CitySpeaks: A Nomadic Journey

May 16th, 2018 / Posted in CitySpeaks, Home Page Latest News, Nomad Motel

By Spencer Whale, Directing & Producing Fellow

The path of a new play from conception to production, page to stage, is a long and winding one. As a producer of new plays, City Theatre provides a home for these works, and for the artists who journey with them. Many of those currently collaborating on City’s current production, Nomad Motel, have been on the road with the play for four long years, pouring themselves into what is now a deeply personal piece for all involved.

As the assistant director of our production and one of the newest team members, I’ve striven to learn as much as I can about its uniquely collaborative development process, and how each artist involved has left their mark on the piece.

Spencer Whale Nomad Motel City Theatre

Spencer Whale, directing & producing fellow at City Theatre, assistant directed the NNPN Rolling World Premiere of NOMAD MOTEL.

When Carla Ching set out to write a play about a Motel Kid and a Parachute Kid searching for home in the shadow of Disneyland, she drew not only on personal experiences of people she knew, but also from actors she envisioned in the roles. In particular, she tailored the lead role of Mason, a high school student from Hong Kong living alone in the US, to the unique talents of actor Christopher Larkin.

Chris, who has been with the play since its inception, was last seen at City in 2015’s Oblivion. He is an accomplished musician who performs under the name Carry Hatchet, and Carla wrote Mason’s musical aspirations with Chris in mind, making live performance with a loop pedal a vital element of the play.

Pittsburgh audiences will be treated to some of Chris’ original compositions performed live onstage, crafted in collaboration with sound designer and original music composer Florian Staab, who has been with the team since a 2015 O’Neill Playwrights Conference workshop.

The company of NOMAD MOTEL’s O’Neill Playwrights Conference Workshop.

Leading the room in remarkable symbiosis with Carla is director Bart DeLorenzo, who has also been collaborating with her since the first partial drafts of Nomad. The two met in 2013 when Marc Masterson of South Coast Rep paired them up for the premiere of Carla’s play Fast Company.

Though Carla refers to it as “the shotgun wedding” because of how quickly they entered production together, it turned out to be  artistic matchmaking at its best. As Bart puts it, “We have just always agreed. On pretty much everything.” Whereas all instruction to the cast is traditionally filtered through the director, Bart is more than happy to step aside as middleman and let Carla communicate her thoughts directly as they develop their collaborative vision for the play.

For her part, Carla feels a sense of relief knowing that Bart will be on a project, “because I know that he’s going to hold it and protect it and that he’s got it. And I can relax and he always makes everything better.” Also in that production of Fast Company was Nelson Lee, who plays Mason’s father James in Nomad Motel and has worked with Carla on three of her plays.

When an early rewrite eliminated a character from the play (English Lit teacher Mr. Edgerton, whose offstage influence is still felt throughout), Carla replaced him with Oscar, a street-wise dreamer held back by the foster system. Bart suggested casting Shahine Ezell, whom he had directed once while Shahine was an undergraduate at CalArts.

Nelson and Carla connected during South Coast Repertory’s 2013 world premiere production of FAST COMPANY by Carla Ching. From left to right: Emily Kuroda, Jackie Chung, Lawrence Kao, and Nelson Lee. Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

 

Shahine hadn’t performed onstage in over a decade, but Carla found that he had a “particular affinity” for her language, explaining, “You’re really lucky when you find an actor that just understands your words from the inside and lifts them off the page so they sound better in the air.” She says he embodies Oscar so well that it helps her to better understand the character.

Shahine gets excited thinking about their multi-year collaboration, remembering, “To see Carla take super small things… I would just tell her stories about my life and things that I’ve gone through and things that were personal to me and she just took it and made this super well-rounded character that has gone through so much but didn’t let it break him down.”

This production also comes with a whole slew of Pittsburgh-based artists that Bart calls the “missing piece” of the play. Rounding out the cast are Katie Lynn Esswein of the North Hills as Alix, a Motel Kid who dreams of designing spaces that feel like home, and her flailing but determined mother played by Lisa Velten Smith, last seen on City’s stage as Margery in Hand to God.

A handful of actresses had read Alix over the years, but when it came time to cast the tricky, crucial role, Bart says Katie “woke Carla and I up. She kind of just came in and took the role. We just sort of knew she was the right one.” Carla responded to the spunk and toughness she brings to the role, elaborating that “it really changes the part because the way that Katie plays it, she’s never a victim, and so that changes the play.”

Nomad Motel City Theatre 3 1

Lisa Velten Smith (Fiona) and Katie Lynn Esswein (Alix) in City Theatre’s production of NOMAD MOTEL.

 

As for Lisa, Carla admired her performance alongside Chris in Oblivion, and calls her a “ferocious and intelligent actor,” both “emotionally available and attuned.”

Featuring the design talents of local favorites Gianni Downs (Scenic), Robert C.T. Steele (Costume), and Andrew David Ostrowski (Lighting), our production also marks the first time Nomad will be brought into full, three-dimensional life. Excitement abounds at the chance to finally share a production with audiences, and the construction of Gianni’s ambitious set has made that reality all the more immediate.

With a new play, there is no precedent on how to bring the script to physical life, and Bart admitted that he and Carla “didn’t know how to do the play” before this production. With its many shifting locations and simultaneous action, the script presents unique challenges, but over the course of the long design process, the shape of the set “grew organically in Gianni’s mind.”

The final design allows three spaces to exist simultaneously, with plenty of tricks and theatre magic used to transform each location from scene to scene. On the accomplishment of the design, Bart muses, “I think he’s solved it sort of iconically, so that I don’t know future productions will be able to do it differently.”

Reflecting on what all this means to her and to the Nomad family, Carla explained that, “We’ve music stand-ed this in readings across the country for so many years and literally we couldn’t go any further with it; it would have gone in a desk drawer had City not decided to produce it.”

The play has found a home, but Pittsburgh is not the end of the road: City Theatre was instrumental in securing Nomad Motel as a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, which guarantees that the play will have at least two more productions over the next year at Unicorn Theatre (Missouri) and Horizon Theater (Georgia), providing Carla further opportunity to refine the text and to invite new artists and audiences into its world. I, for one, cannot wait to follow its journey.

Nomad Motel runs at City Theatre now through June 3rd. Tickets are available here!