A New Play Asks, Are We Ready for The Big One?

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Generally, disaster preparedness is something many of us ignore — especially newcomers to LA who haven’t yet felt the earth move. But Chalk Repertory Theatre is thinking ahead — and over four weekends they are performing “In Case of Emergency,” a play about earthquake readiness. Is the play any good, and does it get the message out?

“Locked loaded and ready to roll.” That’s how one scientist recently described the San Andreas fault, meaning it is ready to spring a big quake on southern California at any moment. Generally, disaster preparedness is something many of us ignore — especially newcomers to LA who haven’t yet felt the earth move. But Chalk Repertory Theatre is thinking ahead — and over four weekends they are performing “In Case of Emergency,” a play about earthquake readiness. Is the play any good, and does it get the message out?

First we sent producer Lisa Napoli to a rehearsal in the garage of a home in Highland Park. She learned that the idea for the show was sparked for playwright Ruth McKee when she arrived in San Diego over a decade ago to study for her MFA, and menacing, smoldering wildfires shadowed the city. She herself hasn’t experienced an earthquake — yet.

“It freaks me out!,” McKee said. “It’s almost like Chekhov’s loaded gun that’s going to go off any time. I feel like there’s a tension in this whole region, that, like something terrible could happen at any time. But, it doesn’t. So, we live every day with that tension. And that’s one of the things the play really tries to explore.”

The cast and crew of In Case of Emergencyat rehearsal in Highland Park: Deena Selenow, Emma Zakes Green, Amy Ellenberger, Daniel Rubiano, Ruth McKee, and Jennifer Franco. Photo by Lisa Napoli
The cast and crew of In Case of Emergencyat rehearsal in Highland Park: Deena Selenow, Emma Zakes Green, Amy Ellenberger, Daniel Rubiano, Ruth McKee, and Jennifer Franco. Photo by Lisa Napoli

The tensions in the script are enhanced by the al fresco surroundings: the inevitable noise of the city — helicopters hovering above and traffic passing — makes for a more believable, immediate, and raw experience, both for the cast, and up to 40 audience members, who are seated on rented folding chairs in the driveway.

Garages are fraught with memories and overstock and plain old junk. So, director Deena Selenow explained, it just made sense to perform it in actual garages around town, rather than on a set.

“This absolutely could be a constructed garage in a theater. There’s something to the immediacy of seeing someone’s literal garage, that I think, A, it’s kind of voyeuristic and fun and, B, people wonder well, what’s set and what’s not,” Selenow said. “It really heightens the intimacy. It’s that nice little intersection between fiction and real that I think is really special.”

But in this case, besides being an artistic backdrop, they’re a teaching tool.

Over the four weekend run of the show, Chalk Rep plans to invite actual earthquake experts to talk with audiences about what we should all have on-hand.

Actor Amy Hellenberger says working on “In Case of Emergency” has given the cast and crew a personal sense of urgency.

“We have all started taking count of what our disaster supplies are, and starting to have our own paranoia. I only have a little backpack and am going to have to do a little more prepping ourselves,” Hellenberger said.

Chalk Rep’s “In Case of Emergency” began its month-long run this past weekend at a private garage in Montrose. How was it? Did it inspire a commitment to earthquake preparedness?

Anthony Byrnes, host of “Opening the Curtain” on KCRW, went to check it out. Hear his review below: