Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Listen to interviews with Jon and JoAnne

A representative of the NEA's New Play Development Program came out to observe the final development workshop for John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven last week, and conducted interviews with Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone and JoAnne Winter, Co-Artistic Director of our collaborative partner, Word for Word. Hear the interviews at

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Heaven in Oakland—a Halfway Point

"In talking about the house on the Battle Farm, and how the townspeople in the Pastures of Heaven view it, I asked kids if they knew of places like this in their own lives. One student said there were ghost stories about a house he knew of where a person had died in the basement. Others said they knew of places that were really worn down. I said, 'Yeah, they may be abandoned, like how the Mustrovics had to suddenly up and leave.' Another student chimed in, 'We call those bandos.' I thought about our current economy and how it might be more timely than I thought to have empty, worn-down houses in their very midst due to foreclosures."

That's an excerpt of a blog by Emily Morrison, Cal Shakes Artistic Learning Programs Manager. She's teaching John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven to eighth-graders as part of a residency at E.C. Reems, an Oakland charter school, and blogging about it at OER (Open Educational Resources) Commons. We'll be excerpting the blog and linking to it in this space as the residency continues, building toward a community event featuring student readings and artwork in mid-December. Read the full blog entry for a window onto Morrison's arts education experience.

Pictured above: Emily teaches at at a 2007 Cal Shakes Summer Shakespeare Conservatory; photo by Jay Yamada.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Entering into The Pastures of Heaven

So folks, we just ended a full week of workshopping the first complete draft of Octavio Solis’ adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. We’re premiering it next year on our Main Stage, and it was quite a week.

Octavio’s play is, simply, beautiful. On the path to making a play, you look for its DNA: what it’s made of. Changes will be made—cuts, rearrangements of scenes, additions, etc.—but what needs to be there at one point is the play’s DNA. Its self. Octavio’s Pastures has real DNA. It has a genuine theatrical life, blending Word for Word’s sensibility of translating literature into theater with my love of the nakedness of storytelling in the hands of actors (as we explored in Nicholas Nickleby). But more importantly, it has heart. And poetry. It’s also very very funny. And that’s all Octavio. He pulls Steinbeck’s quiet words off the page and finds the juxtapositions between humor and pathos in a way that makes me happy to feel like I am in the hands of a Chekhovian writer.

We assembled a group of actors, some of whom had been with the process since it started two years ago, and some new actors. And all were splendid collaborators, able to make characters distinct and alive in an extremely short time; also able to ask smart questions of the text that will inevitably inform our next steps in the development of the piece; and most of all, united, in just six days, into an ensemble. Which is what this play celebrates: the storytelling of an ensemble of actors. It’s sheer theater—authentic and alive.

We invited some funders, board members, staff, and patrons to the “window on the work” yesterday, reading abou half of the play. The feeling in the room was palpable—there was something special going on here. I was, to be quite sentimental, extremely proud, moved, and almost speechless (and for those of you who know me, that is no small feat) by the presence of a wonderful new American play, inspired by one of our great American writers—a classic writer if you will—at a Theater that is taking a big leap forward in defining who it is.

The great folks at Arena Stage sent someone out to chronicle the process. They, along with the NEA, were partners in selecting John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven as one of five NEA Distinguished New American Plays. This, along with support from the Irvine Foundation and other amazing foundations, is making it possible for us to do this piece. And our subscribers delight in the surprises we make for them. So their spirit was in the room as we made steps in the creation of this piece. And our staff, led by the great Jessica Richards, producer of the project, was there every step of the way.

Hence the pride, the being moved, and the almost-speechlessness. I couldn’t do this anywhere else but at Cal Shakes, and in the Bay Area, which is by far the best place in this country to take chances in theatrical expression.

There’s a lot of work still be done with the play, but Octavio knows where to go with it and what to do. Trust the playwright. Especially when it’s Octavio Solis, who listens more than he talks, takes in and thinks hard about what the actors and I are doing, and is open to the collaboration of the ensemble and myself.

I am genuinely happy about what happened last week, which is just a marker in the path of the making of this new American play. And our community engagement—with folks in Salinas, especially the young artists of Alisal Center for the Arts (whose mural inspired by The Pastures of Heaven will be on display at our Theater during the play’s run) as well as students in the Bay Area who are learning about Steinbeck and how to make literature come alive (via our excellent teaching artists)—makes this more than just a play-making process. It’s a community-building process. It makes it all bigger. It makes more impact. And it will forever change this Theater and, I hope, some of the communities we are reaching out to.

More anon.


Pictured above, from top: Jonathan speaks to project artists at the last Pastures workshop; Danny Scheie; Maya Lawson; Craig Marker; photos by Jay Yamada. View more at the New Works/New Communities Flickr page.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Steinbeck Blog Prompt #3 by Jonathan Moscone

The third and last in our series of three prompts, designed to help inform our upcoming Steinbeck Project workshop. The Cal Shakes New Works/New Communities program would love for you to leave your input in the "comments" section below, via prose, poetry, links to video, imagery, or audio, and whatever else you can think of. Posting your comments on an individual prompt blog during its first week gets you entered in a drawing to win a prize*, and all comments are eligible for publication in Cal Shakes newsletters, on our website, and/or in the program for John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven during our 2010 season.**

This week's prompt comes from Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, who will be directing the Main Stage production of Pastures.

In Steinbeck's book of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven, lives are eternally changed by the smallest action, the merest word, the slightest touch. Life is not melodramatic, he seems to be saying. There are no good guys and bad guys; any of us can say something or do something that seems small and insignificant, and yet has the most epic, seismic effect on the life of someone else. Has this happened to you? What are those little moments that have had the biggest effect on your life? Or can you think of a small thing that you have done or said that inadvertently affected another person's life in a surprisingly large way?

Photo of Jonathan Moscone by Jay Yamada.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Steinbeck Blog Prompt #2: Identity and Community

This is the second in our series of three prompts, designed to help inform our upcoming Steinbeck Project workshop. The Cal Shakes New Works/New Communities program would love for you to leave your input in the "comments" section below, via prose, poetry, links to video or audio, and whatever else you can think of. Posting your comments on an individual prompt blog during its first week gets you entered in a drawing to win a prize*, and all comments are eligible for publication in Cal Shakes newsletters, on our website, and/or in the program for John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven during our 2010 season.**

And so now, without further ado, here's your second prompt, written by Trish Tillman, Cal Shakes’ Director of Artistic Learning and one of the developers of this fall’s Pastures of Heaven residency at Oakland’s Reems Academy.

As we develop our residency work in schools, one of the most important things that our students are trying to understand is the idea of identity in their own lives, and how one’s personality is shaped in relationship with others. If you can think back to middle or high school—or if you are that age now—you know how important social interactions can be to how you are perceived, and how you think about yourself.

One of the main themes of Steinbeck’s work is how complicated social interactions can be between disparate groups of people living in the same place. Much like a neighborhood or a school, his characters come together with certain expectations or desires about how they will live in the community in which they find themselves. When you enter a new group for the first time, what do you expect? How do you begin to understand those around you?

*Prize still to be determined. Please leave your email address somewhere in your comment!!
**Don't worry, we'll ask your permission first.
Art courtesy of an anonymous commenter on last week's blog.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Steinbeck Project Blog Prompt #1, by Octavio Solis

Here it is, the first in our series of three prompts, designed to help inform our upcoming Steinbeck Project workshop. The Cal Shakes New Works/New Communities program would love for you to leave your input in the "comments" section below, via prose, poetry, links to video or audio, and whatever else you can think of. Posting your comments on an individual prompt blog during its first week gets you entered in a drawing to win a prize*, and all comments are eligible for publication in Cal Shakes newsletters, on our website, and/or in the program for John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven during our 2010 season.**

And so now, without further ado, here's your first prompt, written by none other than Octavio Solis, the award-winning playwright of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven.

In The Pastures of Heaven, as in most of his other novels dealing with Salinas, Steinbeck depicts the hard lives of the rural working class. There are migrant workers, chicken farmers, cattle ranchers, orchard growers, construction workers, etc., peppered throughout his works. Can you think of other contemporary writers working today who focus on this labor force? Has anyone in your background ever worked the land like Steinbeck's characters? What particular kind of work did they do?

*Prize still to be determined. Please leave your email address somewhere in your comment!!
**Don't worry, we'll ask your permission first.
Photo of Octavio Solis by Anne Hamersky.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Topics (and prizes!) for Steinbeck blog series

As we mentioned a week ago, the Cal Shakes New Works/New Communities program will be asking for your help in our development of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven, starting next Monday. On Oct 19 and 26 and Nov 2, we'll be posting thoughts from Pastures playwright Octavio Solis, Pastures director (and Cal Shakes Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone, Cal Shakes Director of Artistic Learning Trish Tillman, and Word for Word Performing Arts Company Co-Artistic Director JoAnne Winter (the latter two are collaborating on school curriculum based on Pastures). Each of these blog entries will contain a prompt, and we'd like you to leave your input in the "comments" section, via prose, poetry, video, audio, and whatever else you can think of. Posting your comments on an individual prompt blog during its first week gets you entered in a drawing to win a fabulous prize*, and all comments are eligible for publication in Cal Shakes newsletters, on our website, and/or in the program for John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven during our 2010 season.**

Some things that have been discussed as possible topics include: the hard lives of the rural working class in literature and in real life; utopias; place names and what they mean; how one's landscape defines their possibilities; and fitting into a community. Most if not all of these topics will be covered in the ensuing weeks' prompts. Stay tuned!

*Fabulous prize still to be determined.
**Don't worry, we'll ask your permission first.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Coming Soon: Your Participation.

Beginning two weeks from today, the Cal Shakes New Works/New Communities program will be asking for your help in our development of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven.

This play—which we've been developing in collaboration with award-winning playwright Octavio Solis and San Francisco's renowned Word for Word Performing Arts Company over the past two years as part of our Steinbeck Project—is now slotted to have its debut on the Cal Shakes Main Stage, kicking off our 2010 season.

But the script is not quite finished yet, and we have one more development workshop coming up in November. To further inform the development process, we'll be posting a series of three prompts on this blog, one every Monday starting October 19. The prompts will be crafted by playwright Solis, Pastures director (and Cal Shakes Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone, Cal Shakes Director of Artistic Learning Trish Tillman, and Word for Word Co-Artistic Director JoAnne Winter. With each prompt, we'll be asking for your input, via prose, poetry, video, audio, and whatever else you'd like to leave in the "comments" section.

Curious? Check back in with us next Monday for a sneak preview of themes and topics. We can't wait to see what you'll bring to The Pastures of Heaven.

Pictured above: A rock formation in the Corral de Tierra area of Salinas; photo by Derek Smith.

Friday, October 2, 2009

There is such a thing as free brunch

Out of curiosity last October, Susie Falk (then Cal Shakes Marketing Director, now Managing Director) ran a report to find out how many of our subscribers have been with us for 10 or more consecutive years. The result was pretty surprising: A little more than a third of our subscribers have been with us for the long haul. (You like us, you really like us.)

“We should say thank you,” posited Susie. “Can we do some kind of event? Maybe brunch?” It was a simple request, almost off-hand.

Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones.

There’s a flood of details that facilitate an event requiring 700+ invitations. I won’t bore you with all of that. Let’s just say that questions were asked and answered, a date was picked, invitations went out, and the response was phenomenal. More than 200 people RSVP'd in the positive; I lost track of how many of them asked one or both of the following things: “Is it really free?” and “This is just so nice of you to think of us this way.”

The morning of the brunch—this past Sunday, Sep 27—dawned hot, and it only got hotter as the sun climbed higher in the sky. The staff has long kidded about the hardiness of our patrons, but the members of the “10+ Club” showed that hardiness in spades on Sunday. Subscribers stood patiently in line for food while staff members introduced ourselves and brought over cold bottles of water and glasses of wine. They exchanged witty banter while filling out name tags that also advertised their number of years subscribing, with many people calculating subscription time based on how many years Cal Shakes had been at the Bruns (19) or how many years Jonathan Moscone had been the Artistic Director (10).

Danny Scheie, L. Peter Callender, and Jonathan Moscone
answer questions from the 10+ Club; photo by Jay Yamada.

After brunch, subscribers made their way into the amphitheater for a panel discussion. Jon reminisced about the highlights (and the occasional lowlights) of his time at Cal Shakes, with Associate Artists L. Peter Callender and Danny Scheie on hand to add their insider memories. At one point Jon opened the discussion up to the entire group, asking for suggestions of shows to add to future seasons. Some of the more interesting ideas floated by the panelists and the patrons included some of the less-performed histories, A Little Night Music, and a production in full Elizabethan garb, which all present agreed would actually be avant-garde for us!

The conversation lasted nearly an hour and, as subscribers filed out, a throng of staff members pressed specially designed thermal tote bags (perfect for picnics) into their hands as yet another thank you for year after year of loyalty.

All in all it was a smashing success. Not too shabby for such a simple idea.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Review Cal Shakes: Help Us Make a Difference for Bay Area Youth

Are you a fan of Cal Shakes? Have you been moved by a performance at the Bruns, or touched by an experience you or your child had in one of our camps, classes, Student Discovery Matinees, or talkbacks? If so, please take just a few minutes and share your story with the world by reviewing Cal Shakes on, a website that allows people to post stories of their firsthand experiences with nonprofits of all kinds—think of it a Yelp for the nonprofit sector. Review our educational programs by next Wednesday, September 30 to nominate Cal Shakes for the Youth Thrive Awards and you’ll become eligible to win gift certificates through GreatNonprofits for treats from companies such as Clif Bar, Greystone Bakery, and Birkenstock!

Reviews can help bring attention to the work Cal Shakes does, both overall and specifically in service to young people. Those nonprofits that receive the most positive reviews for their work with young people will be named Youth Thrive Award winners in five different categories. Of course, you can review our other programs, too—and we’d be delighted if you did.

To write a review for Cal Shakes, follow these simple steps.

1. Go to and search for Cal Shakes.
2. Click the “Write a Review” link in the listing in the search results, or click the “Write Reviews” tab that appears in the left column of every page of our profile on the site.
3. Fill in the online review form and submit. You’re done!

Thanks in advance for sharing your Cal Shakes story, and for helping us to continue to bring theater and the works of great playwrights to youth throughout the Bay Area.

Pictured above: Clive Worsley leads a post-performance talkback with students
and the cast of Romeo and Juliet (2009); photo by Jay Yamada.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Midsummer's Afternoon Student Matinee

Hello everyone!

Today’s Student Discovery Matinee was—yes, you guessed it—awesome. The sun was warm but not unbearable; the chaperones were on their game with their groups; the students (a mix of kids who had been in plays, including Midsummer, and some who had never been to a Shakespeare play) reacted heartily but not out of hand; the actors were in fine form; and the Q&A afterward (with nearly all the actors participating) was full of really good questions. Puck transfixed everyone into complete raptness a couple of times, the audience related to the lovers a lot, the Mechanicals started getting laughs just by walking onstage, and the Pyramus and Thisbe play went over brilliantly. You know that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you know everyone in the room is having a great time together? That was there.

Quotes of the day:
Student #1: (enthusiastically) Man, playing Puck would be the coolest thing ever.
Student #2: (authoritatively) Dude, I played him in 7th grade.

Thanks to everyone who helped today!

Pictured above, L to R: Erin Weaver as Hermia, Doug Hara as Puck (on ladder), Richard Thieriot as Demetrius, and Lindsey Gates as Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream; photo by Kevin Berne.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Cal Shakes 2010 season has been announced!!

And the lineup is (drum roll, please) ...

John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven
By Octavio Solis
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
JUNE 2–27

Mrs. Warren’s Profession
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Timothy Near

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Joel Sass

Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Moscone

Season packages on sale now!

Click here play descriptions.
Click here to read a letter from Jonathan Moscone.

And call 510.548.9666 or click here to pick out your series!

Ask Philippa... and Aaron!

Philippa Kelly, Cal Shakes Resident Dramaturg and production dramaturg for A Midsummer Night's Dream, invites your questions about the show, with the assistance of director Aaron Posner.

Picture by Jay Yamada.

"I am amazed and know not what to do..." So speaks Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Wonder, amazement, the perplexities of love.... Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jon Moscone says that "magic" in the forest is like a sped-up version of human destiny: that the magical events in the forest of Athens are a fast-forward version of what ACTUALLY happens when people fall in and out of love. We humans pride ourselves on being the most rational of all earth's creatures, and yet the strongest compulsion we havethat of loveisn't about reason at all. Love sends us in directions that may make no sense to anyone else (even our beloved) but we go there anyway.

How did it feel to experience love's mystery in the forest with Aaron Posner and his cast?
Enter your thoughts and questions in the "comments" section below, and Aaron and I will take turns answering.

Midsummer runs through Oct 11, 2009.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

And now, a break from our regularly scheduled program.

The Cupcake Truck came today.

Employees from Cal Shakes and nearby architecture firm Noll & Tam lined up in anticipation.

Three of the five available varieties. Left to right: Red Velvet, Vanilla Vanilla, and Double Chocolate. Not pictured: The Twinkie and S'mores flavors. (I got the S'mores, and highly recommend it.)

Even Managing Directors are indecisive when faced with so many cupcake choices.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Midsummer's Happy Days

I've been meaning to post this for a while, but right now—as the cast and creative team of A Midsummer Night's Dream works overtime during tech rehearsals, in preparation for this Wednesday's first preview—seems like the perfect opportunity.

Here they are: Some of the great minds and hearts behind Midsummer, attending a performance of Happy Days during less stressful times.

Left to right: Richard Thieriot ("Demetrius"), Avery Monsen ("Lysander"), Joan Mankin ("Snug/Philostrate"), Christina Hogan (Production Assistant), Aaron Posner (Director), Keith Randolph Smith ("Oberon/Theseus"), and Kate Jopson (Assistant Director); photo by Jay Yamada.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ask Philippa!

Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes and production dramaturg for Happy Days, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. Happy Days runs through Sep 6, 2009.

Samuel Beckett's Winnie, protagonist of Happy Days, is locked in a mound of earth. "And I thought, who would cope with that and go down singing," said Beckett. "Only a woman." Repeatedly Winnie exclaims, "That is what I find so wonderful."

But what's so wonderful about her situation? And what's it supposed to mean?

There are so many ways to see Winnie: as a victim, a heroine, a battler, a hilarious purveyor of humor in the face of life's most depressing truths. No matter how you see her, however, there is one thing you can't contest: Winnie is a talker. It is words through which she seeks to understand her life, and words through which she pries open the mysteries of eternity.

Have a question about the play, the playwright, or the production? Leave it in the comments section below, and I'll do my best to answer it there!

Pictured above: Philippa at the 2008 Pericles Inside Scoop.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One belated HAPPY DAYS blog, or, Jon laughs at a naughty word

The latest and in a fascinating series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Thursday August 13, 2009

Last night: first preview. I was oddly calm. I’m usually not. Those who know me were a bit stunned by my apparent mellowness. I don’t know why I was like that. But I think it has something to do with the feeling of amazement at this play, this script. Beckett is brilliant. It seems WAY OUT THERE, but in reality it isn’t. It’s very real. Almost painfully real at times. And the poetry of his sparse language is a genuine pleasure to listen to.

But none of this would matter without Patty and Dan who took the play to a whole new level last night. It was full. Of life, humor, passion, love, wit. I was taken aback. I would have expected tentativeness on the part of the performance—after all it’s the first time in front of a group of people. But no. No no. Patty took to like a fish to water. If that is the right phrase. She paced herself beautifully and found new stuff even in performance. Wow. Cannot believe her. She is astounding.

Dan has apparently so little to do in the play, but his effect is devastating, especially in the last scene, which may be one of the great pieces of writing ever. It’s impossible to describe. It needs to be seen to be felt, to be understood, to be affected by.

I look forward to tonight, perhaps a little more nervous than last night cause it went so well. I’m a little “waiting for the other shoe to drop” kind of person. Maybe it’s my Catholicism. Or just my neuroses.

That’s a funny word when you see it written.

Favorite line from the play: “Put a little jizz into it.” Jizz. Ha.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Brutal beauty and genuine, pure theater. (Or, hey, look, it's a picture of the set!!)

The latest and in a series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Friday, August 8, 2009

Well, what do you know.

We put the show together at the Bruns today. I have to say that Todd Rosenthal is kind of a genius of a set designer. The mound is epic and intimate, authentic (thanks to our great scenery team led by Dave Nowakowski), and, when lit by York Kennedy, it is a thing of beauty. Brutal beauty.

And Patty takes to it like moths to a flame. She fills the mound with energy and life that makes it compelling, utterly compelling to watch. Then Dan appeared with a bloody head (she throws a medicine bottle carelessly in his direction), and it looks like a painting. A surreal painting. It’s quite amazing. This play is genuine, pure theater. Beckett is a genius.

Here’s a pic. Come see.


First day of tech

Another in a series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Friday August 7, 2009

Today we start technical rehearsals, going up to the Theater to fit Winnie and Willie into their mound and figure out the play in space. Always a nervous-making, excitement-inducing transition. Saying goodbye to the rehearsal hall is always a mixed bag for me. It means I am now bringing the show to its next level, scaling it to the size of the Bruns, worrying if the subtle moves of emotion will read.

But all in all it’s great to be there, to be making theater in the outdoors. It’s invigorating. I love our space. It’s epic AND intimate. Actors can really connect to an audience while the scope of the external imagery—those burnt hills of the Siesta Valley—recalls early Greek theater-going. The muscles I have developed directing at the Bruns. Physically and imaginatively.

Our Resident Dramaturg has not been with us this week, the inimitable Phillipa Kelly. Many of you know her from when she delivers our Grove Talks. Seemingly a proper Australian academic, she is a fierce thinker of theater, a great supporter and colleague, and loves connecting our work to audiences. I think we do a pretty good job of that, through our Audience Enrichment activities, on our website, which I think is pretty innovative, and in our entire energy—even our house management staff, who make you feel at home when you come to our Theater. It’s genuine community up there. To me the Theater is artists, audiences, and staff—all of them together. We’re all in this together. Making theater requires all of us, experience it, all of us. That’s why I do it. I’m kind of a “it takes a village” kind of guy—I rely on the collaboration, the relationships, to make the work happen, and to make it matter.

I think the politics of my father instilled that in me.

If I am not too pooped after tech, which goes to 12:30 followed by a production meeting, I’ll post tonight/early next morning.

See ya.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

We do this a lot in the theater—calm ourselves down.

The latest in an exciting series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Wednesday August 5, 2009

Today we braved a stumble-through. For those of you not familiar with the term, the "stumble-through" is the first time you run through the show from beginning to end without stopping. Since it’s the first time, everyone is given the relief of knowing it’s a stumble through—that a perfect run is not expected, so the pressure can go down.

We do this a lot in the theater—calm ourselves down.

But they did it. Act One, that is. The bear act. Winnie’s mind goes so many places and there is always a logic to it, even if it is subconscious, often in fact it is subconscious. She runs that way. She diverts from feelings and thoughts that allow the sadness to break in—so much of it for her. Stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground, as Beckett puts it. But beyond that, she has lost her past. Her physical connection to her beloved husband, Willie, who is now on the other side of the mound (physically and emotionally) is lost. Her youth, her beauty (in her opinion) is lost. But she remains optimistic. It could be worse, she says. “Ah yes many mercies, MANY mercies.” Even when it gets too tough for her to handle, she finds a way to make it funny—life, that is. And enjoyable. In fact, she makes it endlessly fascinating. Taking great interest and comfort in the tiniest of things (“things have their life!” she exclaims in Act Two when she can no longer reach for them, being as she is now up to her neck in the mound) Winnie finds hope.

Beckett is not about death. It’s about enduring. And in Winnie he finds his most enduring and heroic creature. Only a woman could play this part. In fact Beckett said that the only creature who could make life work in a mound was a woman. Resilient, rebounding, poetic, humorous, witty, and smart as heck, Winnie endures like no other woman I’ve ever encountered in theatrical literature. I love this character.

Patty was quite heroic today. It’s not easy for someone to be putting it out there, a lot of it alone. Talking to us, her unseen husband, to herself, to an ant, anything and anyone who will listen (for Winnie cannot bear to speak alone in such wilderness) Patty can feel pretty exposed. Dan even feels this, especially since he comes in only here and there, finding his timing and his actions only through sound since he does not look directly at Patty. And yet we are building to the best of our abilities a deep, connected relationship between the two. And Dan is really making that happen. It’s rare to see a Willie who is connected to his Winnie. Most of the time when he is gone from our sight, he is gone from our minds. But Dan is in rehearsal every single day, in his hole, listening and responding through breath and energy to Patty, who calls out for him almost every minute of the play. You can palpably feel his presence. It’s an amazing feat. I hope it does not go unsung because it is something to behold, and without it, Patty’s work would be far less dimensional, as would the production.

Dan Hiatt is seriously, THE MAN. He has always been one of my most favorite artists to work with, but he is out of this world in this. Many mercies. Many, many mercies.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

In the company of a most excellent company.

Another in an ongoing series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


I am going to take a break about waxing Beckettian and talk about our Theater. This last week, previous to today, has been a real test of what this company’s mettle is. And now that I am rounding the bend, as it were, quickly but delicately putting this new production together, I find that I have been in the company of a most excellent company.

First, the board and our patrons, about 50 of whom had RSVP’d to a dinner at the Lafayette Park Hotel and Spa to celebrate me and Marsha. When they received calls notifying them of the cast change, not one of them cancelled. Every one of them showed up and the evening turned out to be a celebration of our Theater, and of the endurance of theater itself.

This followed a week in which our staff—each and every single one of them, from Susie, my partner, to our interns—not only advised me, but held my hand, counseled me, and gave me the courage to move forward with confidence and the knowledge that people had my back. We became a team. Everyone did their part, especially our Marketing Manger, Marilyn, who fielded all press issues with what can only be called aplomb.

And Dan Hiatt, who has become a close friend, a confidant, a colleague, and, since rehearsing with Patty, an artist of the highest caliber. (He’s always been of a high caliber, but what he is bringing out in what is seemingly such a small role is providing a depth I never knew was in the play.)

Last night we had our Inside Scoop—something we do pre-opening for audiences to learn about the process from the artists. It was the most profound and ebullient one we’ve had, and that’s saying a lot, given that we are putting on a play about a woman in a mound. Our patrons were interested, interesting, and supportive, and you could actually feel the idea of community come to palpable life.

All of this, each of these people in my life, and in the life of our company, has allowed me to go on. In Beckett, there is the truism: “I can’t go. I must go on.” This is true. This is life. This is what is going on. But to have it go on with such loving and dedicated colleagueship and support is oddly, a blessing. It takes a crucible, a test, to see what you have built, what is around you. And I am around some great people, in the staff, on the board, amongst our community of patrons, and artists.

Sometimes doing theater actually pays back. After all the energy you put into it, you come to rely on few indicators—reviews, ticket sales. But in this, there was an unexpected indicator—that of a real community. Not a fake, marketing-termed “community.” The real thing.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I’m nervous but I am in love.

Monday August 3, 2009

Sorry, folks. Took a couple of days off of blogging. Have frankly been quite exhausted, physically that is, not mentally or spiritually, from this week’s work. But I have to say, I am in a place I thought I’d never be. I cherish this project in a way that surpasses any other piece I have worked on in my life. Partly it’s the events of the week that make me feel more connected to this piece than perhaps to other plays that haven’t seen themselves through a real crisis-turned-opportunity. And a great part is this play. Patty (Gallagher) makes me love this work and have a deep emotional connection to Beckett, something I thought would never happen.

You know, when I was in college, I found myself turned on by the study of existentialism. I took a course in Beckett, wrote a story for my final in “Beckett’s voice"; I received a B for the course with a kind but disappointing response from my teacher, and continued to be fascinated with Beckett’s idea of life—what does it mean? Now I am 44, and all that has melted away: What I thought was existentialism I have come to know as “life.” Beckett writes life. And he also writes astounding, heartbreaking, and yet ultimately life-affirming theater. I mean, if you think your life is tough, check out Winnie. She’s stuck up to her diddies in the earth. She cannot move her legs, cannot see her legs. And she is in the wilderness with her husband, who, though present, finds a wholly different way of dealing with his lot. She quotes the classics, she makes herself look fabulous, she remembers and tells great stories, she makes jokes, she distracts herself, and she finds every little delight possible in her predicament, right down to spotting an ant in the mound (“Willie! An Emmet! A live Emmet!” she yells with delight).

Winnie is an inspiration. And that’s only because Patty makes her so. She brings out the humor in this lady, the life force of this woman, and, even when heartbreaking, I take solace in her way of handling life. I think I can make it through anything when I experience Patty’s Winnie. Living in the void has never seemed so energizing. I feel alive when I see her work, and Dan’s beautiful portrayal of a man of very few words.

We start tech this week (yes, after five days of rehearsal with Patty, we start our final few days in the rehearsal room, then INTO THAT MOUND!!). I’m nervous but I am in love.


Friday, July 31, 2009

Gathering strong forces to blow the wind in our direction.

The very latest in an ongoing series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Thursday July 30, 2009

Sorry I’ve not been blogging the last couple of days, but we’ve had some real change of currents over here. Due to personal reasons, Marsha Mason left our show, which is both sad and disappointing. But I respect her decision. It threw us into a bit of whirlwind, as I'm sure you can imagine, everyone at the Theater. First thing, find a replacement. Two weeks into rehearsal (out of four weeks total—yikes, oh my frikkin’ yikes).

But we were blessed with an actress who has stepped into the role, starting yesterday. Her name is Patty Gallagher (pictured at right), and many or most of you don’t know who she is, but she is heaven-sent. Having performed the role of Winnie already (which she will again next year in India), Patty knows the bulk of the lines, which believe me, are brutal to learn (see previous blogs). But even more of a blessing is her spirit—she is ready to go, jumping into that mound with the entirety of her energy, her talent, her mind, her heart, everything. She is simply astounding, and I am not saying this to put a positive spin on all this. We’ve lost serious time, to be sure, and just because Patty knows a lot of the script does not mean we are just putting her in. We are creating a Winnie around her, one that comes from her unique spirit and perspective as an actor and as a woman. And with half the time. But she is open to everything we explore. She makes bold choices and has discovered so much already, and on top of all that, has inspired my connection to the piece. She’s done the same for dear Dan Hiatt, the great Willie, who has changed relationships to his Winnie with serious aplomb. And grace.

Another blessing: The fabulous Joan Mankin (pictured at right), one of our Associate Artists and a treasure, is understudying the role of Winnie and will be performing the role at certain performances later in the run. (Check our website for more details on that.) So we have two great actresses assaying this role, shoring each other up, and proving that not only does the show go on, but that crisis can actually mean opportunity. I am not rosy about this—that is, I am not seeing this through rose-colored glasses. Marsha will be missed. And we are behind. But we’ve gathered strong forces to blow the wind in our direction. With the full staff at my side, we made it through this, and I might venture to say that we’re stronger because of it.

Change is inevitable. Things will happen. Stuff out of our control. It’s how we handle it that makes us who we are. And my belief in the spirit that guides the theater, and ours in particular, is fortified, if not restored.

Tomorrow I will talk more about how the process is unearthing new truths about this play—how funny it really is, and how heartbreaking it is. Patty is teaching me that. Marsha did, too. We are going to work every day, every night, through opening, to make this piece come alive. I am daunted—a little—but I am ready to go. We all are.

Ruby Keeler would be proud.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Finding how to play the darkness lightly.

Another in the ongoing series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Saturday July 25, 2009

So I was on my way to our rehearsal hall to work on the play with Marsha and Dan, and my left front tire blows on Highway 24. Luckily, no one was hurt. I was towed to Big O Tires in Lafayette and was picked up by one of our assistant directors, the great Nara, and I made it back only 10 minutes late.

The piece made some great strides today. Marsha is finding so much. And the first five minutes, which we all like to call “cement” (due to all these fragmented little thoughts, so many of them nearly repetitive, matched with all this business for Winnie) is coming loose and finding its way. Phew. We delved back into the rest of Act One and so much was found, again, and again, and again. Beckett is endless in his meanings and so tricky in his tonal shifts, and it’s all on Dan and Marsha to make it happen. And it’s fascinating, funny, moving stuff. We ended a little early—Marsha was ready to call it a day after so much had been achieved and she wanted to get home to keep working on the script, putting it all together in her amazing head. I remain astounded by her talent and wits, her instinct and her sheer talent. And Dan, with seemingly little to do, adds so significantly to the room, to the experience, to this whole piece, that I cannot imagine doing it with another pair of actors.

This is tough stuff, but we are trying to find how to play the darkness lightly, funny through the sadness, light over the dark, ultimately life affirming even as it makes your eyes well up.

Tough stuff. Amazing stuff. More anon.


The heart onstage.

The latest in a series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

July 24, 2009

Today we assayed Act Two. Marsha made so many profound discoveries and is really finding out what it means to be buried up to her neck. I mean, can you imagine that? Well, Beckett did. Which is why he is so amazing. And so difficult. But oddly, without activity other than eye movement, her heart beating, and her words, Marsha drives Winnie amazingly, assuredly through this portion of the play.

Then Dan came in to rehearse Willie’s first time coming over to “this side of the mound.” I won’t give away the plot, but it had us in tears
it’s so beautiful, so sad, so oddly heartening. The theater so rarely gets to the heart, the real heart of the matter, and the distilled image of these two at the end on the mound is just that: the heart onstage.

I know I know. Beckett is a brain. A mind among minds. And we know that in rehearsal. We are sometimes a bit daunted by the Everest like nature of scaling this piece. But the heart, it’s all about the heart at the end of the day. Like Shakespeare, you may not got every word, but if there is palpable connection between actor and words, where thoughts are the results of feelings, and in turn, feelings the result of words, the brain gives way and one can feel it.

We all go home from rehearsal haunted, daunted, heartened, and nervous. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But if not here at Cal Shakes, then where? I am lucky to go through this massively difficult piece. I couldn’t do it anywhere else. I don’t know how it will all play out (a theme of these blogs) but I am reminded that this is a journey, and we’re carving out a path to somewhere that I hope is rich with feeling and smart with thought.

Marsha was pretty damned funny today
she even cracked herself up. Amazing how that happens. Something so painful being so funny. It’s like Chekhov taking to the extreme.

Sometimes when I am directing, I wish I were doing something else. Like selling shoes. I love shoes. And I’d probably get a discount. But then again, who needs more shoes? I think I need theater.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Full of disappointed wishes and dreams, but enduring nonetheless.

The latest in a series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Wednesday July 22, 2009

Yesterday we had an unexpected day off cause Marsha was sick, so she needed to stay home and recover. Today we dove back in and much to our surprise, made a lot of really interesting headway.

Marsha is a deeply intuitive actress. She is a kind of wonder. She travels in such interesting, authentic directions that reveal humor and sadness, alternately and simultaneously. But then she stops and says “I just don’t get why I’m saying this.” In attempt to try to answer, she forces me to help her as an actor of the piece, not a studier of the piece. It’s one thing to understand what a moment is about, in Beckett, or Shakespeare, or in any poetic universe, but it is another thing to find the “hook” into how to play it, that is, from the character’s perspective.

We have a small but astounding room of minds working on this play, all coming at it from different places, but all working on the same thing: how to bring this play home, to make it connect to us, and therefore (we hope!) to the audiences. And Dan Hiatt—what can I say, what an actor, what a person. He really feeds Marsha even when his character is curled up in a hole, outside of view of the audience. But Marsha can see him, and that means everything to her—it allows her to connect to another human in this seemingly “one-woman” show.

But it’s nothing of the sort. The marriage is so palpable in the script and we keep striving to unearth it, Dan, Marsha and I, to find the connection between husband and wife, Willie and Winnie, even as they don’t seem to connect. They are married all these years, and despite Winnie’s constant fears, Willie is not leaving her. It’s beautiful. Full of disappointed wishes and dreams, but enduring nonetheless.

Beckett is so brave in facing the difficult questions of relationships and memory and being a living, thinking, feeling person, and finding a way to endure with humor, wit, and a whole bevy of mechanisms that are part of all of us. Such big stuff.

We ended the day with the “cement” part of the rehearsal—that is, routing in the beginning of the play which is chock full of business and lines all playing off each other. It’s brutal and will be so till we conquer it. Learning how to do this play is about doing this play, if that makes any sense. It’s a mindblower to be sure, but so rich, so challenging, and if today is any indication, pretty delightful to experience and shape.

Meanwhile, Caela, Seren, and Edgar in props are experimenting with the umbrella catching fire. Love it.

See you again soon.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Learning How to Learn the Play, or "It’s pretty funny, watching a woman brush her teeth in a pile of earth."

What follows is the second in a series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

So, as planned, Marsha and Dan braved the mound and we began staging this play. After about an hour, Marsha remarked about a conversation she had with Fiona Shaw, who played Winnie at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a year or so ago, how the first days of staging were like “cement.” Brutal. So much business tied to so many words. You’d think that’d be easy, like a naturalistic play where people take their coats off and make coffee while speaking. But no. Oh, no. This is quite different. Daunted by the specificity of what line goes with what activity (brushing teeth, checking gums, reading the lettering on the toothpaste) Marsha just went nuts. As one can well imagine.

So I decided to reformat the script with the hopes of making “business meets words” easier to recall and do and, lo and behold, it worked. Things followed things naturally and she recalled all the memorization she had been attempting over the last months. Phew. Taking Beckett apart and bringing him down to a place where we can rehearse it—that was what today was about. As Dan Hiatt remarked, “we are learning how to learn the play.”

It’s pretty funny, watching a woman brush her teeth in a pile of earth. And Marsha is so real, so unaffected that I couldn’t stop laughing. We found this a relief. The play starts with humor, lots of it. A woman starting her day as if like any other day (forget she is under the “blazing hellish light” buried in her waist) and a man joining her for a morning read of the newspaper (forget that he is barely dressed and makes some very bawdy off-handed remarks). It’s funny stuff. Makes us understand the arc of the play—what starts her “day” and what ends it.

I feel a lot more confident now that I can see the piece up on its feet, even in its infantile stage. Marsha is taking her purse with all her daily routine items home to her hotel to routine the activity on her day off and we start again on Tuesday, carving more and more out.

I am so enthralled by this experience that I cannot get it out of my mind. I went after rehearsal to a cocktail party at a board member’s house and reveled in the joyful, family feeling of people gathering together to support a theater dedicated to taking on such monumental pieces like Shakespeare, and now, Beckett.

More to come. Tomorrow is day off. I’ll see you all on Tuesday.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Jonathan Moscone's first HAPPY DAYS blog.

What follows is the first of what we hope to be a series of many dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, written by the show's director (and Cal Shakes' Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

We’re nearing the end of our first week of rehearsals for Happy Days—Marsha Mason, Dan Hiatt, and I, and it is already one amazing journey. Never have I encountered such a play. Still slightly blurry in my eyes, I am starting to see some clarity in this monumental piece—where the humor comes from, where the pain comes from, what it all means. I mean, here’s a woman literally buried to her waist in earth. And then up to her neck. Wow. Forget the metaphorical significance, there she is. In earth. Not many plays set themselves up with such a scenario. Beckett blows my mind, and I think he’s blowing Marsha's and Dan’s minds, too, let alone those of our fabulous and funny dramaturg Philippa Kelly and super assistant director, Dan.

So little happens. And yet so much happens. It’s dire, the situation, but there is so much humor. It seems way out there, but really, it’s right in here, in the heart and the mind. That is what is striking me the most—how real the piece is. How not “out there” it is. I keep seeing my mom, friends, myself in this play—being formed by the past, “deformed” as Beckett put it, by the past. It’s in us, under us, and we are in it, even in the present. And what do we make of it all. How do we not sink under the weight of it all. How do we make light of the dark, laugh and take joy in living even when it seems like a string of days, world without end.

That’s what Beckett is asking us to discover and deliver. And in Marsha I find such humanity, such guts, such heart, such love, such humor, that I marvel at her in these first few days. And the connection she and Dan are making as husband and wife—she stuck in the mound, he lying almost against the mound reading the daily paper, making very funny, very bawdy, off-handed remarks—is proving to be the key to our understanding, to our opening up of this play.

I love it. I am terrified of it. How do we make it work theatrically? Beckett does a lot by giving us the circumstances of a lifetime, but how does it play out?

Tomorrow, we begin putting it on its feet and figuring it out in space. It’s daunting and I cannot wait to get in there, past the table work where we read and talk, read and imagine, read and question. Tomorrow, she gets in our rehearsal version of the mound, and we start to see how to play it all.

Stay tuned.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Heavy Stuff, Played Lightly

Earlier this week we had the first-day-of-rehearsals "meet and greet" for the third show of the season, Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. The production, starring four-time Best Actress Oscar nominee and renowned theater actress Marsha Mason (pictured at left) opposite Cal Shakes Associate Artist Dan Hiatt, is directed by our A.D., Jonathan Moscone, and boy is he excited about it. Apparently he's had a crush on the Goodbye Girl since he was a lad—luckily for him, Ms. Mason's former stepdaughter was one of his BFFs for a time. So now, he says, he's realizing a longtime dream in directing her.

This is the first time Moscone has directed anything by the late, great, Nobel-prize winner, and the first time any of Beckett's works will be presented at Cal Shakes. Talk about pressure! "When you take on Beckett," the director said early on in this week's meet and greet, "you imagine that you're taking on every single intellectual being ever."

Despite Moscone's very public statements of nervousness over tackling Happy Days, his explanation of the title shows his sheer excitement at digging into the work. For those of you who don't know, Happy Days features a middle-aged woman, Winnie, dressed in evening wear and buried "up to her diddies," as she says, in earth. A blazing, never-setting sun is overhead; Winnie wakes to the sound of a bell each day, although the concept of a "day" seems somewhat unrealistic in this setting. But it is a "happy day," says Moscone. "The title is not ironic. Winnie is finding joy in her day." She goes through the items in her purse, tells ribald tales to her largely unresponsive husband, Willie, and, as the director puts it, "emanates the light and the heat and the experience of her life, continuing to move forward amidst stasis." And her hourglass seems to be at its tipping point: Her bottle of tonic is almost empty, her tube of toothpaste is about to run dry, and her umbrella bursts into flames. Something, on this day of all days, is about to change.

Moscone and Mason do not see Winnie as matronly or prim; to that end, costumer Meg Neville is working on a dress that allows Winnie to "take advantage of what she has available," says the director. "There are many ways a woman can play up their sexuality."

"Shakespeare is bawdy; Beckett is dirty."

To create the possibly post-apocalyptic environs of Happy Days amid the hilly splendor of Cal Shakes' Siesta Valley home, scenic designer Todd Rosenthal—awarded with a Tony earlier this year for his August: Osage County sets—is working closely with Moscone and Mason to to create a sort of shoebox full of dirt and debris that has been tipped over and spilled (pictured at left). Among the spillage will be signs of life: perhaps a radio, a dresser, lamb, a Radio Flyer wagon that Willie may rest upon, lean against his own past. And inside the rusted metal diorama will be a bright, too-blue sky.

In opposition to productions of Happy Days that elicit a "oh, that sad woman" response, Moscone explains, he sees the play as "heavy stuff played lightly, allowing people to access their own story inside of it."

"Winnie has no one to talk to, for the most part, except for us, the audience," says the director. To this, Mason adds, "I want to reinforce the idea that the audience is part of this experience. I want to engage them. This is a very specific day; otherwise this play is not worth doing."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jim Carpenter wins Best Bay Area Actor award!

Cal Shakes Associate Artist and fellow blogger James Carpenter was just honored by the East Bay Express as part of their annual "Best of the East Bay" issue. Carpenter was lauded for—among other Bay Area portrayals—his roles in Cal Shakes' Romeo and Juliet (Lord Capulet), Uncle Vanya (Professor Serebryakov), and Richard III (King Edward IV).

"Besides creating fully believable and affecting characters," they write, "which in itself is no mean feat, James Carpenter can make you look at plays and speeches you might have seen a dozen times anew as if it were the first time....Sure, the play's the thing, but to make the play all about one minor character's tragedy for one fleeting moment is a real art."

Read the whole thing here. And congrats, Jim!!

Pictured above: Carpenter with Julie Eccles as Lord and Lady Capulet in 2009's Romeo and Juliet; photo by Kevin Berne.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Student reviews of PRIVATE LIVES coming soon...

Things have been incredibly busy around here, what with the successful opening of Private Lives (see Kevin Berne's photo below, and the reviews on the PL page under "In the Press"), the shooting and editing of this fun, short patron-reaction video, the beginning of rehearsals for Happy Days, and a dozen other things.

But I wanted to give you a heads-up about something very cool coming soon to this blog: Bay Area theater critic and blogger Chloe Veltman is teaching a master class in criticism to some of the older students in our Summer Theater Program; shortly after that class is through, I'll be posting some of those campers' reviews of Private Lives in this space. (Ms. Veltman makes reference to this process in her July 13 blog entry.)

So watch this space!

Pictured above: Stephen Barker Turner (Elyot) and Diana LaMar (Amanda); photo by Kevin Berne.

Friday, June 26, 2009

It's in the language of the moment; no more, no less.

Another blog from our fourth Steinbeck Project workshop. This is the second dispatch from Associate Artistic Director Jessica Richards, written on the last full day of rehearsal before today's performance.

I've never been involved with a production that worked with musicians quite like we are here in this workshop. Arwen Lawrence and Jorge Liceaga (the two members of Cascada de Flores who are with us this week) are amazing. Octavio (Solis, Pastures of Heaven's playwright) has worked with them before on a show with Shadowlight Productions, and the three of them have a wonderfully collaborative give-and-take of putting his stories to music.

When writing the Lopez Sisters story, Octavio intended for it to become a corrido. You may have seen him in video at our December workshop, singing an early draft. He revised it in May, and we sent the lyrics off to Arwen for she and Jorge to compose the music. From there, Cascada played around with the instrumentation, landing on two guitars (nylon- and steel-stringed) and accordion, and working with books of traditional corrido melodies for musical inspiration. For many lines, they found that the melody required a few more syllables than Octavio had written, or that a word in Spanish would complete the rhyme even better. They had free reign to revise the lyrics as needed, and today, Octavio has spent most of the afternoon with Arwen and Jorge fine-tuning the language of the corrido in advance of our public reading tomorrow afternoon.

At the same time, Arwen and JoAnne Winter have been working together on the vocal parts of the Lopez Sisters: Maria and Rosa. We've only heard bits and pieces so far, but everything sounds great. There's something to the comedy of Steinbeck (and Solis) that's very dry and straightforward—it's in the language of the moment; no more, no less. And hearing these two women (both of whom have really fab voices) tell the story of Maria and Rosa is hilarious and captivating and sweet, all at once.

The open-process staged reading takes place Friday at 3:30pm at Ashby Stage. I'm really looking forward to seeing how people respond to the work, though I'll be a little sad that another workshop is over. We shouldn't be allowed to have this much fun!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Photos from the Steinbeck Project workshop-in-progress

Jay Yamada took some great pictures yesterday of our fourth Pastures of Heaven workshop, taking place this week at the Ashby Stage. Here are a few:

Cat Walleck as Miss Morgan.

The supernaturally strong frog-child Turalecito (Alex Morf) gets ready to bring the pain to as Bert Munroe (Dan Hiatt).

Arwen Lawrence and Jorge Liceaga of Cascada de Flores work with Word for Word Co-Artistic Director JoAnne Winters on the corrido that Octavio Solis has created from the story of the Lopez (or Tortilla) sisters.

Want to see the rest? They’re the latest (so, last in chronological order) in our Steinbeck Project Flickr set.

Or you can start here and page forward

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How 12 pages of text can take four hours...

We're posting blogs this week live from our fourth workshop for The Pastures of Heaven. This latest one is by Associate Artistic Director Jessica Richards.

We met at 10 yesterday morning for our first workshop day for The Pastures of Heaven, and somehow the day flew by as we dug into one of the three stories Octavio Solis has drafted. Our first piece is "Tularecito," the story of a man-sized frog-child, possibly of mythical origin, definitely an outcast in his town. This was one of the first stories that captured the group's imagination when we were reading John Steinbeck's novel last year. We've researched the history, played with how Steinbeck's language could be physicalized, and discussed this character dozens of times since fall of 2007.

And finally, here he is, standing onstage telling his story, as are the characters in his world.

But what to do with the descriptive passages Steinbeck is known for? Inspired by the Word for Word style and the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company on Nicholas Nickleby, Octavio has given the Chorus much of this story to tell. We're working out now how that translates to dramatic action, down to the basics of who has the line and in what context he or she says it (as a named character or as a townsperson or as a narrator?). This is how 12 pages of text can take four hours to read through!

It's fascinating to me to watch these lines get parsed and divided—which words are layered with multiple voices, and when, exactly, an actor fades from a named character into a member of the ensemble. All the while, Octavio types away on revisions and rewrites, continually being called upon to answer the "first-person vs. third-person" questions and weigh in on who a character is addressing.

Today we're on to staging, finding more places where we need to question the function of the ensemble as the action comes together. Cascada de Flores, our wonderful musicians, join us again this afternoon to bring in the story of the Lopez ("Tortilla") sisters. And on we go.

Hard fun, or, the multifarious voice of a single character’s consciousness

This is the second blog this week from playwright Octavio Solis, live from our fourth workshop for The Pastures of Heaven.

“Take your attitude and turn it into an action.”

Jon Moscone gave this note to Amy Kossow during our workshop. This suggests a curious shift in the way we are defining character and action in this Pastures of Heaven process. In our process of storytelling—which must merge the novelistic approach with the dramatic imperatives of staging a play—we are constantly redefining how character functions in this project.

There are numerous complicated shifts from the first person to the third, wherein the actor describes what her character is thinking, even naming herself in the third person in that classic Brechtian way. But it is not alienating at all. It enables us to layer in strata of being through spoken text. The third-person self-address presents a veneer of the character regarding her world and herself in it; then when she is spoken about by someone else, a new layer establishes itself. But when the shift turns to first and second person, when “I” and “you” inhabit the moment, we shift into the starkly, freshly dramatic. The moment becomes immediate and present and active.

"Active" is a word that Jon is constantly repeating when staging this story of Tularecito. Because he must activate the narrative mode of John Steinbeck’s stories in any way he can. Even through the presentation of “attitude.” In this work, all the players enact their individual character but also function as a unified chorus. A chorus whose identity shifts with the demands of the story. Sometimes, they are the single narrative voice (that is, Steinbeck’s) sometimes they are the vox populi of the community, and sometimes they are schoolchildren. But what is really fascinating is how we are discovering how they can operate as the multifarious voice of a single character’s consciousness. I see the group assembled behind an isolated character like Tularecito and feel that they are different aspects of his mind and soul. Even if they all have the same attitude, they can never have the same attitude.

It’s fun working with a group of this size and experience on a project like this. Hard fun. The actors are bringing so much to the process and I feel I can respond at my leisure to their chancy stuff. This is what a workshop is supposed to do. It’s supposed to give the director and the company a chance to activate what I’ve written, to define our working vocabulary and the physics of the play, to renegotiate assumed notions of character and action and narrative every time we speak text.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Vicodin, tobacco smoke, and John Steinbeck.

Some words from playwright Octavio Solis, live from the first day of our fourth workshop of The Pastures of Heaven.

I showed up at 10:15am, still crashing from three and a half days of Vicodin uploads. I just had surgery on Friday to mend the hernia on my right side and the weekend was lost in a haze of anesthesia aftermath and stinging pain in my lower abdomen. Now, I was finally venturing out to work on my ongoing project with California Shakespeare Theater and I was still not entirely myself.

We all gathered at the Ashby Stage (home to Shotgun Players) in Berkeley: Jon Moscone, Jessica Richards, the Word for Word team, select Associate Artists of Cal Shakes, a few other actors, and two of the four musicians who form the group Cascada De Flores. Chairs in a circle. Dave the stage manager. And the spirit of John Steinbeck wafting over us like good pipe tobacco smoke.

We talked some about the genesis and history of The Pastures of Heaven project, discussed the novel it was based on, and then proceeded to assign voices to the first story we worked on, Tularecito. This took the bulk of our day. In another room, JoAnne Winter worked on the Lopez Sisters corrido with Arwen Lawrence de Castellanos and Jorge Liceaga of Cascada de Flores. We caught snatches of accordion music and singing on occasion as we worked the text. All during this process, I revised the third story involving Molly Morgan the teacher, making wholesale edits and reorganizing the events to make the story less Steinbeck's and more mine. This involved a degree of multitasking I was hardly capable of today, listening to Jon and the actors work on one story while overhearing a second being turned to song, and reediting a third for tomorrow's workshop. All while I kept an icebag by my lower right side and fielded questions from my agent on my iPhone.

I'm groggier now that the day is almost done, but deservedly so!


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Don't Take Our Word for It!" (Or "Patrons on the Pavement")

Before, during, and after the last preview performance of Romeo and Juliet, I wandered the Bruns Amphitheater grounds, camera in hand and Artistic intern extraordinaire Grace Vincent in tow, harassing patrons for their assessment of the current production. This video contains just a few of those assessments—the overwhelming response from our "man on the street" (or, as I like to think of them "patron on the pavement") interviews was positive, enthusiastic, and occasionally even hilarious.

Coming soon: Notes from today's Meet & Greet for Noël Coward's Private Lives. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the video.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The interns are blogging! The interns are blogging!

Now that the opening night of Romeo and Juliet is behind us—and the 2009 season opening, as well—the young ladies and gentlemen of Cal Shakes' Professional Immersion Program (PIP) have had a moment to catch their collective breath. And, of course, being young ladies and gentlemen of the 21st century, they're blogging about it!

Check out what our spirited (and funny, and perhaps a bit blood obsessed) PIPs have to say about R and J on the Cal Shakes Intern Blog, Inside the Interns' Studio.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pulling Strings

Thomas Azar (Benvolio) reports from Romeo and Juliet tech:

Tech week: the time when the magic of theater is carefully, painstakingly constructed. All of the planning, all of the rehearsing... now we get to see how far we really have to go. It's a long process—tech week can feel like tech month if things aren't going well. The hours can be lengthy, especially if you work backstage instead of onstage. However, if all goes well, then the audience never sees the strings (and there are a lot of 'em), and it all looks like magic.

I have to say, this tech week feels like it's going well. Last night, we teched (yes, that is a verb in theater) the first half of the show, and I don't think we stopped for single moment. That's a big deal, especially considering the tech-heavy scenes like the dance (lots o' lights and sound) and the fights (how thick should the blood be?). When we got to the end of our Act I, Alex (who's playing Romeo) said, with the sound of enjoyment in his voice, “It feels like we're actually running the show.”

Indeed it did, and it's thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of the crew. Seriously, these guys and gals are some truly talented people, and they deserve a round of applause nightly for their work. This show, and indeed all shows, cannot be what it is without its crew. After the actors have left the theater at 12:30am, they're still there, working on lights, sounds, props, etc., and planning the next day. Too cool, these folks, too cool.

So, tech week invariably means we're nearing Opening Night. Previews start Wednesday (got your tickets?) so we as a cast get our first taste of how this thing flies in front of a real audience. If you're planning on coming to see the show this week, might I suggest bringing a blanket? It's been a little bit chilly out at the Bruns this past week. Of course, the weather could (and probably will) change nightly; that's one string we have yet to be able to pull.