty awesome. Dealing with cancer and chemo treatments, Roanne had to stop taking the class. I didn't follow her and stop dancing. Instead, I kept going because I loved it and because I knew she would want me to. She would stop by and learn some of the movement, even when her chemo tube was hanging out of her shirt. Everyone loved it when she stopped by because you can just see how badly she wanted to keep dancing. She came to all of my performances. I feel like she lived her "dance life" vicariously through me when she couldn't dance anymore. I guess that's what keeps me going.
M: Tell us a little bit about Roanne's Race and what it has meant to you.
R: Roanne's Race is a 5k/10k run/walk. Roanne came up with the idea to help support colon cancer research. After her passing, our best friends (yes, we share best friends), her boyfriend, and our families decided to start the race in her honor. All of the proceeds are donated to support the research of colon cancer, specifically among young people. Last year for our inaugural race we supported Colon Cancer Alliance’s Diagnosed Under-50 Research Initiative and donated $8,500 to their research. This year we will be repeating our support of the Colon Cancer Alliance and their research. This race means everything to me. My sister didn't want to be forgotten and have her life just end. With this race, she's being introduced to so many people. We set up booths at festivals, hold fundraisers, and do whatever we can to spread the word and, every time, there's an indescribable feeling I get after seeing how many people are interested in our event. It's amazing how much support we've been getting!
Roanne’s Race 2013 is happening this weekend, Nov 2nd. Click the link for more information. It's too late to register in advance, but there will be a few spots available on a first-come-first-serve basis on the day of the run. And if you can’t make it to the event, you can still donate to this lovely cause at the Roanne’s Race website!
Theater is arguably the most collaborative artform in existence. It requires a reliance on others bringing their talents, skills and expertise, and a trust in their decisions and intuition. With The Song of the Nightingale opening at Altarena Playhouse in a few weeks, I wanted to showcase some of the amazing people who are helping me bring this show to life. First, I interview Deedra Wong who is playing the title role of The Nightingale.
MIN: One of the most fascinating things to me about this project is the fact that most of the actors in this show do so much more than perform. Can you describe a little of what you do beyond performing?
DEEDRA: I like to read tarot cards and help people gain insight into their life. I love the mystical arts and I love sharing what I know with people. I started reading cards in 1986 and started my business Tarot Perspectives in 2012. I read for people over the telephone or in person.
I teach dance and choreograph musicals as well, and I like helping people become better performers. In addition to Nightingale, I am choreographing The Gold Rush Musical! produced by Bay Area Children's Theatre, which will go on tour to local elementary schools in October.
I also wrote an album called, Pisces Dream. It's a self-produced electronica album on iTunes. I hope to write another album again at some point. Maybe I'll write a book too. The artist in me needs to constantly be creative!
M: What drew you to work on The Song of the Nightingale?
D: A friend told me there was a local playwright in the Bay Area who wrote a musical written for an all Asian cast featuring a dancing bird. I knew at that moment I wanted to be in the show. I wanted to be a part of a local, original project and help bring it to life. When I saw the first staged reading in 2010, I originally thought I wanted to be play Feng because I wanted to use my voice and be comedic. But then as time went on, I realized the Nightingale role was more fitting since I am primarily a dancer. I like the challenge of not using my voice at all and only using movement to convey my character. To be graceful and smooth is a good challenge for me.
M: What are your creative sources of inspiration in working to craft the character of the Nightingale?
D: The music is my true source of inspiration for the Nightingale. The music tells me what to do.
M:What kinds of dance are influencing her movement?
D: I use a little bit of everything to craft her movement: ballet, modern, jazz, latin dance, hip hop, Chinese dance. The one thing I knew about the Nightingale was that she is not only one style but all styles mixed in one body.
M: Well, I'm certainly thankful that you are a part of this project. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions as well.