BWW Interview: Sandra Tsing Loh Never SUGAR-Coating Her PLUMs Or FAIRYs
Writer/comedienne/best-selling author Sandra Tsing Loh will be reviving her expanded version of her once one-woman show SUGAR PLUM FAIRY at the Skylight Theatre beginning November 24, 2018; with opening night set for December 1st. I grabbed the chance to delve into Sandra's most witty psyche on her creative processes leading up to her now three-person FAIRY.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sandra! I caught your show at The Broad Stage in 2015. THE BITCH IS BACK: AN ALL-TOO INTIMATE CONVERSATION was too funny!
SUGAR PLUM FAIRY, just like THE BITCH IS BACK, began as a solo piece for you. What artistic urge moves you to want to share your spotlight and expand with other performers in telling your stories?
I do love the solo form, which I've come to consider a two-hander between myself and the audience. The audience's laughter and call-backs (which I encourage, even demand!) very much dictate the unique rhythms of every performance.
That said, my original love (before I learned in my twenties in L.A. how hard it was to keep casts together on literally a negative budget) was (humorous) playwriting. There are no people I love more that true comedic performers. It's a transporting joy to watch them. When I'm sitting in an audience watching such brilliant people work, I'm always the loudest laugher and first on my feet to applaud. Comedy performance (even, in certain forms, and it is now okay to use that word again-"clowning") is its own form, and few people are masters of it. There's a kind of music to essencing the comedy of the character and landing the joke.
SUGAR PLUM FAIRY is a middle-school coming-of-age tale (set in the 1970s-the fashions alone!) with a wealth of quirky characters (inspired by real life). They range from water glass-playing seventhth grader Ruthie Haffenhorfer with her collection of plastic horses to crotchety Russian ballet mistress Irina Lichinska with her cane, jonesing for "Weenston" cigarettes. Shannon Holt (who plays Ruthie, among others) and Tony Abatemarco (who plays Irina, among others) are two treasures of Los Angeles theatre. They are the Bonnie and Clyde of our very own local Theatre of the Ridiculous. (And yes, I know I mixed a few references there. I am a giant fan not just of drag performance, but of the oeuvre of Charles Ludlum--to whom Tony has been said to bear more than a passing resemblance.)
So in this case, there is the joy of narrating the story directly to the audience as it unfolds-and then seeing Shannon and Tony bring these characters to life on a dime and making the audience howl with laughter.
It's my favorite kind of theatre-I do believe our enjoyment is infectious!
Will there be lots or just a little tweaking of last year's South Coast Repertory's SUGAR PLUM FAIRY in this production at the Skylight?
I'm excited to be bringing a completely new version of SUGAR PLUM FAIRY to Skylight. Yes, the story, actors, and main production pieces, plus music, are essentially the same. However, in this run, we're going to be presenting an audience-interactive experience I've been obsessed with for decades. The audience will be so close as to be on top of us, practically onstage, and they are very much encouraged to come in holiday "costume"-ugly Christmas sweaters, tutus, tiaras-anything that contributes to the merriment. There will be call-and-response and much tossing of "holiday carbohydrates" (from candy canes to Frito-Lay potato chips-as audiences will see, a key plot element). We're calling it a YULETIDE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (G-rated), or SING-ALONG SOUND OF MUSIC (without the Van Trapp Family-or, if you will, come dressed as the Van Trapp Family) (nothing says "comedy" like lederhosen!).
How great to have your SCR creatives and cast with you on this production. Do you all speak in short-hand in getting the end results you're striving for?
We've all had so much fun with SUGAR PLUM FAIRY, we've become the club of "more is more." It has been a bit like the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory--childhood unleashed. Do we NEED giant palm tree- shaped pool toys to throw into the audience? Do we NEED a canon that shoots confetti? Do we NEED special black lighting to bring out white-gloved PIPPIN "Ben Vereen hands" to dramatize a 1970's middle school talent show? With this witty and endlessly resourceful team, the answer is never no. I'd like to say, "Every dollar is on the stage," except that some of the more hilarious Christmas glitz actually came from the 99 Cent Store.
How old were you when you first heard of the Sugar Plum Fairy? Did you identify with her?
I was five when I became generally aware of THE NUTCRACKER, which seemed to me to be about "Dancing Candy," and a little girl named Clara who was having THE BEST AND BIGGEST CHRISTMAS EVER. (I can still picture that gigantic tree and mountainous pile of glittery presents, certainly half of them bicycles.) It was a few years later, as a tween, which is around the time this story takes place, that I realized there was a kind of "story" buried somewhere in THE NUTCRACKER. Clara does a lot of running around and pointing in her nightgown, but not a lot of real ballet. It turned out, there is a lot of middle management in THE NUTCRACKER (the Spanish Dance, the Merlitons) but the true "queen" is the Sugar Plum Fairy.
However, as with many queens, the Sugar Plum Fairy's job is not as fun as you might think-her costume is a pretty straightforward-and unforgiving-tutu (rather than the flowy exotic romance of the Indian Dance). She has to drill out those 32 fouetees, which has all the heady abandonment of having to take out a great deal of recycling. (As my talented older sister will find out, in the story.) So, in a way, being Sugar Plum Fairy is about having all the responsibility and none of the fun. Whereas in the end, in the corps de ballet, as part of the cadre of unwanted "big-hipped" girls plodding along in the "Waltz of the Flowers;" we have all of the fun and none of the responsibility. (I ask you: What does the true "joy" of dance have to do with TECHNIQUE???)
When did you first realize you were funny?
Exciting story here. In high school, I was giving a "chalk talk" in a multi-high-school mathematics competition. It was about probability. In the middle of a key point, my chalk broke, and without thinking, I murmured an expletive under my breath. The auditorium erupted in laughter. It was not the outcome I was going for, but there was something magical about it.
Who was the first person who told you, you were funny?
Still talking high school in the 1970s (Santa Monica High School), we performed a fair number of French farces (Moliere, etc.). I kept getting cast in roles like Toinette, the kooky maid who falls over the furniture. I believe our French teacher Madame Peterson probably told me I was funny, but I don't recall the particular wording because she probably said it in French.
When you write for your own solo shows, how married to your own script are you? You are free to improv with your own words, right?
Oh, yes. The written version is typically more wordy and ornate than the words you want to spit out while trying to hold an audience's attention. I like to say, "Books travel in space (i.e. you can really describe locations, with particular attention to sensory details and furniture). But theatre travels in time (there is a clock ticking on the audience's comprehension and attention span-far less time, if any, to describe furniture)."
When you write for a non-solo show, when do you set your words in stone? Do you allow the actors to improv?
Oh, yes. Once they know the characters, there's definitely room for improv. As Bolshoi ballet mistresses, Shannon and Tony improv some angry Boris and Natasha-type "Russian" in SUGAR PLUM FAIRY. It always breaks me up and I NEVER understand what on earth they might be saying. But you definitely get the gist. (It is not a good day for them.)
When do you get the desire to write, as opposed to wanting to receive immediate audience response performing? Or do both your creative forces have equal pull?
I have to say, it's fun to write in anticipation of an audience. And then, hearing how an audience responds in real time inspires one to immediately go back and rewrite for the next time at bat. I will say one "creative" activity I do love is cutting (so relaxing, no need to generate new material). That's when you see what the gold is and what's filler.
What did you want to grow up to be when you were a teenager? Physicist? Writer? Comedian?
I wanted to be a cartoonist! A few drawbacks: could not draw hands, legs, or noses straight on. Also, hair was a problem. Every third frame, I would do a dramatic close-up of a face, even if it was on a non-important line like: "Where are my car keys?" (On the other hand, now, at 56, that line WOULD really resonate. "WHERE ARE MY CAR KEYS?")
Whom did you look up to once you figured out what you wanted to be?
As an homage to the times we live in, amongst so many of my heroes, from Gilda Radner to Lily Tomlin, I'm going to go a little trans here and say Dame Edna! (At SUGAR PLUM FAIRY's end, our audiences will be waving our version of Dame Edna's gladiolas.)
Do you absorb the current news for fresh material to riff on?
HELLLLPPP!!! My inspiration here is truly Bette Midler as Dolores DeLago, the Toast of Chicago, the mermaid in the wheelchair who treats the newspaper as a kind of fish wrap because THE NEWS IS ALWAYS BAD. We know that. We fight. We suffer. We survive. But inside the theatre for this magical space of time, we enjoy a nurturing respite. Now more than ever, I think folks need a break and a space to recharge our laughter and joy.
What feels would you like the Skylight audiences to have leaving your SUGAR PLUM FAIRY?
Lit up, euphoria, smiles, escape from the world for 75 minutes, a feeling of wanting to hum tunes (including Peanuts Christmas music, but in a warm, not too wistful way), to hug those whom you love, and to relax with hot cocoa in a Snuggie and know that THAT IS OKAY, DAMMIT!
Thank you again, Sandra! I look forward to being laughingly enchanted by your SUGAR PLUM FAIRY!
For ticket availability and show schedule through December 23, 2018; log onto www.skylighttheatre.org Ugly holiday sweaters, tutus, and Hanukah hats are fervently encouraged.