UCSB’s Launch Pad series celebrates 10 years with ‘The Talented Ones’

From left, director Risa Brainin and playwright Yussef El Guindi work with actors Emily Newsome, who plays the older Cindy and Roberto Tolentino, who plays the 30-year-old Omar. David Bazemore
From left, director Risa Brainin and playwright Yussef El Guindi work with actors Emily Newsome, who plays the older Cindy and Roberto Tolentino, who plays the 30-year-old Omar.
David Bazemore

In recognition of its 10th anniversary, UCSB’s Launch Pad series, which gives playwrights the space to create new work for the audience’s benefit, has brought in multiple award-winning playwright Yussef El Guindi, the British transplant whose plays have long documented the immigrant experience both in America and the UK.

“The Talented Ones,” which opens this Thursday for a five-show run, is a play in progress, but this is no table read. Launch Pad gives playwrights much more.

“Launch Pad is more than a workshop. It gives you a full production,” Mr. El Guindi says. “They give you a fully functioning stage. It is a wonderful boon for any playwright, because they get to see their own play fleshed out.”

It’s also a great chance for students to work on new plays, which doesn’t always happen, Mr. El Guindi continues, and to learn the skill of rolling with changes that revisions bring.

“For a workshop you usually wouldn’t have a composer, a costume designer, and lighting designer,” he continues. “But for this you do.”

“The Talented Ones” tells the story of Omar and Cindy. Omar is struggling to get ahead in life, while Cindy is doing better on her path, with dreams of becoming a dancer. Jore Aaron-Broughton plays the younger version of Cindy, who dances in the background, a mental reminder of her hopes, while Emily Newsome plays the older Cindy. The character of Omar is also doubled, played as a younger version by Rigoberto Sanchez and as a 30-year-old by Roberto Tolentino. Cindy’s friend Patrick, who has a thing for her and has a plan to help, is played by James Reisner. UCSB’s Christina McCarthy choreographs the dance sequence while longtime Santa Barbara musician Randy Tico provides the soundtrack.

Director Risa Brainin is the artistic director of Launch Pad, and has watched over the 10 years of this program as its plays have gone on to success elsewhere. Sheri Wilner’s “Kingdom City” received a world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. John Walch’s “The Dinosaur Within” opened at Boston Court Theatre. It’s a sign of its success and reputation that it can bring in a writer such as Mr. El Guindi.

His best known play, “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World,” received the Steinberg/American Theater Critics Association’s 2012 New Play Award and the Seattle Times’ Footlight Award for best world premiere play. His other plays have received the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, a Contemporary Theatre’s New Play Award, and got to the finals of the American Theater Critics Association’s Steinberg/New Play Award.

Egyptian by descent, British by birth and a resident of Seattle, immigration has always been Mr. El Guindi’s overarching theme, but his plays are disparate in style.

“I’ve noticed in my short stories that I’m telling the same stories over and over, but not so much in my plays,” he says. “I’m a bit looser. A few directors have said my plays are not like each other.”

Mr. El Guindi laughs. “However, someone pointed that my stage directions are usually the same! I say ‘perhaps’ he does this and ‘perhaps’ he moves here!’ ”

And as for his themes, it’s never in his mind when he writes.

“I try not to think, ‘Oh, this is what I’m writing about,’ because I don’t want my drama to be the illustration of a theme. I want it to stay nimble. And if I decide to go off on a tangent, I don’t want to worry about it. You have to be very loose and improvisational.”

The play, while a challenge with its multiple layers of reality, is also very funny, with a black humor that courses through all of Mr. El Guindi’s plays.

“I think it comes from my British upbringing,” he says. “It’s that slightly repressed sensibility, where people keep their emotional cards close to their chest.”

“The Talented Ones”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 21-May 30 (also 2 p.m. Saturday May 30)
Where: Hatlen Theater, UCSB
Cost: $13 UCSB students/faculty/staff/alumni/seniors, $17 general
Information: (805) 893-2064, www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu

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