A Review of “On Air”

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My new play, On Air, which I blogged about earlier this summer, received a wonderful production at Scripps Ranch Theatre, San Diego, in July 2016, produced by Robert May.

I’m happy to feature here a review of the play by San Diego-based writer, artist and professor Mindy Donner.


ON AIR
Scripps Ranch Theatre (SRT) presents the 5th Annual OUT ON A LIMB:
New Plays from America’s Finest City 2016

ON AIR is one of those plays informed by and telling about the Viet Nam War
era, and they get it right! “They” are the powerful playwright, Lisa Kirazian; director,
Liz Shipman; their fine cast, and the tech folks at Scripps Ranch Theatre.
The plot takes us along the journey of a dedicated educator, writer and on-air
producer of a reader’s theater hour at a local east county, San Diego radio station. The
entire production echoes and amplifies the eidetic quality of the writing, and that of our
central character, Gary Gordian, a community college professor who believes not only in
his students, but in the transformational possibilities inherent in delving into great works
of literature.

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Gary Gordian’s character and story is based upon and inspired by a real-life Gary
and his wife, Siran. Francis Gercke’s Gary was so believable and passionate that I could
hardly believe he was cast just two weeks prior to the opening. This is a great love story:
the love of Gary for Siran, a poetic seamstress who emigrated from Beirut; her love for
Gary and family; and Gary’s love of teaching the great books to a cadre of students
with limited resources. Siran, as played by Mariel Shaw, is graceful in all aspects,
shimmers with an ethereal beauty and has a core made of steel.

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Throughout the play, the pervasive thread is that of Gary longing for “greatness”–
to be a successful writer, to teach at Berkeley, to earn a real salary–and that of Siran’s
longing for home and family–her need to stay in one place close to extended family.
Siran’s rather old-world brother, Van, is asked to not visit after a boorish evening at
dinner at which he orders his sister around and around! Van is performed by Carlos
Angel-Barajas, who takes another turn as Juan, a Spanish writer with whom Gary has a
meaningful correspondence. While Juan is a more empathetic character, it is revealed
that Van wanted to be a priest, rather than a banker. No character is allowed to be one dimensional in this production.

And that is not the only relationship which becomes strained and frayed—Gary’s
“friend” at the college warns him that he is up for review and suspected of altering
students’ grade in order to give them a military deferment. Charles Peters is jocular and
almost despicable as Ben, fellow professor—who is on the make with his female
students. Gary’s radio station threatens to cut his show, as the listening audience for
“great books” in San Diego is on the wane. Disillusionment threatens to take over Gary’s
soul, if not livelihood.

The stage, which is long and shallow, is deftly designed into smaller focus areas
which become Gary’s college office with desk, his tiny writing study, the Gordian’s living
room, and offstage is quite believable as their bedroom. This suited the play, and the
acting within to a tee. Kudos to Bob Shuttleworth, scenic designer, and Liz Shipman,
who envisioned the perfect world for this play.

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Gary’s college students were delightful with earnest longings, confusion, angst
and all that students really experienced during that fateful era. Robert Bradvica, as
Steven; Michael Crosby as Mitch; Christopher Torborg as Shay, and Michelle Marie
Trester as Abbey/Toni—all were praiseworthy.

Gary gets his opportunity to take a job at Berkeley; Siran almost dies bearing their
child; and they transform into people who now know what is most important.
Siran realizes that “home” is where Gary and their child reside. Gary knows he is
committed to teach these community college students, who truly need him.

The delicacy and beauty of Siran in the “hospital”, a chair, her child which is
birthed from a blanket folded just so, and nurtured by mother and father, and Siran’s
Armenian dance of joie de vivre to follow are traces of director and choreographer Liz
Shipman’s imaginative fingerprint on this production.

This memorable and inspiring production needs to be mounted again for a longer
run, so that more audiences can enjoy this work.


Thank you, Mindy. Thank you, director Liz and cast. And thank you, producer Robert May and SRT!

Onward!

(all photos by Darren Scott)

Walking “On Air” – Journey of a Play

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Sometimes our life and work synergize in ways that we don’t expect.

In writing my new play, On Air, that certainly happened, with the added synergy of such dedicated theater artists who brought it to life at San Diego’s Scripps Ranch Theatre (SRT) and its new play festival, “Out on a Limb,” which concluded yesterday.

In On Air, a young, principled professor at a San Diego community college navigates his family obligations and professional ambitions against the backdrop of a campus in crisis from the Vietnam War.

The one-act version of On Air premiered in the inaugural year of SRT’s Out on a Limb New Play Festival in 2012, with the outstanding cast (shown clockwise, below) of lead actor Jeffrey Jones, Vimel Sephus, Charles Peters, Joshua Jones, Steven Smith, and Tyler Jones, directed by Antonio TJ Johnson.

(All Photos by Darren Scott)

That original one-act version focused only on the professor, Gary Gordian, and four students who come to him in various stages of crisis — amid being drafted to Vietnam, family dysfunction, relationships. Gary’s dedication to his ideals, amid campus politics and pressures, results in his job and future being at risk.

When the play drew such a strong response from audiences, SRT Artistic Director and festival producer Robert May asked me to expand the play to fill out the picture of Gary, to include his personal life and challenges.

Four years and much soul-searching later, the full length version of On Air premiered this past week, with the spectacular cast of Fran Gercke, Mariel Shaw, Charles Peters, Carlos Angel Barajas, Michelle Marie Trester, Robert Bradvica, Chris Torborg, Michael Crosby, and directed by Liz Shipman.

My heart and mind are still spinning. Why?

Because On Air and Gary’s story are loosely based on the life of my own father, a retired and courageous literature professor, who endured much of what is chronicled in the play.

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Fran Gercke as Gary

And in the full length, I introduced the character of Gary’s wife, Siran, loosely based on my mother.

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Mariel Shaw as Siran

Their life together, amid Vietnam, family challenges, and the early days of the tumultuous San Diego Armenian community, are my main expansions to the play.

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Writing about family, about personal events, is never easy. I don’t do it often. Of course I poured over old letters, photos, articles, recordings. But how can one do the subject matter justice, truly? How can a writer be objective in these situations? Or maintain a workable balance between fact and fictionalizing? These challenges, among others, are why it took me so long to complete.

And of course I eventually had to show my family the script. I was braced for the worst, because I could only imagine what my parents, nearly 50 years later, would feel as they revisit one of the hardest times in their young lives. But they couldn’t have been more supportive. A few requests for changes, sure, but just when I was expecting a full-throated veto or a boot out the door, I instead got a thank you. “Thank you for acknowledging that it was such a difficult time in our lives,” my father said. It was a time in their lives that pre-dated me and yet which they always mentioned as I grew up, hence my desire to explore it in writing. I wanted to show them coming through, victoriously.

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With the remarkable dedication of Robert May, SRT and actors who sat to table read the working versions of the script so many times over the past four years (Thank you!), as well as the heartfelt new cast of the full-length version, I saw the story come to life in ways I did not expect.

Even with the fictionalizing I felt necessary in various portions of the play, the fact was that I saw the spirit of my parents, and I saw the spirits of all the students my father used to talk about, even years after their interactions…

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I saw the dilemmas relived of a young married couple facing difficult family choices and pressures, community politics and dynamics.

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Carlos Angel Barajas as Van

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L-R Michael Crosby, Carlos Angel Barajas, Robert Bradvica, Michelle Marie Trester, Chris Torborg, Sarah David, Morgan Kirby

I saw how seminal events and interactions in our lives can stay with us for decades, for a lifetime, and remain as vivid as the day we first experienced them.

IMG_3686L-R: Robert Bradvica, Chris Torborg, Charles Peters, Michelle Marie Trester

The production had its challenges — a key last minute cast change due to illness, and even an accidental campus lockdown where students spotted rehearsal of a tense scene involving a (fake) gun and called the police, fearing the worst, only to be told it was a play. In the very same scene, on opening night of the earlier one-act version, the power went out in the theater, and audience members thought the darkness was part of the scene as stage managers quickly shined flashlights on the actors. The unexpected should always be expected in theater…

But I’m grateful for all of it — and for the conversations the play is generating among audiences, artists, family members, everyone. My father, after watching a period of his life pass before him onstage, thanked me for the play and the “love letter” that it is. Not sure if he even knew that those are the words I always govern my writing by, to make my words a love letter to the story and characters I create. So I was beyond grateful, and at peace, after that.

It seems that the play will have a life beyond this lovely first production, which is encouraging. Because once again as a writer I’ve experienced first-hand that facing our biggest fears and challenges in our life and work yields the deepest meaning in both, a combination of inspiration and release that our souls never get enough of.

As I always say, yet with more conviction every time:

Onward.

 

Is It Still Mother’s Day?

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Ah, it’s a week after Mother’s Day.

Still celebrating her? Still bringing Mom flowers or breakfast in bed? Still doing the dishes for her? Still listening to what she has to say? Still telling her you love her?

Or is it back to normal?

Just like my Mom has always told me, I told my girls: if you listen to me, respect me, help me out with the little things each day — then every day can be Mother’s Day. Those would be the best gifts of all!

So yesterday, one of my daughters cleaned her room. The other one collected and took out the trash. Both of them set the table for family dinner. They didn’t do it without being asked — I still had to ask them. But today they listened; they did what I asked. Right away. And it was as great a gift as the beautiful picture frames they made and gave me last weekend…

So at our Family Movie night last night where Mommy, Daddy and the girls watched The Peanuts Movie (great movie, by the way), I finally noticed a bit of Meghan Trainor’s lyrics to her song that plays during the final credits, “Good to be Alive” (great song, by the way):

Gonna wake up every day like it’s Christmas
Gonna celebrate this life I’m given
From now on (from now on)
Gonna tell my mother every day I love her
And tell her “thanks for being such a good mother”
From now on

Oh, it feels so good to be alive
Oh, it feels so good to be alive

It does feel good. And what gifts we have each day — in each other. Let’s celebrate while we can.

I love you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

And thanks, girls, for the continued ‘gifts’!

Onward!

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The Best Laid Plans…A Mother’s Day Reflection

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On this Mother’s Day, at least for a moment, I think about all the unrealistic things I once planned to do (and be) as a mother:

I’ll never have them watch TV until they are 5.

I’ll never lose my patience.

I will teach them to make their bed and keep their room clean.

They will never snap back at me.

All the things that I hoped would make them ‘good,’ ‘normal’ children.

My mother was (and is) a bedrock of patience and humility — the most inspiring mom a girl could have. So I will be too — right?

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The Beauty of Book Clubs

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I’ve enjoyed three book club experiences in the past several months where my book “Bravura” was featured and read by a group of women (and men!) Each of them was markedly different and yet I learned amazing things from all of them. Continue reading

In the Garden

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As part of our weeklong family vacation in Palm Desert, California — loads of swimming, strolling, eating, playing and resting — we enjoyed touring the Shields Date Garden in Indio: sampling unique varieties of the ancient fruit in the general store, learning how they are harvested on the farm, and drinking heavenly date shakes!

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This Wind

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Having to be on the road across Southern California this weekend, literally through snow, severe rain and wind, my daughters and I have certainly been through some weather. Feels good to be home.

But nothing has struck them like this wind. This 60+ mph wind that is knocking down chunks of trees, patio furniture, and any item that seemed solidly placed in our front and back yard. This wind that taps tree branches at our windows, like in Wuthering Heights. This wind that is wreaking havoc on some people’s homes and cars, with old trees falling and crushing them. I’ve felt so badly for these families I’m reading about.

“Are the trees going to fall on our house?” my younger one asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “One good thing about this wind, though,” I told her, ” — is that tomorrow morning the sky, the air will be clean and clear.”

It seemed to satisfy her enough to go to sleep.

But as the wind has continued through the night, mighty and unstoppable until it chooses to subside, I also can’t help but think that such a wind blowing through our souls, our schedules, our clutter, our bodies, our lives, would be an amazing, cleansing thing. To wake up the next morning with our ‘sky’ all clear and blue. Even if it disrupts other things in the process. My husband even noticed how the wind actually propelled him forward when he walked outside — it urged him in a direction he could not avoid.

Perhaps this is often why God’s spirit is referred to as wind. It is unavoidably felt, and affecting, when it comes.

This windstorm reminds me of the remarkable Christian singer, the late Keith Green, gone far too soon, and his beautiful prayer-song, “Rushing Wind”:

 

“Blowing out the dust within” — yes, that’s what I want from this wind of God’s spirit. Today and every day.

Onward.

 “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” — ‭‭John‬ ‭3:8‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” — Acts‬ ‭2:2‬ ‭NKJV‬‬