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‘Wildly Important': Director's Approach to Transforming Letters and Responses Into Heartfelt Play In The Round

"Tiny Beautiful Things," a play based off Cheryl Strayed's book, runs through mid-March at The Old Globe.

When Director James Vasquez first got the script for "Tiny Beautiful Things," he got the bare bones, working draft script: just a title, character names and dialogue. 

There was no setting, no stage directions and no information on what the play was supposed to be, Vasquez recalled in an interview with NBC 7 San Diego. 

But still: he read the script and immediately wanted to be involved. 

"I read it and without question said absolutely one hundred percent," Vasquez said.

Even without certain basics, like stage directions, he knew he wanted to work on this piece, based on Cheryl Strayed's book. The words alone drew him to the piece, he recalled. 

"The words and the message underneath these words, of hope and forgiveness and acceptance and community - those are all themes that I think are wildly important for our world right now," Vasquez said.

"Tiny Beautiful Things," running now at The Old Globe, has just four actors: Opal Alladin (Sugar), Keith Powell (letter writer number one), Avi Roque (letter writer number three) and Dorcas Sowunmi (letter writer number two). 

The play chronicles the many letters Cheryl Strayed received and responded to while working as the online advice columnist, Sugar (her column was called "Dear Sugar").

Director Vasquez faced one big challenge when he started working on the play: turning a bunch of letters and responses into a theatrical piece for the Globe's in-the-round theatre. 

"Even though it may be literally a letter and then a response, the actors play it as though they're sitting at the kitchen table together, talking to each other," Vasquez said.

But the round theatre, where audiences sit all around the stage, served them "in the most beautiful way," Vasquez said. 

"As our community starts to grow, our actors get closer and closer and further inside Sugar's circle," Vasquez said of his staging.

The layout of the theatre also functions on another level, Vasquez said: audiences feel as if they are a part of the piece. 

"I've had the opportunity to sit in every part of our theater and watch a performance," Vasquez said. "And it's a different story depending on where you sit."

Audience members may be watching one of the letter writers from one perspective. From another perspective, you may be watching Sugar. 

"Depending on where you're sitting, you're going to get a different experience and emotional response at different points of the story," Vasquez explained.

Audience members should expect an emotional response and an emotional play, Vasquez added, even if the letters and issues don't directly relate to them. Tissues are even recommended in the play's description on the Globe's website. 

But that's the beauty of Cheryl Stayed's writing, the director said. She writes with "radical sympathy and open arms," he added. 

"You may be polar opposite from Cheryl, but she finds a way into your soul," Vasquez said.

Director Vasquez hopes audience members come and see the play, especially given today's political climate. 

"It's a time in our society where we are easily overlooking each other," Vasquez said. "This story celebrates humans. It celebrates the differences in humans while also showing that even though we're wildly different, we all have similar journey's and we all struggle in similar ways."

He hopes "Tiny Beautiful Things" helps remind people to embrace each other and connect more when they leave the theatre. 

"I hope that people walk out of the theater and maybe look in the eyes of somebody different from them that they haven't looked in before and just acknowledge them," Vasquez said.

"Tiny Beautiful Things" runs from Feb. 9 to March 17 at The Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. It's based on the book by Cheryl Strayed and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos. James Vasquez directs. Run time is one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission. You can buy tickets here. 

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