Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hello, fellow travelers.

Hello fellow travelers: Latest from the Pastures of Heaven.dot dot dash dash. incoming message... The artistic members of the latest P of H workshop met for a work week just before Christmas, and, as previously reported, we could not have had a more enjoyable gift than the opportunity to work together once more. We got to unwrap the first draft of four stories, as adapted by Octavio Solis. It took Director Jonathan's stern reminder to us all to concentrate on giving the play an airing (versus arguing about our favorite bits of the book) and then we all got a chance to begin the acting work, exploring Octavio's characters. Octavio gave us four stories, each different in its theatrical form. I found that exhilarating and unexpected: narrative, discursive, presentational, monologue or scene- or song-based, as one story slipped into the next, the form changed as well. And Jonathan gave us interesting visual shapes to fill, and explored tone, as well, looking for low-key (though highly dramatic) transitions which felt true to the book. We ended with a presentation of the material for an audience and for Octavio, who then serenaded us with the "Song of the Two Sisters."

All in all, a great week for us. And now Happy New Year wishes to all reading this; may our 2009 be filled with great theater!
.end message.
from, Amy

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Two Best Ofs, two Honorable Mentions.

Cal Shakes productions got the nod from area theater wags this week--Chad Jones named Pericles his number 2 production of 2008 at Theater Dogs, Sam Hurwitt lauded Uncle Vanya as his number 4 in the East Bay Express, and both critics named An Ideal Husband in their lists of honorable mentions.

Stay tuned for the Chronicle's faves. And happy holidays from Cal Shakes! (And from this blogger, who's actually blogging from home in her bathrobe, like a REAL blogger.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Original corridos, photos from Steinbeck Project road trips and workshop, and much more to come...

The Steinbeck Project is all kinds of active again. Last week, Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, Word for Word Co-Artistic Directors Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter, Cal Shakes Associate Artistic Director (and New Works/New Communities honcho), and myself drove down to Salinas for a trio of Community Conversations. You can see a few pictures of those--at Hartnell College, Breadbox Recreation Center, and the Steinbeck Center--on our Flickr page, and there will be video, blog entries, and more to come on the subject.

Same goes for the third Steinbeck Project/Pastures of Heaven workshop, which took place this Saturday through today with members of both companies, here in the Cal Shakes rehearsal hall. So far, playwright Octavio Solis has adapted four of the novel's stories: one about a cursed farm (featuring my favorite line from the book); another about the stoic widow of a huntsman and her increasingly unhinged young daughter; the heartbreaking tale of the phony-baloney capitalist Shark Wicks; and the novel's epilogue, wherein a busload of tourists view the Pastures of Heaven some two decades after the book's main stories have unfolded.

I shot video of three thirty-minute sections of the workshop rehearsal and performance (including a surprise performance of one of the other stores as a corrido, sung by Solis himself) and will be editing that video in the coming weeks. And there will be blog accounts to come! But in the interim, here are a few pictures from yesterday, shot by Jay Yamada.

Pictured at top: In rehearsal (left to right), Ron Campbell, Patricia Silver Stephanie Hunt, Joan Mankin, Julie Eccles, Daniel Duque-Estrada, JoAnne Winter, and Sarah Nealis.
In rehearsal (left to right), Joan Mankin, Julie Eccles, Ron Campbell, Daniel Duque-Estrada, Catherine Castellanos, Sarah Nealis, Susan Harloe, JoAnne Winter, Amy Kossow, and Jonathan Moscone.

Middle photo: Playwright Octavio Solis talks to Cal Shakes Associate Artist Joan Mankin.

Bottom photo: In rehearsal (left to right), Ron Campbell, Patricia Silver Stephanie Hunt, Joan Mankin, Julie Eccles, Daniel Duque-Estrada, JoAnne Winter, and Sarah Nealis.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Shall I Compare Thee to a Saxophone?

An abbreviated version of this article appears in the December issue of the Cal Shakes e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Back in August of this year, New Works/New Communities program director Jessica Richards sat down with Cal Shakes Associate Artist Andy Murray to chat about his Write 2 Read Community Residency, part of the Alameda County Youth Literacy program at the Juvenile Justice Center. The resulting article ran in our Uncle Vanya program, and since then, Murray has continued to visit the kids in the center's classrooms.

When the actor and teacher began his latest visits in late November, he was about to open The Seafarer at Marin Theatre Company, a play wherein Murray’s character ends up playing a card game with the devil for his soul (and which has been extended through December 14). Though he says it’s really hard to find a parallel in your life for something like that, “in all great works of dramatic literature, you find parallels. Like in Macbeth, there’s very few people who are going to end up killing the King of Scotland. But there’s plenty of people who have been faced with a moral choice because they wanted something, whether it’s a candy bar in the store or their best friend’s girlfriend, they’ve said, ‘I know this is wrong, but I’m gonna do it anyway.’”

Getting the kids in the three Write 2 Read units to relate to literature is one of Murray’s primary challenges, along with the changeable nature of the classroom population—kids being late or absent, leaving or entering the center—and getting the students to just settle down. “But you do what you can, introducing them to a few famous speeches and getting them to speak the language out loud and talk a little bit about what it means and how it might relate in some way to their experience, everyone’s experience.” So he brings in speeches from the four major tragedies—Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Hamlet—and also some sonnets. Some units want him to read the text aloud before they take a crack at it, because it helps them understand. “I always say, ‘well, you read it. You read it.’ And I’ve always said ‘no.’ I know how to read it. But it actually really helps them to understand it if I read it first, and then we can go through it. I hadn’t figured that out. I’d always been about throwing the attention off me and putting it on them, but it’s actually really helpful to do it this way. So that’s something that I learned this time, and it’s always about learning what works better.”

In a coed unit, Murray brought in Sonnet 18, the one that famously begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Then, he asked them to rewrite the opening lines.

“I tell them that a summer’s day in England is no small thing, since it’s always raining. It’s like, ‘shall I compare you to one of the greatest days of the year?’ So I say to them, ‘what do you like, what do you find beautiful?’ And it’s a push to get them doing it, but one girl said, ‘Shall I compare you to a saxophone? You’re better because you can’t get any dents and I don’t need WD-40.’ I said to them, ‘I read a lot of poetry, and in the thousands, hundreds of thousands of poems written since Shakespeare first wrote a poem, that may be the first one with the reference to WD-40.’ So that’s a great thing. It’s hard to get them to push their imaginations a little further. Most of them want to talk about money, drugs, sex, you know? Some teachers are OK with that, but I always want to get them out of that place. They spend their whole lives talking about money, drugs, and sex, which is partially a function of being a teenager. But with these guys, it’s really hard to get them away from those stock references they have in their lives. But I want to get them to use their imaginations, and see alternative ways of expressing themselves. So that’s the challenge.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

2009 Season Designer Profile: Romeo and Juliet's Andre Pleuss

In the months leading up to our 2009 Main Stage season, we’ll be profiling the creative minds behind the season’s productions—Romeo and Juliet, Private Lives, Happy Days, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream—in our e-newsletters. For the inaugural installment, we are introducing newsletter subscribers to sound artist Andre Pleuss, an Artistic Associate at Lookingglass Theatre (Chicago) who designed sound for our 2008 production of Twelfth Night, as well as Berkeley Rep’s current production of Arabian Nights. What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Mr. Pleuss. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.

If you could have composed music and/or designed sound for any production(s)—historical or modern—what would it be?
I would love to have composed/designed JoAnne Akalaitis' production of Iphigenia, Tina Landau's Space, and most things I've ever seen produced by SITI Company and recently Elevator Repair Service. I love the Greeks and I always want to design any House of Atreus plays (or adaptations) that come along. I'd also love to write/design for the Japanese multi-media theatre-arts/dance collective Dumb Type. They blow my mind.

Who are your favorite composers (theatrical and nontheatrical)?
My favorite theatrical composer these days is ... hmm that's tough. I guess I'd say Richard Woodbury in Chicago, and Willy Shwarz in Germany. I also like Michael Keck's music a lot, and Victor Zupanc in Minneapolis I think does great work. I loved the music for Les Waters' production of To the Lighthouse at Berkeley Rep a few seasons back, written by Paul Drescher.

My favorite nontheatrical composer is Frank Zappa (unrivaled prolific genius IMHO). I'm a big fan also of Jon Brion (as both a composer and producer). His music for Punch Drunk Love is always on heavy rotation on my iPod. I'd also add Rufus Wainwright to that list.
What's your favorite band? Or bands?
I'm going through a huge roots music phase right now. (I can't stop listening to the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album Raising Sand. Gillian Welch, Jolie Holland and the Be Good Tanyas are also in heavy iPod rotation these days.) Unrelated, I find Postal Service endlessly fascinating—not just musically, but in terms of their process (i.e., rarely being in the same room, but rather sharing files across the country via the internet, passing them back and forth layering tracks gradually over time).

Oh yeah, and I'm a sound designer so it's like a prerequisite to be a Radiohead fan. And I am, proudly.

You recently did Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare Santa Cruz; I know it's a bit early to be thinking too much about our upcoming production, but can you provide any insight at all into how that production, with its Hungarian Gypsy feel, may inform how you approach the Cal Shakes '09 one?
I wish I could. It's still quite early and Jon and I have only had one conversation. I will say that it is great having the play still very resonant in my mind. I don't think I've ever worked on the same play (with different production aesthetics, et cetera) so closely on top of one another before. I'm really thrilled that it's this play. I've always thought I could work on Romeo and Juliet once every few years for the rest of my career and not be bored. There is so much going on in that world emotionally, dramatically. It's sexy, romantic, violent and lyrical, joyous and profoundly sad all in the same breath. If any one play can kick-start a designer's imagination in a wide variety of different directions, it's this one.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008