Lived advice from the heart animates ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’

STL Jewish Light interview with Sydnie Grosberg Ronga, July 25, 2021

Sydnie Grosberg Ronga wasn’t supposed to be directing “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” because the play, presented by Max & Louie Productions, was supposed to be performed last summer. Of course, we know that the COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on those plans.

This summer, however, while COVID protocols are still in place, the show will go on at the Grandel Theatre from July 29 to Aug. 8.

The play was written by Cheryl Strayed, best known for her memoir, “Wild,” which was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, and was adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” tells the story of an online advice columnist (Sugar) who uses her experiences to help real life readers who write to her with their problems and concerns. More to the point, director Grosberg Ronga said, it’s a play about empathy and compassion and finding the courage to embrace questions for which there are no easy answers.

Recently, the Jewish Light caught up with Grosberg Ronga, who graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School and lives in upstate New York, to pick her brain about the play, giving advice and the return to in-person, indoor theater. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

My understanding is that the play is based on real life letters and the actual advice Sugar (Cheryl Strayed) gave. Is that the case?

Yes. Nia Vardalos, who adapted Cheryl Strayed’s book, rearranged a little bit and edited a lot. She arranged a wonderful arc for the actor who plays Sugar, and really for all the actors. I read the book itself and laughed out loud at times and had to put it down at other times to go get tissues. One of the great things about the way it was adapted is that I can’t imagine anyone in the audience not finding some letter writer with whom they identify.

There are four people in this play, three of whom each portray about a dozen different letter writers. Is it more difficult to direct actors when they play multiple characters?

Not for me, personally, I think it’s a blast. I’ve been directing live radio plays for quite a while, where it is not unusual for someone to play as many as 12 or 13 characters. I’ve worked with actors to develop all those different people with their voice and body.

With the radio plays, it’s more gimmicky. This play is much more real and so moving. It’s all about taking a group of people who are in their own little pods — they could be literally anywhere in the world — and yet they connect and grow as human beings with each other.

I keep reading about the humanity in this play. What is it that you connected with?

First, Stellie (Siteman, Max & Louie artistic director) asked me, and I love Stellie. I try to come back to St. Louis every so often to work with her again. She is really good at picking something that will grab my heart. When she first asked me, I had not seen the show. I said, I will read it. Coming out of the time of COVID, it’s hard to turn down a full production at the Grandel and working with Stellie. When I read the play, there was no doubt in my mind I had to do the play.

Are there elements in this play that you think complement or embrace Jewish values?

I’m more culturally Jewish than religiously Jewish. But the whole thing that I find about Judaism is that we all need to stay in touch with our humanity, and this play is all about that. It’s about giving. About reaching. About growing. It’s about building a life on tragedy, on mistakes, on all kinds of things, and that’s what most people ask advice columnists about.

What makes a good advice giver?

I think there are lots of different kinds of advice. What makes Cheryl Strayed’s Sugar a good advice giver is that she’s not afraid to use her own life as examples and she’s incredibly open. She’s honest, in that she doesn’t know the answer. She just gives advice from her heart and from her experience. And I’m sure as she chose the letters she answered, she made that decision because she felt she had things to offer.

Her advice is so heartfelt and meaningful and yet fun and smart and funny. It’s a nice blend. She is clear, and that’s always helpful when giving advice. She always leads back — even though she will go off and tell a story — she always goes back and filters into what she is trying to share with the person who asked the question. But she will sometimes make it bigger than that one person.

Did COVID alter the script or your staging?

No, but it opened a different angle on the perception of it. I have changed a lot of how I directed the play with what I thought I would originally be doing because we cannot put the actors less than six feet apart. It’s a perfect play for social distancing and yet the impulses that the actors have when they do it are to be close together. I knew that to be the case when I read the play.

In the rollercoaster that has been the coming out of COVID, you don’t know what you can do. When we started planning this, who knew that the vaccine would get out and happen as fast as it did? We are a totally vaccinated company. We are all trying to be incredibly conscious of who we come in contact with. Yet we have very strict COVID protocols (delineated on the theater company’s website), with one person on our team overseeing that. We are cleaning the theater thoroughly between performances. One side of the theater will be for mask wearers and the other side will be unmasked (for fully vaccinated), and there will be empty rows between seats in that area.

The theater is set up for social distancing. We want people to feel welcome. We want audiences to know how much we want them to come back, and we want our audiences to feel comfortable attending.

What do you want audiences to walk away with when they leave the theater?

I want them to have learned something about themselves. That’s why we go to the theater. This play is so vast and encompassing in terms of what it talks about, but the overarching thing it talks about is love. Loving yourself and loving others, being a kinder more open person.