In the play “How I Got That Story” by Amlin Gray, the cynical chief of a news wire service in a warzone sizes up his new reporter. “This is a man for TransPanGlobal,” the chief barks. “An impartial man. He views all sides and then he writes the truth as he believes it.”
The reporter rejects the choice of words. “Bob, I’m not sure I’d put it quite that way,” the reporter says. “I don’t think belief is too much help to a reporter. What I try to do is see, then write the truth — Bob — as I see it.”
As the play unfolds, that effort proves difficult. The audience watches the reporter seeks to discover truth amid the confusion of war. It’s a two-man play set in fictional Ambo Land, a pseudo-Vietnam. One actor, Brian Bielawski, plays the reporter. The other role, played by Greg Watanabe, encompasses 20 characters, including a teenage prostitute, salty-tongued G.I.s, the aforementioned news service chief and a bombastic lieutenant. The play whirls the green reporter through one surreal experience after another.
That charge to see first — not just to base a story on belief and preconception — is taken seriously offstage, too. Director Seema Sueko, staging this play this month at her Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, is bringing in the people who lived this experience to critique and guide her and the actors.
Directors often research for months the background of the play they’re directing, the settings and ideas that might have inspired the playwright, the motivations for the characters’ attitudes.
But Sueko is adding risk.
She read books and took veterans and military journalists to lunch and coffee to talk about their experiences, sure. But instead of just bringing back that information to share with the actors in rehearsal, she’s opening the doors. She’s inviting Vietnam vets into the rehearsal room. Twice. Once for the first read-through of the script with the actors, and once to plan how the actors will move in scenes with combat action.
And we’re watching it unfold from inside.
This is the first post in our Arts: Embedded series that shines a spotlight on what goes on before the curtain rises on a single production. This month we’ve been following the behind-the-scenes work at Mo’olelo to prepare for “How I Got That Story,” which opens for preview performances on Thursday.
We’re fascinated by how much goes into making art, the large and small armies of people that work on different pieces of the puzzle. We’ll take you inside the first read-through and to the costume designer’s fabric-strewn living room and to the dress rehearsal, with stories and photos and videos to expand our understanding of how Sueko and her team are making this play.
Over coffee one afternoon last month, Sueko told me her approach leaves a giant question in the air. The play exists on the page, written in 1979. What if the people who went through the real historical experience hate it?
“Our industry traditionally keeps the artist and the community separate,” she said. “We’re all humans and nobody wants to get their idea rejected.”
It’s happened before, Sueko said. She brought in someone whose life experience resembled a play she was directing, and the person couldn’t get past the faults she perceived in the play itself. Sueko had to tell her that they couldn’t change text or circumstances, but they’d try to embody the things she was saying.
It’s one thing for the director to poke holes in the rehearsal bubble for this kind of outside influence. But what does Sueko tell her actors and designers?
Put away defensiveness, she said.
“Every show is a different process,” Sueko said. “It’s in the vulnerability that art is made.”
Up next: The scene at the first read-through, when actors read their lines aloud for a small group of listeners, including three veterans who served in Vietnam.
This kind of community engagement isn’t new for Sueko. She co-founded Mo’olelo with a mission to be a “socially-conscious” theater focusing on diverse and underrepresented populations. The theater pays actors the union wage prescribed by the Actors’ Equity Association — in this case, $338 per week each. And Sueko uses the plays she puts on to make connections with community groups, like in this case the Veterans Village of San Diego and the Veterans’ Writing Group.
Mo’olelo was a gypsy company for several seasons, performing all over town, including as the first company the La Jolla Playhouse invited to use rent-free space there a few years ago. Now Mo’olelo resides at the 10th Avenue Theatre , a downtown theater with 107 seats. Sueko is fond of describing the relationship between large, mid-sized and small theaters like Mo’olelo in San Diego. Sueko was our guide to the local theater ecosystem in our first Meeting of the Minds last June.
“How I Got That Story” begins preview performances on Thursday and runs through March 18. Stay tuned for our coming dispatches.
I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0531.
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