Friday, January 3, 2014

Yeast Nation

Hi everyone!  Happy New Year!  Sorry I haven't been online in a while.  you know; Christmas, Thanksgivvukah... and the play I was in, Yeast Nation.
I wrote a bit about this project a few months ago, but that doesn't really do it justice.

Last year, I was in a very small, very homespun production of Oliver.  We had a cast of nine kids, with much double casting and creative use of space.  And there was an accordion.  And a tequila incident with a prop flask.  This was in Brooklyn, at a homeschool family's loft/massage studio.  The father of said family, Ben, directed the play alongside my mom, who was the musical director.  It turned out really well!
Fast forward a few months, and my buddy Leo, who played Fagin, proposed the idea of putting together "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."... guess who wanted to direct?  He was 13 at the time!  (he has a website here) Leo is a very talented writer and actor and I must say, he did a very good job of staging it and organizing the rehearsals.  I was musical director and accompanist for the show, and even though it was just six songs, i definitely overestimated myself.  I thought I was ready pianistically!  My mom makes it look so easy!  She DID help me learn the songs, but I just couldn't learn them fast enough.  "I am going to finish learning this song by next rehearsal," i kept telling myself.

Tech week arrived, and I was THIS CLOSE (imagine I'm showing you just how close with my finger and thumb) to having a nervous breakdown!  And then, like an angel descending from the heavens themselves, I had help for accompanying!
My friend PJ played "Sam Beauregard" in the show.  He's a longtime improv artist and actor, and comes from a family in the show biz.  His dad, Jeff Lodin writes musicals and is a jazz pianist.  He can freaking improvise music!  And so, he suggested that he be co-accompanist for the performances.  Jeff taught me some tips for improvising music, and played about half of the songs, in addition to cool sound effects and mood music.  I don't know what I would have done had he not stepped in!  Now go and watch his musicals.

During this, a friend/mother of friend/seasoned mommylord named Ayun suggested a play for doing the following autumn semester.  Her son, Milo, played Augustus Gloop.
Milo is... a wild one.  His "death scene" had us all in hysterics, and i witnessed firsthand how hard it was for the actors to not break character while he was tragically thrashing and screaming.  During the performances, there were definitely some added lines.  The ham.
Anyway, Ayun's husband, Greg Kotis, co-wrote "Urinetown" (great musical.  Go watch that one too!) with Mark Hollman.  They had written another play many moons ago called "Yeast Nation".
Ayun sent the script to my family and Ben's family to see what we thought of it.  I was initially weirded out by the story.  A kingdom of single-cellular organisms at the bottom of the sea at the beginning of time?
Nonetheless, I read the script, and was surprised at the satire, comedy, and romance.  It seemed like a very interesting play to do.
Not long after, Ayun and Ben (turned out they were co-directing!) and my mom (musical director.  Surprised?) announced that we WERE doing "Yeast Nation!"

Ben and his wife, Tiina, invited a bunch of us to their house for a yeastly acting workshop.  We learned a group number (Stasis is the Membrane) to figure out how our vocal ranges were for any potential parts we were cast as.
I wondered what part I would get.  Jan-the-Unnamed, the blind narrator yeast gifted with prophecy?  Jan-the-Famished, the pregnant one who gets manipulated into being in a horrible regicide plot? One part that I sort of liked was Jan-the-Sweet, the protagonist.  But she was in a love triangle and had to be kissed by two other characters, so I thought, "I feel so sorry for the poor sucker that has to play her,". During the workshop, we learned the story of the yeasts.  You can read it here.  We also learned to move like yeasts.  This included the grownups except for my mom.  At one point, while we were contorting and slithering across the room, she walked in, stared, and quickly left.  (She's not much into contemporary and weird theater) There are MANY deaths in Yeast Nation, caused by someone "popping" another's "jellies".
So we were working on that, too.  It was fun to die, and i found out which side of the family Milo got his acting from.

During the summer, the directors were casting us, which was very hard apparently.  We had "Stasis is the membrane" stuck in our head for months.  Which was horrible, cause there were 18 other songs!
Then we got the casting information.
Guess who was Jan-the-Sweet?  Oh, the bitter, bitter irony.

I took my script to Shakespeare Camp, and the entirety of July was dedicated to making sure the songs were in the right key.  This often resulted in sleepovers.
While I was in Maine with Leo and Quintin, my aunt sometimes made us shut up for 20 minutes, timing it on her cell phone.  (Leo's mom was in Bali, so we and another family were taking care of him for a couple of weeks.)  I really don't have to tell you what we were singing in the backseat, do I?
Then, finally, in September, we had our first rehearsal.  We basically started from nothing, and improvised our way through, doing the tidbits we liked that we did, and cutting, pasting, and refining the staging.  We made a throne for the king (Milo, which was the best thing ever) out of our bodies.  My "nook" (house/bedroom/sleeping cubby for a yeast) was formed from the bodies of chorus members.  Waves, a dungeon, breaking the fourth wall... you name it, the chorus did it!  They also got the best one-liners.  I got some SUPERB acting coaching from Ayun and Ben, the best that I'd ever gotten.
Honestly, the romantic/sexual harrassment scenes weren't TOO bad.  It was the teasing from other castmates that was worse.

Halfway through rehearsals, and the same friend who wishes to be anonymous joined us!  (I forgot what i called her before, so I'll say her name is Claire in this one.)
The music was amazing.  It's a bit rock-opera, a bit musical theater, and a bit, "What the hell is that?"  They got stuck in your head easily.  Oh!  here's a song with me singing in it!  In the story, there is a famine.  Sweet's father (Quintin!) was popped open for defiling the strictures and rising to look for food, and she's grieving horribly and questioning life and having new feelings.  Then the prince of the yeasts, Jan-the-Second-Oldest, (he was played by a kid named Baird, who surprised me in the last month of rehearsals by shooting up past my modest height of 5'2) who is smitten with her, comes with a giant piece of salt called a "fatty" as a gift for Sweet.  Sweet hates his guts and yells at him a bit.
Anyway, Claire suggested playing her doumbek for some of the songs, and it worked amazingly!  You didn't really know that the songs were missing something until you heard the drum with them.

The costumes, props, and set were scavenged for as little money as possible.  We managed to find a few bolts of fabric (pale green for yeasts, and garish blue and pink for the new life forms, known as the New Ones) for free, and spent several days cutting out no-sew tunics and jazzing them up with black marker.  The result?

Photos by Schecter Lee

Amazing under-the-sea effects created by tinted lights, sheets, and tulle.  The family who owned the space and was already generously lending it to us, donated their living quarters for audience and bedsheets for the set.  It was performed in the round, with a ladder for the effect of rising to the surface of the ocean.
If ya want more pictures, lookee here!
Whenever I invited people to see it, they were confused about what the play was about.
"Hey, is that a science song?"
"No, Stasis is the Membrane.  It's from a legitimate musical I'm in."  (He didn't believe me)
Another person:
"So, what's Yeast nation about, baking?
"Yeast infection?"
Despite the lack of clarity, a TON of people came!  A few times, the studio seated 100+ people!
This was definitely the best production of ANYTHING I've ever been in, and the audience really liked it!  Apparently one person said, "Oh we were expecting this to be a cover play done by some homeschool kids, but it turned out to be a serious play done by actors that just happened to be young!"
The playwright came, of course, along with the composer.  I spotted my ophthalmologist in the audience, and on the second night, a retired character from "Sesame Street" came to see us!  My friend, Thomas, who was in the chorus, is a HUGE fan of Urinetown.  His ambition is to play Officer Lockstock in it.  One night, the actor who played Lockstock was sitting in the audience.  During the "stasis is the membrane" scene, it's parodying a sermon or something at church; that whole "peace be with you"hand-shaking thing.  So everyone on stage shook the audience's hands.  Eliza, another chorus member, saw that she was going to be right in front of "Lockstock", so she traded places with Thomas!  Aw!  Wasn't that nice?  His excitement was VERY clear backstage.
Before the show started, it made us all very anxious, being backstage, but Claire and I figured out that meditating together helped the nerves.  And then two became three.  Three became everyone in the girls' dressing room, regardless of gender.  Ayun and Ben were impressed to see us like this before a show.

I'm very glad to have been in this.  It's made me grow as an actress and a singer, and unfortunately, what with all the care I've invested in it, it's become a part of life.  I'll never be able to look at the words "fatty", "jellies", or the punctuation of "January" the same way.  Luckily, I'm moving on. I've gotten over it, and I'm currently focusing on my vocal training, and the accordion, and Doctor Who, and important things like that.  It's 2014, and I've got other projects to do and... and... ooh!  It's being performed in San Francisco next fall?

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