Hopping on the “COAST STARLIGHT,” a Train and a World Premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse

by Pat Launer September 6, 2019


coast“There’s something singularly powerful about train travel,” says New York-based director Tyne Rafaeli. “You abdicate any responsibility. You’re not responsible for driving. That leads to a disconnect. Seeing the landscape pass by gives a very particular reflection on your own life and your place in the universe.”

Those were just the kinds of thoughts playwright Keith Bunin was having when the La Jolla Playhouse commissioned him to write a play. The result was “Coast Starlight,” which was originally developed in the 2018 DNA New Works Series at the Playhouse, and is now having its full-fledged world premiere, under Tyne’s direction.

“We asked him to write us a play,” says Christopher Ashley, the Rich Family artistic director of the Playhouse, “and he delivered an empathetic and humane tribute to all the people who–like him, and like me–came to California chasing a dream.”

The Brooklyn-based Bunin was working for an animation company on the West coast for a while and, according to Tyne, “he had no community on the West coast, and on weekends, he wanted to explore, so he took multiple train journeys.”

One of his favorites was the Coast Starlight, the Amtrak train that runs from Los Angeles to Seattle, via the San Francisco Bay Area.

Those train trips, says Tyne, got Bunin “thinking about the mythology of the West, the pioneers traveling through this land–then and now. As a writer, he thought about Kerouac and Didion and Steinbeck, all entrenched in the culture of the West. And he wondered, ‘Who are the travelers now?’ And ‘why aren’t we talking more?’”

When Keith, who shares an agent with Tyne, sent her the result of his ruminations, she “fell head over heels with the play. We had a real meeting of the minds; it was very organic and immediate.”

She considers “Coast Starlight” to be “a bitingly 21st century story, told in a beautifully and surprisingly ancient way.”

Stories of the American Experience

The play’s six characters embody different experiences of being in America, says Tyne, who finds the play to be “complicated and nuanced.”

The central character, a young Navy medic, has to make a seminal life decision. One choice could land him in significant trouble. He has 1000 miles to determine his way forward.

Onboard the train, he connects with five other travelers, each of whom is at a kind of crossroads, reckoning with their own life choices. Each has a decision to make or a problem to solve. As they share their stories, they create a sense of community that binds them together.

“They change each other’s lives, in powerful ways,” Tyne says. “The core of the piece is our perennial need to connect and our inability to. The transformative power of communication and our difficulty doing it. Our capacity for re-invention. Each character is singular, with their own history, rhythm and cultural context.”

One young woman is a first generation American. Her immigrant parents live in Rhode Island, but she now lives in L.A., a story artist at an animation studio. She’s just visited her boyfriend and realizes her relationship may be coming to an end.

Another woman has “a deeply personal, complicated situation,” Tyne says. She’s just been to pick up her brother’s ashes, and has to figure out how to greet and deal with her children in the aftermath.

“California is a place of new beginnings,” playwright Bunin says. “But it’s also the place that people who are on the run finally run out of land.”

Keith has, according to Tyne, written “a lot of mystery and open-endedness into the play. And a lot of hope. The ending is not conclusive, but it’s incredibly hopeful.”

Tyne considers the piece to be “beautifully theatrical, but very actor-centric, with no bells or whistles in the telling of the story.”

One of the big challenges in telling this particular story is creating a train carriage. In this production, instead of having just one static location, Tyne says, “the space will keep surprising the audience by how it changes. We boil down the experience of being in a train using lights, sound and fa- cial dynamics. There’s a sense of movement. Through light and sound, we’re articulating the idea of movement, to convey passing through an extraordinary landscape.”

One might imagine extensive use of projections, which have become ubiquitous in theater of late. But that will not be the case here.

“No projections could do justice to the landscape,” says Tyne. “I’m much more interested in an abstract concept of landscape. It’s an extraordinary experience, looking at a landscape that’s so shockingly beautiful and sharing that with a group of strangers. It’s a very intimate experience. We’re keeping the focus on that.

“Keith has drawn on so many influences,” Tyne continues. “A Greek chorus. The simplicity of Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town.’ It’s very clear that this kind of story and experience could only happen in theater.”

Though Tyne hasn’t taken the Coast Starlight, she did make some long train journeys through Central and Western Europe some years back.

It was in Europe, in fact, at the London Film School, where her parents met. Her father was born in what was then Palestine and became Israel. He grew up on a kibbutz. Her mother was from New York. Tyne is the only one in the family with an English accent.

The Making of an English Jewish Director

Her family was “very strongly culturally Jewish.” The kids went to Hebrew school (both she and her brother had b’nai mitzvot), though her father was “intensely secular; an anti-religion socialist.” The Judaism practiced by her family was an amalgam of varied influences. Both parents supported a strong Jewish education and identity.

“I have absorbed and continue to deepen my understanding of my Jewish history,” she reports. “I don’t have a strong religious identity. I married a non-Jew. But I think I have a strong sense of my culture and history.”

Her family was deeply changed by the Holocaust. Her father’s mother was one of seven children. Only three survived; the others perished with their parents in a shtetl “somewhere between Poland and Belarus.”

That fraught history is, says Tyne, “a very, very big part of my understanding of who I am and where I come from. Growing up in London, I experienced anti-Semitism. I remember one time, walking home from school, there were boys on bikes screaming ‘Heil Hitler!’ It made me aware of being an outsider in the culture.

“These kinds of experiences,” she says,  “gave me insight and a great deal of empathy for any kind of marginalized community. A lot of my work is trying to shine a light on people who haven’t had their stories told or their voices heard.

“Inclusion is incredibly important in my process as a director–and as a human being. Listening to other people’s stories is very important to me. I’m deeply committed to female voices, though of course, not exclusively those. I like to be as eclectic and inclusive in my body of work as I can. Right now, we’re trying to address a historical imbalance as to what’s been on our stages.”

Her wide-ranging work features many plays by women, including Ming Peiffer’s “Usual Girls,” Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound,” Lauren Yee’s “In a Word” and the world premieres of Anna Ziegler’s “Actually” and Amanda Peet’s “Our Very Own Carlin McCullough,” to name a few. She has directed at prestigious theaters throughout the country.

In 2014, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Union’s granted her a Sir John Gielgud Fellowship for Classic Direction. When she became a Time-Warner Directing Fellow at the Women’s Project Theater in New York, she was part of a small group of producers, directors and playwrights who met weekly over the course of two years (2016-2018).

“That was a wonderful, game-changing experience,” says Tyne. “It was an all-female, or female-identifying group, all about community-building and ongoing professional conversations.” The meetings culminated in a festival of six new plays.

“Directing feels like such a good fit for me,” says Tyne. “I’m a perpetual student. I
keep listening and learning. I always look for challenges: teach me, expand my craft, tell me something the world needs to hear right now.”

“I’m very connected to variety,” she explains. “New works, classics and musicals. When I direct new plays, I’m looking for the why of the story. I adore the process of shaping a new piece. In working on ‘Coast Starlight,’ Keith is like a sculptor, continually chipping away.”

She’s thrilled to be making her La Jolla Playhouse debut, and feels that the Potiker Theatre is “a thrilling space to transport the audience.”

She keeps coming back to the important themes in the play, which she considers to be about communication, connection and our capacity for invention and re-invention.

“It’s about the transformative power of human connection and the difficulty in connecting. That’s such a timely conversation to be having. How can we reach over the aisle–literallyand figuratively–and listen?

“This play isn’t as much about the California Dream as it is about the mythology of the West, the idea of pioneers in the American psyche. Putting your life on your back and moving on. It’s a very common story, and relates to my own personal narrative. My family are pioneers now scattered around the globe to try and make a home. I don’t have an immediate connection to West coast pioneers, but I certainly relate to the spirit of being a stranger in a strange land and trying to make a connection, find a sense of community.

“In the language of the play, Keith is not romanticizing what happened to native
people that already existed here when the white settlers came. And he’s not denying the fact that there was also nation-building on the backs of slaves. But he’s examining and looking for explanations for the mythology of the West and what it means in the 21st century. Who are our pioneers now? His characters are pioneers in their own lives, trying to forge a new path.”

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