Giving us direction: Stephen John on “Sweeney Todd”

Sweeney_FB-EventCover.jpgDirector Stephen John reflects on stepping into the world of Sweeney Todd 37 years after its Broadway opening. He’s been waiting 20 years to get a stab at directing this bloody tale and has run headfirst at this opportunity with the Curtis & Southgate Productions to re-imagine and re-envision the classic musical. Stephen John will direct Sondheim’s most gruesome musical this October (just in time for Halloween) to kick off the start of our ’16/’17 season.

Don’t know the show or just need a refresher?  Here’s a (very) short synopsis: 

This dark and witty tale of love, murder, and revenge takes you to 19th century London. The road to vengeance leads Sweeney Todd to Mrs. Lovett, a resourceful proprietress of a failing pie shop. Mrs. Lovett’s luck sharply shifts when Todd’s thirst for blood inspires a secret ingredient into her meat pies that has the people of London lining up! 

Our operations assistant, Lottie Frick, met up with Sweeney Todd director, Stephen John, to get more information on his vision for this production.

Lottie Frick:  To set things moving, tell us a little about yourself  and give some background on your work as a director.

Stephen John:  I have been directing in Orange County theatre for 16 years, but have also branched out and worked in Arizona and Indiana. When directing a straight play, whether it be comedy or drama, I like to work fairly organically and rely heavily on the script as the primary source. Whereas, when it comes to musicals I am much more into creating a strong concept and beginning from there!

My vision of our production is a cleaner more efficient version of the show that tells the story through the eyes of Tobias.

LF: What inspired you to direct Sweeney Todd?

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Stephen John, director of “Sweeney Todd”

 

SJ:  I am actually the first in my family to be born in the U.S. My Grandparents emigrated with my father and my uncle from London in the early 60’s. My grandfather was a theatre manager in London both for live theatre (primarily Musicals) and then also for a movie house. He had a personal obsession with the horror genre of film and therefore I grew up entrenched in Horror and Musicals; the perfect combination to set me on a trajectory for Sweeney Todd. I must admit that I have loved the show since I first saw it and have wanted to direct the show for 20 years. I can now say that staging the Prologue with this group of actors and on this set has been one of my favorite things to stage and has truly lived up to the hype in my mind!

 

LF:  Awesome – I can’t wait to see the final product! Can you explain your overall vision/concept for this production of Sweeney Todd?

SJ:  My vision of our production is a cleaner more efficient version of the show that tells the story through the eyes of Tobias. It is my hope to trim the fat away and present a much more streamlined production.

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SJ, director, with actor Aaron Stevens who plays Anthony in “Sweeney Todd”

 

LF:  Layering on that, how is it different from what others may have seen in past Sweeney productions?

SJ:  Our production looks at the two main characters, [Sweeney] Todd and [Mrs.] Lovett, and reconsiders who the worst of the two really is. If you think about it, while Todd kills, it is with revenge in mind and in response to some pretty awful circumstances. Whereas, Lovett sacrifices others for her own advancement of purpose. In our production, we hope to present the idea that she is actually the evil one and Todd is the one that deserves at least a little of our pity.

LF:  An interesting point to think about. What do you think will be the biggest challenge in this process?

SJ:  The original production relied heavily on the spectacle of a grand set, multiple props, and blood, Blood, BLOOD! Our production trims all of these things down dramatically. The challenge for me, our design team, and actors is to tell the story by focusing more on the character relationships rather than spectacle.

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A closer look at the tools of Sweeney Todd

 Our production looks at the two main characters, [Sweeney] Todd and [Mrs.] Lovett, and reconsiders who the worst of the two really is.

LF:  I’ve heard temporary tattoos might be used in the design process, can you talk a little bit about that?

SJ:  We are looking at bringing the design of the production forward in time. The idea is to keep the period appropriate silhouette but use fabrics that are more contemporary. Following the contemporary thought, we are considering more modern hair and styles for the actors, including temporary tattoos. By doing so, we will make the show more relevant and approachable to a modern audience.

 

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Actors Rudy Martinez (Sweeney Todd) & Laura Gregory (Mrs. Lovett)

LF:  Along with directing, you also did the set design; give us some insight on what the space will look like and the meaning behind it.

 

SJ:   I was actually in London this summer and was inspired by the claustrophobic feel in London itself. The buildings are literally stacked on top of each other! Our set is itself very narrow at only 16 feet wide on its main platform. This will force us to work efficiently and when the full cast is on stage will reinforce the claustrophobic feel that I remember from this summer.

LF:  Flash forward to opening night — the audience is walking out from a night with Sweeney Todd. What do you hope they take away from this production?

SJ:  Ultimately, we have to remember that the show should be entertaining. As we are producing the production in October, it is our hope that the audience comes into the production to have fun and walks away with exactly that, some good Halloween fun!


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Sweeney Todd runs Oct 7-23, 2016. Half-off preview Oct. 7 with an official opening & reception Oct. 8. Runs Fridays & Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are on sale now for Sweeney Todd. Visit our website or call the Box Office at 714-990-7722 Tues-Fri 12PM-3PM. Have questions? Contact us! Let us know your thoughts on     Sweeney Todd — previous productions    you’ve seen, what you hope to see in this one, etc.

 

 

 

Lights up on the ’16/’17 season: Interview with theatre manager, Tiina Mittler

The Curtis Theatre first opened back in the times of 1980 and has hosted many different types of seasons before arriving in the season you experience today. We have been home to several distinct local community theatre groups including the Young Americans and the Brea Civic Light Opera. At the start of 1991, we began the incredible partnership with Stagelight Productions that is our much-loved youth theatre program, Brea’s Youth Theatre. Flash-forward 25 years and you’ll end up here at our 36th season, where we strive to create a memorable live theatre experience and engage our community with a variety of presented and self-produced performing arts acts over the span of a year. The Curtis has certainly evolved since its inauguration and this season is no exception – with upgraded lighting, world-class performers, and more chances to engage in the before and after of the show.

On the cusp of opening its ’16/’17 season, Operations Assistant, Lottie Frick, sat down with Theatre Manager, Tiina Mittler, to get the scoop on how this season was put together and what to expect in the upcoming year.

LF:  To start off, give us a little background on what the Curtis Theatre does, and your role in that.

TM:  The Curtis connects Brea and our surrounding communities with opportunities to experience live performance — it might be a Grammy-winning concert artist or the first-time parents have taken their kids to a live musical. Everything we do leads back to connecting the audience with the artist to create a memorable experience.

LF: How do you go about putting together a season?

TM: Great question! Building the Curtis season is a collaborative process with our Cultural Arts Commissioners, our Theatre staff, and the artists and theatre production companies we work with. Our season is a mix of creative partnerships that we have formed within our vibrant Orange County Theatre community and shorter, weekend engagements with professional touring artists. We work with a network of other venues, artists, and agents to identify notable performers that would work well in the intimate setting of the Curtis. As part of the City of Brea, we present our proposed season to our Cultural Arts Commission in advance of announcing it to our community.

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The energy when the performers meet the audience is exhilarating. It is the best day at ‘the office.’ It is what our team is working toward. We want our audience to feel that same sense of excitement.

LF:  That’s one of the interesting differences between the Curtis and other theaters. Being a part of the City of Brea gives us a wonderful sense of service to our city and community. Did you set out with a theme in mind for this season? I know “Let’s Play” is the tagline this time around – how did that come about?

TM:  Let’s Play came out of a wonderful discussion with a colleague in the field of presenting, Deborah Brockus of Brockus Dance Project. We were talking about the recession, that period uneasy, the storms that were weathered. While people still bought tickets, it was such a difficult time. We both acknowledged that, yes, while there are still challenges, we sensed something had lifted among our patrons, among our colleagues, and that is was time to play and pass that feeling of fun along to our audience. I knew then that “Let’s Play” captured that energy and spirit of what we planned to present.

LF:  How wonderful! In addition to the feeling of play, what do you hope the audience takes away from this season of shows?

TM:  Live performance is such a powerful medium. It can be thought-provoking, it can make bold statements, and it can start conversations. At the same time, it can offer escape, bring laughter, and create a memory. The energy when the performers meet the audience is exhilarating. It is the best day at ‘the office.’ It is what our team is working toward. We want our audience to feel that same sense of excitement.

LF:  Is there a particular show you’re most excited for?

TM:  Truthfully, every single show. We are continuing our partnership with Southgate Productions and opening with a reimagined, bold new staging of Sweeney Todd. Thanksgiving weekend, we are presenting The David Benoit Christmas Tribute to Charlie Brown. To pair a world-class performer like David Benoit with our Brea Junior High Choir to recreate the iconic music of A Charlie Brown Christmas will bring a phenomenal energy to our stage and community. Our Brea’s Youth Theatre Program, produced by Stagelight Productions, will produce Disney’s The Little Mermaid, for the first time, this summer, which will create a great experience for our families that follow the Curtis.

In 2017, the second half of our season, we are producing two evenings of Latin Jazz that will begin with a reception on our Civic & Cultural Plaza and continue inside the Curtis with a live concert. The two concerts will feature Grammy-nominated Afro-Cuban ensemble Mongorama, fronted by K-Jazz’s Jose Rizo in February and ending our season in June, the Latin Jazz supergroup Cuba L.A. We hope to craft an experience that is fun and lively.

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Live performance is such a powerful medium. It can be thought-provoking, it can make bold statements, and it can start conversations.

LF:  Exciting! How has the theatre’s partnership with Southgate Productions grown and developed over the years?

TM:  The right amount of organic and strategic. Sweeney Todd is our sixth show with Southgate. It’s been fantastic to see Jon Infante and the Southgate team grow as a producing entity. They have an appreciation for the intimate setting of the Curtis. With Jon’s talent for projections, Southgate has focused on reinvention with a twist on staging.

LF: Now we want a quick run-down of what’s to come this season, but I’m going to make it a little tricky for you. Only three words to describe each show in the season: GO!

TM:

  • Sweeney Todd – Reimagined. Bold. Sondheim!
  • John Carney in Carney Magic – Charming, engaging, magic
  • The David Benoit Christmas Tribute to Charlie Brown – Christmastime is here!
  • Charles Phoenix’s Retro Holiday Slideshow – Hilarious, Retro, and Fabulous!
  • Brea’s Youth Theatre in The Wizard of Oz – Wizard of Oz
  • TheatreworksUSA in Charlotte’s Web – Perfect family outing!
  • An Evening of Latin Jazz featuring Mongorama – Sizzling, lively, beat
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – Comedy tonight! 
  • Rock Legends – Total request, live!
  • The Alley Cats Doo Wop Show – 50s & 60s hits!
  • An Evening of Latin Jazz featuring Cuba LA – Sultry, Summer, Sound
  • Brea’s Youth Theatre in The Little Mermaid – Under the sea!

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LF:   Speaking of The Little Mermaid, the youth theatre program, Brea’s Youth Theatre, produced by Stagelight Productions in association with the Curtis is celebrating its 25th year. What’s the secret that keeps this program so successful over such a long span of time?

TM:  Without question, the tireless energy and creativity of Janice Kraus (the president and producer of Stagelight Productions) is the nexus for the program’s success and longevity. Janice has cultivated an excitement, discipline, and a love for the medium of musical theatre spanning generations. Her enthusiasm never falters. Each show, be it a new production of Mary Poppins, or another staging of The Wizard of Oz, she will invest and reinvent the production elements so when the lights come up it is pure dazzle. Her approach is not just to engage the child, but the entire family. To see parents be introduced to this medium through their children, and embrace it, is just fantastic.

LF: Thank you so much for meeting with me! Before you go back to making magic happen this season, answer this final question — What has been the most rewarding part of putting together this season so far?

TM:  Going back to question 1 — the energy that occurs when the artist hits the stage and connects with the audience. It’s an intangible, but very real thing. It’s unmistakable, but amazing when it all works.

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“Let’s Play” Art by Hayden Design, Inc.

 

Tickets are on sale now for the /16/’17 season. Visit our website or call the Box Office at 714-990-7722 Tues-Fri 12PM-3PM. Have questions? Contact us! Let us know your thoughts on the upcoming season by commenting below.