Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writing Olympus - A Guest Blog by Min Kahng

Min Kahng wrote the book, music and lyrics for Tales of Olympus: A Greek Myth Musical, playing in Berkeley from December 8th thru 22nd. Min is also an instructor with BACT's Youth Education Program, as well as the Marketing Coordinator for BACT.
Greek mythology is cool. So cool, in fact, that all I have to do is mention the title of my new show (Tales of Olympus: A Greek Myth Musical) and people of all ages respond "Ooh! That sounds cool!" Understandably so. This ancient pantheon of gods and goddesses takes our imaginations on fanciful journeys that could rival the best super-hero/fantasy/science-fiction fare today. The myths also teach us something about our world and our society. And, quite simply, they're fun.

A Greek myth musical? Sounds cool to me.

What was perhaps less obvious or self-evident was how to give Tales of Olympus its form or shape as a show.  I knew I wanted to introduce young audiences to a handful or so of Greek myths - like a "story sampler platter" as one of the characters in Tales says.  But I also wanted to prevent the show from becoming one of those overstated works of "edu-tainment," which ironically serve to lose a kid's attention.  I had to come up with a through-line - a story that tied all of the myths together, so audience members would be thrust into this recounting of Greek myths without feeling like they were in school.

I knew this through-line had to be centered around something that was important to me, something that captured my heart.  So, I looked back to why Greek myths strike a chord with me. I recalled how Mrs. Abelmann, my fifth grade teacher, introduced me to Greek mythology by acting out portions of the famous lore in class, and eventually had us write our own myths. Mine was on the origin of the sunset, and I was quite proud of it. There was something very empowering about being able to create my own story. I was joining the ranks of Homer - or at least following (far, far behind) in his footsteps. I realize that because of Mrs. Abelmann, Greek mythology will always be a part of my own journey as a writer.

This led me to think about the other people or events that have influenced my writing journey.  Encouraging teachers, mentors & professors who affirmed, critiqued, sharpened my writing voice. Hours spent alone, dreaming up stories and scenes on paper, video camera or at a keyboard. I also remembered the doubts and set-backs. The times when I denied my writing ability because I felt like I would never be good enough. Or my hesitation to let others read or hear what I have written, for fear of harsh criticism or ridicule. These fears were especially strong during my middle school years. I remember writing a song for a 7th grade class project. My teacher lauded it and gave me an A+. Then she asked if she could play the recording for the class. I said "No," embarrassed at the thought of drawing attention to myself, and later, full of regret for not having taken the chance.

What had it taken for me to finally declare that I was a writer? When did I finally start thinking "I can do this?" Perhaps, more poignantly, why didn't I just give up and go another route? What made me stay on this path in spite of my own defeatist attitude?

I think the answer has to do with the work of writers that came before. Books, plays, films - anything with a narrative that has inspired me - kept nudging me to find my own footing; Greek myths included.

And then I had it; this would be my through-line. 
Tales of Olympus: A Greek Myth Musical would be my little nudge to younger artists and writers.
Zeus & Aphrodite show Jason the wonders of Olympus.

This led to the birth of the character Jason - a talented, twelve-year old storyteller who needs some gods and goddesses to help him see his potential. Meanwhile, the gods and goddesses need Jason's storytelling ability to keep their tales alive. The show is indeed rife with popular Greek myths, as the title promises. But underneath all that is the coming-of-age of a young bard who is influenced by the work of bards who came before him. Tales of Olympus is a story about telling stories.

And I'm pretty sure the ages of human history would agree that stories are pretty cool too.

Monday, November 12, 2012

BACT Spotlight On - Actor/Educator

As we prepare for the holiday season, we are excited to bring back one of our most popular shows from last year: Pinkalicious, the Musical!  We thought it would be fun to interview Pinkalicious herself, or rather the very talented actress who plays her: Katie McGee.  In addition to being a performer, Ms. McGee is also one of the educators for BACT's Youth Education Program (YEP). We asked her about both her life on-stage and her life as a drama teacher.

BACT: Let's get right to what everyone probably wants to know. What is it like to play Pinkalicious? In what ways are you like or different from her?

Katie: Playing Pinkalicious is a delight! It is very similar to a crazy sugar rush - spaz, crash, and return to normal. I relate to Pinkalicious in a lot of ways. The relationship Pinkalicious has with her little brother, Peter, is very similar to the relationship I have with my little brother. Like Peter and Pinkalicious, we were very close growing up. Much like Pinkalicious, I was (my brother would argue that I still am) a bit of a bossy boots. Also similar to Pinkalicious, I love the color pink. When I was a kindergartener, I went through a phase where I would only wear pink. Red was a big wardrobe no no. Unlike Pinkalicious, however, I have always loved my greens. Yum!

BACT: Pinkalicious, the Musical was one of our most successful productions. Why do you think kids relate to Pinkalicious so much?


Katie: I think one of the biggest draws is the magic. She turns pink! And then red! Pinkalicious brings to life all of the wives' tales our parents told us. "Don't cross your eyes Tommy or they will get stuck that way." "Don't eat all of your Halloween candy Susie or your teeth will fall out." Also, many of the audience members know the story of Pinkalicious before they see it. Therefore the dramatic irony builds each time Pinkalicious eats another cupcake. There is something very suspensful about knowing a character's fate and watching them ignore your warnings.

BACT: We're getting ready for the return of Pinkalicious to the BACT stage this December. Will it be easy to jump back into the role? Will there be any new challenges the second time around? What are you most looking forward to about doing the show again?

Katie: Since closing, Pinkalicious has followed me around like a shadow. The kids I nanny for frequently request Pinkalicious living room performances. (I thought these requests would fade, but here we are in November and it is still happening!) Thanks to them my lines are pretty solid. I will, however, need to dust off my pink tap shoes and start practicing my footwork! I am most looking forward to reuniting with the cast and crew. They are a hoot!

BACT: You also help out with BACT's Youth Education Program. Can you describe what you do?

Katie: This semester I have been helping lead Montclaire Elementary first and second grade students on pirate adventures and jungle explorations. It is the BEST. BACT's curriculum is based in process drama. Teachers and students are in role (playing news reporters, jungle explorers, pirate captains, etc.) throughout class. While in character, students are asked to help teachers solve problems and make discoveries in real time. For example, last week I played a starving hunter. The student jungle explorers were asked to help me come up with alternatives to hunting. They concluded that they would help me plant crops and loan me some of their food. They were so sharp and generous!


BACT: What do you enjoy most about working with kids, specifically as it relates to theatre and dramatic arts? What have you found most rewarding about working with children?

Katie: Such a hard question! Many aspects of the job are extremely rewarding. Most recently I have enjoyed watching students make discoveries about human relationships. For example, last week I was participating in a pirate tableaux with a few first grade students. I was cast as a timid crew member opposite an evil pirate captain. I put on my best scared face and made eye contact with the "captain." I watched the lightbulb go off in the captain's head. As she observed my frightened face, her face got meaner and nastier. She discovered that our emotions and demeanor generate a reaction from others. Awesome!

BACT: Many teachers say that they learn a lot from their students. Is this true for you? What have you learned from your students?

Katie: I am constantly learning from my students. The teaching I do inspires a lot of what I do onstage. The biggest lesson I have learned happened while I was working as a music director for a student production of Peter Pan. It was someone's birthday and cookies were getting passed out backstage. One of the second graders was getting into costume and asked if either my co-director or I could set a cookie aside for her. We both said yes and immediately forgot to do it. Later while apologizing to her, she stopped us and said, "Guys, it's just a cookie." Now whenever I get worked up over something I say to myself, "Katie, it's just a cookie!" 

BACT: What advice would you give to any young actor who wants to one day take the stage (perhaps to play the next Pinkalicious or Peter)?  

Pinkalicious (Katie McGee) and Peter Pinkerton (Evan Boomer)
Katie: Start now! Pets, friends, stuffed animals, parents all make great audience members. Some of my best performances happened when I was five and performing for my dog Bob. The more you practice acting and storytelling, the better you get.

BACT: Great advice, Katie! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts with us! We wish you the best with your students, and break a leg on the return of Pinkalicious, the Musical!