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.