Bay Area well represented in Theater Mu’s ‘Today is My Birthday’

Jomar Tagatac never fancied himself a lighting designer. He never planned to be a stage manager. And at the end of any given night of rehearsal, he didn’t think he would ever have to break down the entire set only to build it before rehearsal the next day.

Emily Kuroda, left and Katie Bradley are featured in Theater Mu’s production of Susan Soon He Stanton’s “Today is My Birthday,” the company’s first mainstage production since the beginning of the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Theater Mu. Above, promotional photo of Katie Bradley by Rich Ryan.)

But when a theatre gig comes calling nowadays, you pull out some lamps and get on the deck.

“It takes me about 20 minutes to set up my own lights, my computer and camera, and arrange everything based on the spike tape on the floor of my apartment,” said Tagatac, a Bay Area actor and American Conservatory Theater MFA graduate who works consistently throughout the entire region.

In Susan Soon He Stanton’s play “Today is My Birthday,” produced by Theater Mu in Minneapolis/St. Paul and directed by former Bay Area resident and current Mu artistic director Lily Tung Crystal, connections, internet or otherwise, are explored deeply. In a modern world which has linked us through gadgets more than any other time in history, the term “friend” has been diluted. Today a friend, a follower and likes may be a measure of something, but an actual friend to share a meal with can be elusive. The idea of online friends has very often usurped the dynamic of actual friends.

One of the benefits of the pandemic-born online theatre movement, approaching its first birthday this March, is that borders no longer exist. You want to work with a great actor who lives in New York and you’re in Minnesota? Glide on over to the kitchen, and bam, jump into rehearsal. There is no hopping into the car to battle traffic at present, cramming to get into the studio before the dreaded stage manager phone call asking why you’re late. Artists from all over the globe are only limited by the quality of their internet connection.

“Today is My Birthday” made its development debut in 2013, receiving a full production at Page 73 in New York four years later. And while 2017 might seem like years ago, the struggles with loneliness and isolation hit deep, pandemic or not.

“Having this set up just reminds me even more in this precarious time that it’s a great thing to have theatres trying to make things happen. Even at this point in time, it’s amazing that theatres are willing to take that risk.” – Jomar Tagatac

Actor Greg Watanabe, one of the founders of San Francisco comedy troupe 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, isn’t sure how prescient the play is, but he definitely believes it speaks to what the past year has been like for so many.

“It for sure captures what it’s like to feel emotionally isolated. The extended pandemic has left us all physically isolated and forced us to squeeze our interactions through our computer and phone screens, which can tend to exacerbate the feeling of separation,” said Watanabe. “We don’t deal with the pandemic directly (in the play), but the format of the presentation as well as the content really resonate.”

Actor Emily Kuroda, who has a numerous amount of theatre and television credits to her name and has performed in the Bay Area for years, most recently in “The Language Archive” at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, was part of multiple readings and workshops of the play, as well as the world premiere cast at Page 73. As someone who has been with the show through its many ideations, she agrees wholeheartedly that this play resonates today in ways it might not have before.

“I’ve seen this play through a lot of periods of time, and I think even back then with phones, people were having a disconnect as far as face-to-face contact,” said Kuroda. “But with COVID-19, oh my god. It’s a play about loneliness and just missing in-person, human contact. So I think this show resonates now more than ever because everyone can relate to it.”

What everyone can certainly relate to is sharing their personal space with others. It’s something that Tagatac thinks about while longing for the more traditional theatre space he’s always known. At the same time, he is grateful that creative people are finding ways to keep theatre alive.

“So much of the play is about misunderstanding and inability to communicate even with people we really care about, and I think that’s a universal feeling.” – Greg Watanabe

“For nine hours a day, my room isn’t really mine, it’s theirs, but when I turn my computer off, I’m back to my space,” said Tagatac. “Having this set up just reminds me even more in this precarious time that it’s a great thing to have theatres trying to make things happen. Even at this point in time, it’s amazing that theatres are willing to take that risk.”

As more and more vaccines are being made available to the general population, the end of the pandemic is closer than it’s ever been. For Watanabe, the world that surrounds him informs his art as well as the approach he takes to preparing his character.

“For sure coming upon a year of being isolated by a deadly pandemic has left me feeling pretty worn down by isolation and really craving being and working with people in person,” said Watanabe. “I think that puts me in the perfect emotional space to understand the characters in the play. 

“So much of the play is about misunderstanding and the inability to communicate, even with people we really care about, and I think that’s a universal feeling. The various technologies which are supposed to make it easier to keep in touch can also kind of keep us from really connecting. I think about that as we work on the play.”

WHAT TO KNOW

Theater Mu presents “Today Is My Birthday”
Written by Susan Soon He Stanton
Directed by Lily Tung Crystal
Featuring Katie Bradley, China Brickey, Eric Sharp, Jomar Tagatac, Greg Watanabe and Emily Kuroda
Video on demand – Through Feb. 28
Tickets are pay as you are, ranging from $5 – $50
For tickets and information, visit theatermu.org

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