The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) at Arden Theater – An Interview with Bi Jean Ngo and Jo Vito Ramirez

Ryan deRoche sits down with two actors from The Arden's latest production, the BFG (Big Friendly Giant). A wonderful show for theater lovers of all ages.

The Arden Theater Present the BFG Big Friendly Giant
The Arden Theater Present the BFG Big Friendly Giant


Ryan deRoche: I had an opportunity to see the BFG at the Arden Theater Company this week. It was a fun and exciting show for theater lovers of all ages. That’s coming up on our blog radio. The big friendly giant follows the story of 8-year-old Sophie as she learns about the lives of giants. Dreams and friendship. Looking out her window, Sophie sees a giant. The giants are not to be seen the giant spot. Sophie looking at him through her window. The giant sees Sophie who’s trying to hide in her bed. The giant picks her up through the window and carries Sophie into his large cave. He explains that although most giants do eat humans, he does not because he is the big friendly giant, The BFG. I was fortunate enough to sit down with two actors from the show.

Jo Vito Ramirez: My name is Joe Vito Ramirez, and I am playing Daniel and Blood Butler.

Bi Jean Ngo: My name is Bi Jean Ngo and I’m playing Child Chewer and the Queen of England. 

Ryan deRoche: So have you two worked together before?

Jo Vito Ramirez: Yes. 

Bi Jean Ngo: Yes. Go ahead Joe.

Jo Vito Ramirez: Uh, I believe the first time we worked together was Dell Shakes. Is that right?

Bi Jean Ngo: Yeah. So years ago, I directed much ado about nothing for Dell Shakes, um, in the summer. And Joe played Claudio and was amazing. 

Jo Vito Ramirez: Yes. Thank you very much. And then we worked together more recently, at um interact. Yes. Interact. On a piece called the Chinese Lady. And I did props and B was, the main performer.

Ryan deRoche: You do acting and props as well. Did you do any props for this show?

Jo Vito Ramirez: Well, actually I start, well I sort of started my props journey here at the Art, and because I, um, interned with, uh, the. Previous prop designer, Chris Hague. So I was actually building a lot of props for the Arden. I didn’t for this show because I’m no longer working in the prop.

The Arden Theater Present the BFG Big Friendly Giant - Cast PIcture
The Arden Theater Present the BFG Big Friendly Giant – Cast PIcture

Ryan deRoche: But you still do that on your own. Yes. That’s still very much your thing.

Jo Vito Ramirez: Yeah. My next, prop project will be coming up in the spring. It’s Torch Song with 1812. 

Ryan deRoche: So how does it feel as an ensemble? 

Bi Jean Ngo: It’s a really fun ensemble. I mean, some of us are coming in with a few Arden, children’s theater shows under our belt. And then some are new to this kind of process, which is a really like, really fast paced, detailed process. Like I’m sure you see like between act like, you know, regular acting like person to person and then. You know, embodying puppet life and just, there’s so many technical elements of a show like this that also make it come to life. Yeah. Um, and this cast, this ensemble of people is just incredible. Everyone comes in really happy to be here and really like, excited for work.

Jo Vito Ramirez: It’s true. Yeah. There’s a lot of, I think something that we all have in common is, one our sense play, which is wonderful. And also, a unique, or at least a remarkable precision. Cause every single one of us is very precise, which is exactly what this work calls for. Um, and that’s lovely. And I think that’s sort of the reason why today’s performance seems so polished, is because in some ways the work now is to just continue to live in this thing, this structure that we’ve created.

Jo Vito Ramirez: Um, because right off the, uh, right off the bat. Folks were, um, offering really, really precise, uh, moves for this show, which is great. Strong takes. Yeah. [00:04:00] Strong and wrong. Yeah. That’s how we’d like to play it. Yeah. 

Bi Jean Ngo: Yeah. I think you have to have a great sense of play to do a show like this. Yeah. Like, you know, our director Witt, who has directed so many of these Arden children’s shows is such an amazing artist. I mean, between his work here and with his own company, new Paradise Lab, Laboratory,. He has such a vision, like that’s, that’s a Dreamer’s vision, right? Even from the first day of rehearsal, our first read of the script, entirely fun and weird. Kind of opening up the space for us to really like, be daring and make bold choices and make big proposals. I don’t know how, we’re so lucky, ’cause I mean, we get to sit in a room and we talk about theater and we talk about how to create these like magical, really precise moments and then in the next breath we are making an orchestra of fart sounds. You know, we’ve lived through, like I know I’ve lived through a couple of years of like uncertainty because of the pandemic, right? We’re like, there seems almost surely there’s been like a heaviness in the air for a couple years. And to be able to come into a process like this where we really get to play big time has been a gift. You know. Yes, it, it’s actually like a process that I wish for every actor to have, because why aren’t we doing this when, when we explore Tennessee Williams or Ibsen, you know, like there are moments where we just sit around and play with mouth songs. And then there’s a discovery in that that ends up in the show. Or discovery in that, that ends up between cast members. That is a deepening of friendship in a way that that you wouldn’t normally find in, a rehearsal process. Maybe if you’re just like looking at the text and doing the dramaturgy of the text, 

Jo Vito Ramirez: It’s sort of like compost, you know? It’s like you take these things, you build, you let these things grow, then you decide that you don’t need them, so you scrap them, but they actually make the fertile, the soil more fertile. And it’s nice and it creates a richer environment for all of us. I love it. 

Ryan deRoche: That’s a great metaphor for what it is. So how does that, how do you go from. A, a one-person self-written, artistically drawn, pulling it from here to composting. 

Bi Jean Ngo: Well, my solo show was a lot of composting between a lot of collaborators. I got a lot of help with people who bounced back ideas. I think I always thrive in collaboration. Couldn’t have done it without, my director collaborator, Makoto Hirano. Bouncing back ideas between all the people at 1812 and my sound designer and my set designer, and all the people who helped me on the show. I just love it and to engage with the children. I know we don’t get to see them post show this time around, but getting the Q and A experience right after the show is awesome. And then to just be on stage and see their reactions when we come at as giants and see all the kids freak out, they’re both scared and delighted at the same time, and some of them reach out and try to touch our puppet heads. It’s so much better than seeing things through a screen, right? These kids are getting a visceral, multi-sensory story.

Jo Vito Ramirez: I look also look forward to the audience telling us what’s good and bad about the show. You know.

Ryan deRoche: How do they do that?

Jo Vito Ramirez: They, oh man. They are not afraid to tell us when we’re, when we’re flubbing, when we’re not telling the truth. They keep us honest, which is amazing.

Bi Jean Ngo: Especially kids. 

Ryan deRoche: What does a, a younger audience, how do they express their approval or disapproval 

Jo Vito Ramirez: There are as many ways to do that as there are children, so, and they’re very, very creative.

Bi Jean Ngo: I mean, the moment we come out during the first dream sequence, and I won’t spoil it for everyone, but we do an iconic, now iconic dance sequence that the children, a lot of ’em recognize. And I think the biggest barometer for me, to see that it works. Is looking out and having the kids do it along with us. When I see children in the audience immediately going this, and then they’re doing this wiggly thing, I know it works. You know? So that moment for me is a barometer. 

Jo Vito Ramirez: We make an entrance as the giants through the vom s, and as we’re like giving the energy to the, the, the kids, letting them engage with the giants. A couple of shows ago, this, this one kid looked me straight in my giant’s eyes and not in my own eyes, which is really important, um, because they were clearly feeling the character and they said, yes, sir. And I just, I just loved that. So that was a moment where they were recognizing the truth of this scene. The truth of this imposing character. I have been fortunate to come back many times and work here. Particularly the TYA performances. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but it’s what keeps me in theater. You know, there’s always this sort of like, the pandemic was difficult and there there’s always this sort of nagging idea that, my life energy might be put to better use somewhere else. But then when I come here and I get to play, for the kids and to show them that, adults can play. And not only that, but must play in order to, tell stories. In order to be, this may be dramatic, but in order to be a proper citizen, you know, we have to, we have to have a discourse and in that we have to be light, be able to kill our darlings. I think get being able to show young audiences that a sense of play is actually necessary and good is really beautiful, and that you don’t have to become dry and crusty as you age. So that’s why one of the, one of my favorite questions that we get from the audiences is, how old are you? And, and yeah. And the surprise and delight that, uh, that we hear when we tell them that we’re older than seven or eight is one of my favorite things.

Ryan deRoche: I think that was my, the exact experience. The first thing I felt as you took the stage was all of the seriousness of the news and the world just drifted away. And I, I was given the opportunity to pause and reflect on just the ability to play, the reminder to return to that space of lightness and ease when the world is so heavy and complex and difficult. So it’s as much art as it is a service. To the community. I thought you were performing today. 

Jo Vito Ramirez: Thank you.

Bi Jean Ngo: It’s funny because a friend of mine said, hope is an action. And it was one of those moments, like a light bulb for me, and I was like, yeah, we choose, we have to choose to either despair or hope, right? And, but it’s, it’s not just an idea to choose to play, to choose to thrive and create joy or try to seek it is very active. For me as an artist and active for me in this piece. And it’s something that I hope like the kids and the teachers who, you know, teachers were having a rough time, right? Like there’s a lot like scary, like it’s hard right now. And so to give them this hour and a half of like unmitigated pleasure. And then to have the Q and A session to give the kids access to how we created this thing that is not just something that you’re, that is meant to be seen and just appreciated and a spectator, but that is an active participatory engagement in Playmaking.

Jo Vito Ramirez: Yeah, I think the, I think active is the right word. I like what you said, Bi about hope being a choice. I think, I think like you said, play is also a choice and love is a choice. And we do, we have to despair sometimes or like despair asks us to feel it sometimes. And we always, in the TYA shows, that I’ve done specifically the ones with Witt as the director. There’s always this sense of like fundamental fear driving the action. And I think it’s necessary for us to actively decide as people to actively decide, to allow ourselves to feel that and to continue in the face of that fear. And I think that’s what plays that are written for young audiences generally do well when they do it well. Is takes this fundamental fear ’cause we all have it even, and especially adults. This fundamental fear, we exist, we don’t really know what that means, and we don’t really know what we’re supposed to do, but we pretend to a lot of the time. So take that fundamental fear and play with it in an intentional way. Juggle it or, you know, shoot it through a water gun or whatever it is. I feel like that active choice is what makes Arden shows really lovely. Yeah. And just a, a good space for young people to engage with reality. 

Ryan deRoche: I wanna thank Bi Jean Ngo and Jo Vito Ramirez for taking the time to talk with me this week. The Arden Theater’s production of the BFG runs through January 21st, 2024. It is a wonderful show not just for children but for all ages. It will ensorcell you with its powerful lights and sound. The actors are fully engaged in this production leaving you spellbound. It’s another successful production by the Arden team and I hope you enjoy it as well.