UPDATED: On Friday night, Fresno State’s Nwachukwu Oputa and scene partner Arium Andrews advanced to the Region 8 finals in the KCACTF Irene Ryan Acting Competition. And Fresno State students Kindle Lynn Cowger and Will Bishop competed in the finals of the KCACTF Musical Theatre Intensive Cabaret competition. Winners – who will advance to the national finals at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in April – will be announced Saturday night.
ORIGINAL STORY: These are good times for Charles Erven.
The Fresno City College theater professor’s original production of “Mulan and the Battle of Black Mountain,” which made its debut at the college last March, got to make a trip to Mesa, Ariz., as part of a regional competition of the 49th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
The play was one of just six productions out of an eligible 83 to be selected for the Region 8 competition, which includes colleges and universities in Arizona, Central and Southern California, Hawaii, Southern Nevada and Utah.
That’s a big honor – both for Erven and the Fresno City theater program.
What makes it even sweeter for Erven is that it’s the second time one of his original plays received such an honor. In 2005, his original play “Canyon Suite” was chosen to be performed at the regional festival, this one in Utah.
“I am just grateful for having such talented and dedicated actors, crews, directors and designers to make all of it happen,” says Erven. “I think I’ve been lucky to have found myself in such company, twice.”
Erven was in Mesa this past week along with 27 other Fresno City cast, crew, faculty and staff members to perform the play, which was directed by Erven’s wife, Debra, a fellow theater professor. They offered two performances of the production Thursday.
It’s been a kick for the students involved, many of whom have been documenting their experiences on social media. (“You could seriously summon a demon with all the sulfur in Mesa, Arizona’s, water,” Sabrina Lopez wrote on Facebook.)
Erven based “Mulan” on an ancient Chinese poem that also inspired the Disney version that most people associate with the title. There are similarities between the versions. The biggest is the character of Mulan herself, who disguises herself as a man to join the emperor’s army so she can save her sick father from being conscripted.
But as I noted in my review of the play, Erven’s take on the classic tale is much more probing and astute. Gender roles and sexual politics are major themes, and they go far beyond the broad comic appeal of a woman in a strictly gendered culture getting away with being a man. Instead, we get to know and identify with a slyly empowered person who adroitly maneuvers through the stereotypes and assumptions of her own time, finding a way to succeed on her own terms.
The theater department raised about $20,000 for the trip, including the cost of reconstructing some of the sets. The production made its way to Arizona mostly intact except for a few cast changes and a few small alterations to the script.
“They were not wholesale changes – mostly clarification and editing,” he says. “We focused on tightening what we already had and really working through a number of the scenes.”
The other five school productions represented in the festival are from Chandler Gilbert Community College in Arizona, Long Beach City College, Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy, Santa Monica College and Utah Valley University.
In years past, a winning production at the regional level had the possibility of traveling to the finals of the festival in Washington, D.C. But budget cuts have eliminated that honor. A national team of adjudicators sees all the regional-level productions, and winners will be announced in April.
So Arizona will be end of the line for “Mulan” – at least for this production. But what a great experience it’s been for students to get to travel with the show for an encore.
Plus: Another major component of the regional festival is competition for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarships. Out of 300 entrants, six Fresno-area students and their scene partners made it into the semifinals:
▪ Kai Di Mino and partner Alyssa Benitez, Fresno State.
▪ Quincy Maxwell and partner Alyssa Gaynor, Fresno City College.
▪ Nwacukwu Oputa and partner Arium Andrews, Fresno State.
▪ Chlorissa Prothro and partner Aaron Pierce, Fresno State.
▪ Karina Rodriguez and partner Dezmen Diaz, Fresno State.
▪ Josh Tabor and partner Dylan Hardcastle, Fresno City College.
Sixteen semifinalists were scheduled to be announced Friday night. One nominee and partner from every region will be invited to the national festival in April.