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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 4:33 am | Fair 39º


UCSB Theater’s Launch Pad Previews James Still’s ‘Appoggiatura’

Set in one of the world’s most famously photographed and written about cities — Venice, Italy — Appoggiatura (uh-poj-uh-toor-uh) is award-winning playwright James Still’s most recent work. Santa Barbara audiences are in for a moving, funny and intimate journey with three Americans who find themselves in a new, yet in some ways, familiar place 5,000 miles from home.

The title of the play comes from the Italian word appoggiare meaning “to lean.” In music, appoggiatura is a note of long or short duration sometimes creating a dissonance before resolving into a main note. And so it is with the play: What begins on a rainy night inside an old-world hotel room in Venice ends on a bright sunny day outside on its streets and campos.

The story follows a woman of a certain age who knows this might be her last trip to Italy; her granddaughter who has just graduated from college and has no idea what comes next; and a middle-aged man who doesn’t know how to mend his broken heart. Add to the mix their young Italian tour guide who makes up any history he doesn’t know, and a collection of roving street musicians. Appoggiatura is a play about an American family finding itself by completely losing itself. Italy is a good place to do that.

This preview production is produced by the UCSB Theater & Dance Department along with vital donors and patrons. Launch Pad is presenting the eighth new play directed by Risa Brainin, chair of the department. She describes Launch Pad as a crucial part of “the eco-system of new play development.” It’s a working ground for preview productions of new plays made by playwrights, guest and faculty artists and students in dialogue with audiences.

Appoggiatura begins playing on Thursday, Feb. 28 and runs through Saturday, March 9 in the newly refurbished Hatlen Theater on the UCSB campus for seven performances. Audiences will be encouraged to engage in conversations between artists and audience after each show.

Two years ago, Still had just finished a five-year cycle of work that culminated in three world premieres within a four-month period.

“Suddenly I was looking down an open road again,” Still said. “I could write about anything I wanted. I started writing a contemporary play about a woman who was taking her just-graduated granddaughter in her early 20s on a ‘grand tour’ of Europe.”

He knew the play would be set in Venice, knew there was a shared history and making the trip was important to both generations. Thus began the Appoggiatura script. In the process, he realized this play would be better as part of a trilogy, and not the first play. So he put the Italian script and location aside to write the history of the family in The House That Jack Built.

Set six months earlier at the family’s home in Vermont on Thanksgiving, The House That Jack Built was workshopped at the New Harmony Project before its world premiere last fall at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, where Still is playwright in residence. It also won the Todd McNerney New Play Prize from the Spoleto Festival. Still has been lauded for his keen ear and ability to capture the lyricism of modern conversations getting to the heart of what makes people tick.

Still emphasized the importance of Launch Pad’s format, which allowed him to work with the design team from the very beginning of the process and invent the play with them.

“The thing that’s unique about Launch Pad is it looks at new play development in a timely and fresh paradigm shift,” Still said. “I write plays for the theater. I want to see them in a three-dimensional space; I want to see actors explore the silences as part of the language, to experiment with behavior as part of the action. Launch Pad gives me the necessary and rare opportunity to develop my new play the way I dream about: by doing it on stage.

“Working with Risa Brainin, who I’ve known and whose work I have treasured for 15 years, is important to this story. It’s an essential collaboration on a play that is essential to my artistic life. Process has to be thoughtful and risky and bold — all within a safe environment.”

Just a few months ago, Still learned the Denver Center Theatre would commission Appoggiatura. For Brainin and Launch Pad, getting the commission was the next natural step for this play and process.

“Crystallizing the idea of a panel I moderated this past October for the National Theatre Conference called ‘The Role of the University in the Ecology of New Play Development,’ the preview production of Appoggiatura is poised to become a precedent setting project for us,” Brainin said. “My ultimate goal is for other universities to be excited by this model so that, in a short time, preview productions at universities become a standard way to develop new work in the American Theatre.”

Brainin, at the hub of all this creativity, has extensive regional theater credits and was hired in 2004 to join the faculty. She immediately began an initiative to bring playwrights of national stature to UCSB working side by side with students, faculty artists and guest artists to create plays. 

Appoggiatura reflects the Launch Pad mission exactly, and director Brainin has assembled a stellar team of theater artists she has collaborated with throughout her career: Award-winning playwright James Still; scenic designer Nayna Ramey; lighting designer Michael Klaers; and costume designer Devon Painter; complemented by Santa Barbara’s well-known music director, David Potter. Appoggiatura is brought to life on stage by faculty artists Irwin Appel and Anne Torsiglieri alongside theater students Andrea Barborka, Chris Costanzo, Ian Elliot, Sophie Hassett, Dominic Olivo, Julian Remulla and Sachi Tanaka. 

Ramey noted that the Launch Pad approach “forces me to crack open my process.” Ramey spoke about the rich experience of the design team going to Venice to be immersed in the culture of that venerable city. Her set beautifully evokes the canals, gondolas, cafes, campos, palazzos and narrow streets of Venice.

“My backdrops are actually refracted versions of the photos I took while we were there,” she said. “It’s a tight palette of colors — ochres, reds, golds — and this amazing blue green that dominated the city — it ranged from fresh to ages old and peeling.” 

In the design presentation on the first day of rehearsal, costume designer Painter described her clothing as “extensions of the scenery. There’s a sense of timelessness in the clothes worn by the locals in Venice.” She went on to share photos of Venetians to illustrate her point — “women still wear house dresses there — the only things that bring them into the modern world are the accoutrements like a cell phone.” She is also devising ways to integrate masks into the production. Venice is famous for its Carnivale celebration marking the Catholic celebration of Lent.

Appoggiatura previews are Feb. 28 through March 9; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with a matinee on Sunday, March 3 at 2 p.m. Plus there will be conversations with the artists after every performance. The Hatlen Theater is located on the UCSB Campus on Ocean Road. Park in Lot 22 and follow the signs to the Hatlen.

Tickets are $17 for general, and $13 for students/seniors, UCSB staff and faculty. Box office hours are noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and one hour prior to all shows. Call 805.893.7221 or click here to order online.

— Maureen McFadden is a publicist representing the UCSB Theater & Dance Department.

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