Thursday, May 27, 2010

Belated blog from the middle of the night.

Amy Kossow, Word for Word Performing Arts charter member, has been involved with the development of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven since the beginning. Now, as an actor in the forthcoming world-premiere production, she blogs from inside the rehearsal room. This blog was written in the wee hours of Saturday, May 22.

Hello out there: Up in the middle of the night here listening to the quiet, running lines in my head. Realized I forgot to memorize the coda! That's what jolted me awake!

Rehearsals are already half over, with two weeks to go before opening. The play is already fully staged and we are in the weedy bit now when we are off book but not quite at speed—heading into stumble-throughs—and it is a time of maximum discovery and growing ownership. Nice. Anxiety always a part of the process, but can be useful, if frightening.

I am shocked that my major choreography (massive tantrums as psychotic child) is on the floor of a platform 12 feet in the air. Holy cow. I am pretty scared up there, but I figure use it or lose it, or both! I also have a good share of the combat—a fistfight with sweet Julie Eccles who then SHOOTS me—and I have my first-ever death fall onto three very bouncy mattresses which propel me hilariously all over, like a big bowl of jello; two wranglers (the amazing Katie and intern blogger Dallas) and Charlie Robinson are on call to stop me bouncing back up and ruining the moment!—spent yesterday morning getting cortisone shots in my 47-year-old crappy knees, of course. Yesterday was relatively low key for me, mostly feather choreography and BBQ mime, though deep backstories are developing into quite the soap opera among us BBQ attendees. We had to be reminded that, uhh, the scene was not about us "extras" per se ... Jon (Moscone) doesn't know what he's missing. Well, he doesn't want to know what he's missing, probably...

My family is sorting itself out without much attention from me. Robin turned 14 this week and has his party today—first one I ever had to miss. boo. He requested physics kits and is building an eternity clock right now. Something innately poetic about him. I was personally more intrigued by the trebuchet. Give me a big machine for hurling rocks! I think every woman needs one!

May as well get up and make his cake. Going to make brownies while I am at it for the theater folk. They never eat sweets of course...

John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven runs June 3-27. Visit for all the details.

Photo by Kevin Berne.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Behind the Scenes at a Student Discovery Matinee

The following is an account of our Student Discovery Matinee Series from the perspective of Trish Tillman, director of Artistic Learning. the first half of this piece ran in Cal Shakes' May 2010 newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.

When I was growing up, I was lucky to be able to see many kinds of performances in my city: Some of them I liked, and some I didn’t; either way, just going into the theater itself gave me a thrill. I always felt a powerful combination of anticipation, ceremony, and specialness, which made me feel alive. Part of our mission at Cal Shakes is to provide that kind of experience to as many students as we can, which takes a lot of inspiration, organization, and good humor.
To give you a sense of what I mean, here’s a little backstage look at how the staff experience our Student Discovery Matinees.

7am – Wake up and realize that we are going to be receiving over 500 students, age 8 to 17, in a matter of hours! Mentally check the paperwork prep we’ve done for the last two months, and get moving.

7:30am – Down an essential cup of coffee and head to the theater.

8:30am – Arrive at the theater parking lot. The chill from the night before still has a hold on the air, so we pull on extra sweatshirts and jackets. We set up orange cones for traffic patterns in the parking area and then trek up the hill to the amphitheater. Then all of us, a group of about 12-15 staff and volunteers, gather to familiarize ourselves with today’s schools and seating chart. Each person is assigned to lead one or two groups, given a reminder of the rules to tell the students.

8:45am – Wipe dew from chairs. Let them have dry seats! We put out programs on the seats for the show, pick up any remaining trash from the previous evening's performance.

8:58am – The shuttle driver departs to pick up groups coming by BART. Other staff and volunteers duck backstage to set up breakfast for the actors who will be arriving soon to work hard in the sun for the next two hours. Grab more coffee.

9:25am – Groups begin arriving; buses and cars fill the lot. The Cal Shakes staff is on hand to greet them, share the rules of attending outdoor theater, and do a head-count. Our walkie-talkies crackle as we communicate from the top of the hill to the bottom parking lot about who’s arriving.

kids-in-groves9:45am – As groups arrive, they line up and begin the ascent. We always hear students wondering aloud about where the heck the theater is out here in the woods.

9:50am – Each group is led to a designated grove on the theater grounds to await their time to be seated. Each group gets an entrance time so that not all 550 students are trying to get into the theater at once!

10:05am – As they wait, students usually decide to picnic. Even though it is barely past breakfast, we notice that they seem to be devouring their lunches.

10:25am – Students line up to enter the amphitheater. Their faces light up as they enter the space and see the set. No curtains, no dim lights. The set for John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven is like a giant three-story dollhouse featuring different rooms on many levels; a real, rusted 1920s-era Ford pickup truck sits on the stage, one wheel off. Then students start to talk about what this play might be like—the sense of anticipation grows.

10:45am – Teaching Artist Clive Worsley takes the stage to do his fabulous pre-show welcome. He goes over some key points from the play in plain, student-ready language; has the students do a call-and-response; and generally primes the energy of the house.

11:00am – Music starts. An actor enters. The audience is suspended in the moment before everything begins, breathing lightly. Then the other actors come onstage, and ... ACTION!

11:30am – As the play progresses, we sit among the groups, always amazed at how real and potent theater is for young people: T
hey laugh loudly, gasp outwardly at the surprise moments, and snicker at any hint of romance. They’re told not to talk, but inevitably they want to check in with their friends with a glance or a poke as they share the experience. We feel that as long as it’s about the show and it’s respectful, reactions are good.

12:20pm – Intermission. Kids rush to the cafĂ© for goodies. We watch to make sure no one strays off into the woods and we overhear them chatter about Act One
which characters they like, which parts stick in their mind, and which girls have already picked an actor to have a crush on.

12:31pm – Sweater comes off. Sunscreen goes on. The fog is long gone. Act Two begins!

Sarah-and-students1:30pm – The crowd rises, applauding loudly. The actors look happy and the students start to chatter. Clive jumps up on stage to give instructions for the Question and Answer session.

1:40pm – The post-show Q&A is a treat rarely enjoyed by our evening audiences. The actors, once out of their costume bonnets and aprons, reappear onstage to answer questions ranging from, “How do you become a professional actor?” and, “How did you do that stage effect?” to, “Have you been in movies?” and, “Is anyone in the cast boyfriend and girlfriend?”

2:07pm – Back down the hill they go. If the students are lucky, they run into one of the actors leaving the theater to get some rest before the evening show, and can pepper them with additonal questions.

2:10pm - We prepare the grounds for the evening performance, repeat to each other the amazing things we heard from the students that day, and begin looking forward to the next Student Discovery Matinee.

Seats are still available for the June 8 and 10 Student Discovery Matinees of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven!
In addition, our Student Discovery Matinees for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About NothingSeptember 30, Oct 6, 8, 12, and 14are booking up fast. Please forward this to a teacher you know or, to bring your own school group, please call Ava Jackson, Artistic Learning Coordinator at 510.809.3292 or email You can also learn more by visiting our website at

Monday, May 24, 2010

About Being a Full Person: Grace and Humanity

Hello Cal Shakes blog readers,

I want to share with you an event from the past few days. I very recently heard that one of my ex-students had entered hospice treatment for cancer, and arranged to see him at 9am yesterday. On a mad whim I emailed our own L. Peter Callender the night before, very late and said:

"A student of mine (A.) is in hospice treatment for cancer. He has been a huge fan of yours for years. I'm visiting him at 9 am in North Berkeley tomorrow. Is there the slightest chance you could make it?"

Peter immediately wrote back "yes," and set about clearing his schedule. At 9 the next morning I met him, beautifully appointed and unflappable as ever. We went to A's home together. The look on A's face was something to remember: pure joy at seeing an actor he so admires, and pure happiness at experiencing an undiluted hour of Peter's honesty and wry humor.

I keep thinking of the way our time together closed, with Peter saying: "Well my boy, I am opening a show in September and another in January. I absolutely insist that you be there. You must not fail me. I am setting aside tickets for you."

A. promised to do his best.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Goats at the Bruns! Scads of 'em!

(Donor Relations and Special Events Manager) Beth Sandefur and I just returned from the Bruns, where the great Rachel Lane (our Facilities Manager) has engaged fire goats to trim the grass. Today they were working on the parking lot. The company of goats will be in residence at the Bruns through the weekend, and will emerge from the workshop with a finished piece: a freshly mown outdoor amphitheater.

All photos by Paul S. Doyle.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Actorly thoughts on The Pastures of Heaven

Amy Kossow, Word for Word Performing Arts charter member, has been involved with the development of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven since the beginning. Now, as an actor in the forthcoming world-premiere production, she blogs from inside the rehearsal room.

I am playing such an interesting variety of characters in this show: a ghost, a psychotic child, an old biddy, and what I called The Mean Teacher. But Miss Martin has been speaking to me…. Her story is interesting because I am the mother of a child with autism in real life. I think she feels the way a lot of my child’s teachers have felt, that he won’t learn a thing, and then feels shocked by how special a child can be. She hangs her hopes on him and then is unprepared for his rages. She wants to teach him a lesson and has him beaten. Well, she expects that he will learn to behave from the painful punishment, but then he just smiles and that convinces her that he cannot learn. And that she cannot teach. And she resigns. She leaves this Eden. All that in one and half pages of the play! Her whole life captured in a sweep of action.

Charlie Robinson and Rod Gnapp were saying that acting in this play is like film acting—it’s quick. You’ve got to start at a really revved up place and go up from there. There isn’t a slow burn to be had. It’s like the camera is capturing the moment just before each character’s life-changing experience, so the arc we actors like to explore and develop happens lickety-split: you’re-here-now-you’re there. So move it! Now it’s the next guy’s turn! It feels like a kaleidoscope from the inside—we shift and shift and shift, and Moscone, Solis, and Steinbeck make beautiful things happen. In a Forrest Gump-ish sense, this play is like a box of chocolates—we characters may be smooth, or nutty, or sweet, or rotten, or plain or fancy—and the audience gets to eat the whole box.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Proceeding neck or nothing

Amy Kossow, Word for Word Performing Arts charter member, has been involved with the development of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven since the beginning. Now, as an actor in the forthcoming world-premiere production, she blogs from inside the rehearsal room.

Week One:
Day One was a revelation, in many ways. First and foremost was the huge community presence. I expected a table session with cast and director and was blown away by the participation of the extended family of Cal Shakes: tech staff, box office, admin, teaching staff, creative team members, board members, former board members, avid supporters, actors, writer, dramaturg, music, such awesome support and a wonderful reminder of the community nature of theater. Day One was also a revelation for the first hearing of the script. I have been dreaming about this moment for two years, imagining the book opening and the characters standing up and walking about. Octavio Solis has magically seduced the play from the book, and we can now release the book from the process and live in the Pastures of Heaven.

Week Two:
Rehearsals continue apace. The three-story set set showed up on Day Two and blocking commenced immediately. We are proceeding neck or nothing, have choreographed the best part of Act One and now have tackled Act Two. Today is the story of Junius Maltby. There is a goat. Dan Hiatt, JoAnne Winter, and Charlie Robinson are dipping their feet into the water discussing horse-happiness while a chorus of old biddies (me and Richard [Thieriot] and Andy [Murray] and Catherine [Castellanos]) peck and squawk at them. Costume pieces are beginning to show up, which inform our choices immediately. Jon is miraculouly inventive. There is a moment with sheaves of wheat. Honestly, so gorgeous. And the sheer fun of it all as we add a hat and instantly become a new character: a neighbor, a hen, a child, a baby, a farmer, a teacher, a ghost... all accomplished simply. Agghh! There are donuts! Mad stampede!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Visiting the Real Pastures of Heaven.

The following blog was written by Trish Tillman, Cal Shakes' director of Artistic Learning.

Last weekend several of us from Cal Shakes and Word for Word Performing Arts Company went to Salinas to hold some events in anticipation of our upcoming world premiere, John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. In a moment of free time, JoAnne Winter and Stephanie Hunt of Word for Word and I stole a chance to drive down a road named Corral de Tierra, through the landscape where Steinbeck set his novel. (Pictured below as photographed by playwright Octavio Solis.)

It’s only about 15 minutes outside of the town of Salinas, away from the flat, linear, farm fields, where the land starts to roll and dip and create hundreds of little valleys and large hills. The hills were lush green due to recent rains, the wildflowers were out, there were cows and calves sitting peacefully in the sun and crooked sycamore trees like line drawings dotting the landscape. And (I’m not kidding) the very air seemed perfumed. We rolled down the windows and just breathed in, trying to identify the scent. It became more and more lovely as we slowly drove, gazing around wide-eyed. Phrases started to be uttered such as: “It would be so wonderful to live here.” “Let’s pool our money and buy a big house.” “If I lived here I’d get up very early, and drink coffee on my veranda.” “I’d be able to write all day.” Just like the characters of Pastures, we fell under its spell, and could easily build in our minds a future of comfort and success. The power of this particular part of the world had imposed itself upon us, quietly and thoroughly.

I’ve rarely had this kind of experience, of “being called” simply from a place. I’ve seen some beautiful landscapes and buildings and could imagine myself living there, but rarely has it felt like it could truly be a home. Combined with the promise of being almost within reach—I don’t live that far from this country, I talked with several people who do live in that area—and the whole thing became very seductive.

But there is always rationalization, and reality. I know the housing prices in those sweet valleys are still inflated, and that the kind of work I want and need to do in the arts might not be readily available there, and I would miss my community of friends and family in the Bay Area. I also remember the slightly-more-than-one-would-expect number of "For Sale" signs on houses that we passed on our drive.

So the dream continues. Still available, folks, the American dream embodied in the California landscape, from the time when Europeans set foot on the eastern shores and started wondering, "What’s out there? I bet it’s something good. Maybe."