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.