Philippa Kelly: I notice that your middle name is Rosalind. Is that a conscious Shakespearean choice on your parents’ part?
Lana Russell: No, it is actually my family name going back through 4 generations—I wish I could have Shakespeare take credit for it!
PK: It’s great to have you here, with your intimate knowledge of the tetralogy. Can you tell me a little about that?
LR: I’ve worked on these plays twice, the first time in grad school [The New School in New York, with 4 people, the cast composed of 3 men and 1 woman] and the second in a new adaptation made for the company I’ve just started called the regroup (this production being 4 women and 1 man). So I’ve seen Richard played by a very tall white man, and also by a 5 foot-tall black woman. We did explore Richard’s disability in different ways, for example, on one half of the body, but truly I love Eric’s vision that the disability is about otherness, however that manifests.
My deep love for examining Richard III comes from his being the first Shakespearean character I discovered in middle school. I was flipping through a Shakespeare Complete Works on my own and discovered the longest soliloquy in all of Shakespeare (the famous 2nd last line being, “Can I do all of this and cannot get a crown?”) and I learned it. I felt, even at that age, that I had an incredible ambition but not yet a voice to express it. Then I delivered and delivered that monologue over the years every time I auditioned. The reason that this particular monologue still really holds true for me is that in everything I do, I’m interested in seeking out why the most evil people do the things they do, and how and why they are still human.
By the way, people thought I was absolutely insane giving this psychopathic monologue, so occasionally I would switch to giving a Margaret monologue from Richard III… And truly, I’ve spent so much time on Richard that the thing I’m most excited about is diving deeper into Margaret’s story. I was really thrilled and am inspired by is Eric’s commitment to keeping the women’s voices and storylines in this play so dynamic and vivid.
PK: Oh yes, a lovely curse from Margaret—works every time. But actually it’s intriguing that Shakespeare really understood and played with the limitations of women in his time – he puts Margaret on the battlefield and then, when she’s taken off it, he has her curse—which is one of the “worst” (or most socially challenging) things a woman in his time could do besides speaking at length at all. BTW, speaking of women speaking, our audiences will want to know how you landed with us for this production.
LR: I thought this was the most exciting season, so (I was living in New York at the time) I got in touch with Eric to tell him so. I contacted a few of my friends who know Eric (Octavio Solis being one), and they made an introduction.
PK: …and the rest is history! Well, to be more accurate, a history play.
LR And being born and raised in the Bay Area, this is a fabulous homecoming. I’m staying with my parents, and my mom tried to make lunch for me and I did not allow it…
PK: Well, Queen Margaret would understand the impulse.
Lana is a director, producer, teacher, activist and founder of the [re]group. She has developed plays at The Lark, Primary Stages, New Georges and Naked Angels. She is a producer and resident director for Goldfish Memory Productions. She is lead teaching artist with The Other Side which is a global drama exchange organization for young women. She was a producing fellow at Naked Angels and Cape Cod Theatre Project and the Literary Associate at Primary Stages. Member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. MFA, Directing New School. Lanarrussell.com.
More about Lana’s company, the [re]group: The [re]group is an artistic collective and social impact organization dedicated to the empowerment of public spirit and communal healing. Our mission is to provide art that is innovative, accessible and audience-driven. The adaptation of Henry VI 3 and III was the company’s first production, called “[re]consider,” which focused on the privilege, power and opportunity of choice: making the audience complicit in the question: is free will really free?
The [re]group toured the [re]consider adaptation to both traditional and non-traditional theatre spaces alike. The most meaningful performance was for veteran transition home, Samaritan Village, in midtown Manhattan. With only chalk, a chalkboard, three flashlights, five actors, and the most important prop, snacks, we joined their weekly meeting to share our performance and stay for questions, conversation and ideas about future action. It was the most powerful theatrical and human experience of my life. Our audience cheered out loud, cried, chanted. Their spirit filled the room and there was no gap between audience and actor, a truly communal experience.
For over 10 years, Youth Speaks has presented the Life is Living Festival in West Oakland. This free festival celebrates life through public art, wellness activities, and environmental and social action, investigating the questions:
How do we catalyze community building?
How do we integrate the arts more vitally into our communities?
At the 2017 Life is Living Festival, Campo Santo and Cal Shakes dug into these questions by co-curating the third annual Theater Stage with the theme of BLACK AND BROWN RESISTANCE. With a pulsing through-line spun by DJ Dion Decibels & MC’d by Lisa Evans, we featured a mixtape of local artists embodying the creative ways people of color resist through word, music, and movement.
Alayo Dance Company lit up the stage with Afro-Cuban dance, embodying celebration and cultural preservation as acts of resistance.
Nyabingha McDowell performed monologues and songs from RYSE Youth Center’s original period piece Richmond Renaissance about Black ownership:not just ownership of property, but ownership of self and community, which is a resistance to the system that we are chained to.
Bonafide Rojas spit poems on art as a tool of resistance and the generations of Puerto Ricans who have fought for sovereignty against US imperialism.
Boomshake brought beats to the stage from across the globe for Streets are Free, a drumsical inspired by a Venezuelan children’s book that recounts a true story of children living in a barrio fighting for a safe place to play outside.
Through drums, song, spoken word, and freestyle dance, Rising Rhythm Project celebrated early hip hop as youth artivism in Mission District in My Soul.
Lisa Evans took a break from MCing the stage to perform an excerpt of You Really Should Sit Like A Lady (or How I Got to Femme) , an exploration of the hilarious, perplexing, and sometimes infuriating contradictions of defining one’s gender outside of cisheteropatriarchal mandates.
With poetry, rap, guitar, and vocals, Gina Madrid chanted down police brutality, racism, and discrimination.
Featuring a fusion of storytelling, spoken word and hip hop, Daniel Mora’s one-man play PASSAGES testified to the power of community healing.
In The Niggas Speak of Rivers, the Fine Ass Queer Artsy Heauxs Collective explored the intersections of blackness and queerness, radical remembrance as resistance, and how we can heal and propel ourselves towards a future that holds all of us.
Performing resistance in the tradition of the Black Arts Movement, the Lower Bottom Playaz presented an excerpt from Beyond the Bars: Growing Home on the devastating effects of the American carceral system.
Costume designer Anna R. Oliver has designed the sumptuous costume pieces for our epic War of the Roses. Our 14 actors play over 30 characters and their costumes and characters span over 65 years!
Anna says,”I wanted form to follow function: we have a very small number of people playing a very large number of roles in a compressed amount of time. So we needed to create a rhythm that we could maintain through the production; we did not want actors saying, ‘excuse me’, then exit…(we wait)… and then return in a new costume. There had to be a fluidity as well as a character defining clarity to the ways the clothes were designed and used, with the fewest number of pieces generating the largest number of looks.”
“Another function of the design was to bridge a play from the mid- to late 1400s—the end of the middle ages—and our current time. So the form the clothes took needed to function as a visual bridge between these worlds. I looked for silhouettes that could mirror one another and then played with details: the women’s clothes are based in both a medieval silhouette and our current “fit/flare” shape with athletic sleeve details and modern fabrics. The men’s battle garb was the real catalyst for the the search for links between the past and present as we have people fighting with swords in a modern context.”
Anna continues, “In terms of function, the way one arms oneself for combat with a sword is completely different from how we fight now. Tomorrow, a guy can walk into an office in DC wearing his shorts and tennis shoes and take out a village halfway around the world with a drone. The whole technology of warfare has been about the maximizing of distance and lethality. With the safety of that distance, the function of how a person arms themselves changes. The way one protected one’s body for hand-to-hand combat with a sword is a very different from the drone operator in D.C. To that end, I found contemporary tactical gear that mirrored the late medieval shoulder silhouette and added the anachronism of breast plates. In our production of The War of the Roses, we are trying to fold this more intimate form of battle into our modern time; we are weaving anachronisms into the fabric of our modern world.”
Now we’re getting down to the wire… We’re in our Sunday stumble-through, the last full run-through before the designer run of The War of the Roses this coming Wednesday, what Aldo Billingslea calls “the first bite of our epic apple.” And, due to the scope and size of this epic apple, it’s also the first time we’ve run the complete show, underscored with beautiful music composed and played by Josh Pollock, Byron Au Yong, and Brendan Aanes. When Eric starts to blanch at the thought, I remind him that Shakespeare’s company didn’t believe in rehearsals and periods of “discovery” at all—they would read a play through, have all but their own lines and cues taken away from them (so that they couldn’t steal the script and stage it elsewhere), and go off to “con” their lines at home. Many of them refused the one rehearsal offered, meeting their cast-mates for the first time on-stage in front of an audience of 2000. So really, I say to Eric, we could even declare ourselves over-rehearsed.
Fight direction by Dave Maier, choreography by Erika Chong Shuch (l-r: Lance Gardner, Sarita Ocón, Aldo Billingslea, Danny Scheie, Aysan Celik, Catherine Luedtke, Stacy Ross); photo by Jay Yamada.
There is a battle on stage, a beautifully charged moment of movement and menace choreographed by Erika Chong Such. Aldo Billingslea, playing the Earl of Warwick, moves off-stage with his shield and sword, and I am reminded of descriptions of medieval armor which required the soldier to wear no shirt, a doublet (vest) pierced with holes for ventilation, covered by a closed-up padded jacket, a cuirass (made of multiple metal segments) to wrap around the torso, metal coverings around both legs, metal shoes, a plate skirt to cover the genitals and buttocks, a metal basinet to cover neck and chest, and a helmet to shield the face and throat, with a dagger on one side, a small knife on the other, and a sword in his hand. The entirety of medieval amour would weigh 55 pounds, evenly distributed around the body so that the soldier could remain quite agile. But he would not, as does Aldo, carry a purple cell phone, a bundle of script, and a coffee cup.
Rendering by Costume Designer Anna R. Oliver.
It’s fascinating to watch this production come together, built around three consecutive kings, one (Henry VI—Joseph O’Malley) who believes that warring people can be united through “love and amity;” another (Edward IV—Stacy Ross) who spends his time in lustful pleasures; and, after Intermission, a third (Richard III—Danny Scheie) who will clamber up the vacuum created by these two unsuccessful kings to rule in tyranny. The production is built around resourceful women as well, one of them Queen Margaret, whom Shakespeare tracks through all four plays in his tetralogy, a woman who battles on the field of war and, when forcibly disarmed, focuses her energies on the power she wields to curse.
Margaret curses Richard (l-r: Danny Scheie, Aysan Celik, Sarita Ocón, Lance Gardner, Marie Sadd, Jomar Tagatac, Aldo Billingslea, and Catherine Luedtke); photo by Jay Yamada.
If I had to think of a way to describe War of the Roses, I’d say that it is an exploration of human beings who experience love, ambition, power, and disappointment in the context of forces larger than themselves. In this world of constant threat, betrayal and warfare, everything is at stake, as characters battle each other for control over England. Writ large on England’s stage, I’m reminded of the current battles we have, not just against military powers, but (as with those on Shakespeare’s stage) against the forces of our own appetite and potent disregard. No matter where or when we live, it is human beings who create the histories from which others will dig in their struggle to create their own lives and legacies.
by Scott Horstein, guest blogger and freelance dramaturg
Last week Philippa shared our coffee talk about Richard III, the last of the four plays in the Shakespeare Tetralogy that makes up Cal Shakes’s War of the Roses. I dramaturged Richard several years back (at Denver Theater Center), and when I talked with Philippa, it made me think of my favorite scene in the play.
In Act IV, Scene IV, three wretched queens take the stage to wail about their dead husbands and sons. Richard has outsmarted and slaughtered them all on his way to the crown. Now the play suddenly stops and risks becoming an exaggerated sobfest. Why?
Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, has lost her son (Richard’s brother). The previous queen, Richard’s sister-in-law Elizabeth of York, has lost her two young sons, heirs to the throne. And their enemy, the former queen Margaret from the House of Lancaster, has lost her husband, Henry VI, and her son. Shakespeare dramatizes the deaths as horrible, bloody affairs, the scions of powerful families brutally destroyed in the prime of youth. Margaret initially chortles at the abjection of the fallen York queens; but she comes to empathize with them, as Elizabeth keens:
Ah my poor princes! Ah, my tender babes,
My unblown flowers….
Hover about me with your airy wings
And hear your mother’s lamentation…
Elizabeth is calling out to the invisible souls of her sons, whom the audience imagines to be hovering about her. The play is set in the 1480s, a hundred years before Shakespeare wrote Richard III. By Shakespeare’s time, Elizabeth’s kind of mourning had become blasphemy.
As Philippa mentioned in her post on Everybody, Catholics believed the soul hung around after death, in Purgatory, awaiting its final destination. Loved ones wailed to God, beseeching Him on behalf of the departed. The body was openly displayed in mourning rituals, emphasizing this persistent, tangible, earthly connection to the departing soul.
But by Shakespeare’s time the official religion had become Protestantism, as decreed by Henry VIII in 1532. Protestants believed the soul was predestined at birth for either Heaven or Hell. The Protestants did away with open mourning and bodies on display. Attempting to intercede with God on behalf of the departed was “womanish” and “popish.” The Pope reference here shows how political this all was—Protestants were paranoid that Catholics, with backing from the Pope and Catholic Spain, would try to retake the English crown. Catholic mourning practices weren’t just blasphemous, they were treasonous, too.
(I’m drawing much of this from a fascinating article by Katharine Goodland called “Obseqious Laments: Mourning and Communal Memory in Richard III.”)
Back to the play! When Elizabeth calls out to the souls of her murdered sons, Shakespeare’s audience would have felt the frisson of her doing something forbidden. Forbidden in the world of the play because she’s calling out to those murdered by Richard’s regime. Forbidden in the audience’s time because she’s acting so Catholic.
This is why Shakespeare stops the play here. As Katharine Goodland points out, this is the first uninterrupted mourning rite in the whole Tetralogy. Richard III opens with a spectacularly aborted mourning ritual, the Lady Anne escorting the body of her dead husband Edward, whom Richard has killed in battle. Richard disrupts Anne’s mourning and somehow manages to seduce her. Still, mourning is such an essential social act that Shakespeare stages it again, in my favorite scene, Act IV, Scene IV. At the height of the carnage, at the darkest moment of the Tetralogy, at the point where Richard’s ascendance to the throne is complete, at the point where his monomania and paranoia have destroyed all social bonds, the example of Margaret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess offers an alternative social vision. The queens’ resistance to Richard is a kind of insurrection, and it presages Richard’s demise, which comes just a few scenes later in Act V. It is also a kind of healing. As Goodland says, “the ability to mourn as a community…is essential to the functioning and continuity of a cohesive society.” Shakespeare would pursue these themes a few years later in Hamlet, connecting the corruption of mourning rites to the corruption of the self and of the state.
Let’s be clear, Shakespeare is no more sentimental about political resistance than he is about political hegemony. The queens are still as vicious as they are elsewhere in the play when it comes to Richard, describing him as a “bottled spider” and an “elvish, rooting hog.” What Shakespeare is documenting here is how people respond to calamity, to the ebbs and flows of power, to grief.
I love watching this scene, and I’m excited to see it on stage in September.
Scott Horstein is Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance and Associate Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Dramaturgy at Sonoma State University, where he also heads the campus Arts Integration program as SSU Arts Dramaturg. He was formerly Manager of Play Development for Cornerstone Theater Company and Literary Director for the Black Dahlia Theater. Numerous freelance dramaturgy credits include Denver Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Berkeley Rep, and the Old Globe, where he dramaturged for Arthur Miller on his penultimate play Resurrection Blues. He has directed at Native Voices, East West Players, and the West Coast Ensemble, and taught at SCR, AADA, AMDA, and UCSD. MFA in Dramaturgy from UCSD and a proud member of LMDA (Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas).
“I can’t sit on the throne with this big-ass table here, can I?” says Lance Gardner (playing the Earl of Suffolk) as Joseph Patrick O’Malley (playing King Henry VI) leaves the room. We are rehearsing the top of the play, in which, with stunning speed, the Earl of Suffolk procures a penniless French royal beauty for the English King, crawls into bed with her himself, plans to get rid of the Lord Protector and his wife, and, in the long run, believes that he can pick off all impediments to his own control of the English throne. We are stopping and starting, working out how to tell the story of the play while keeping track of an important through-line—no matter what is said behind his back, the King is at all times King (until he’s not, later in the play) and must be treated with the respect due a medieval regent.
Which reminds me of the discussion I had last week at Peet’s Coffee with my colleague, fellow dramaturg Scott Horstein, our chatter filtered by the morning sun. (Look for a post by Scott soon.) We were talking about the peerage—the rank of a Duke being above that of Earl (an Earl inherits his title, but may be poor as a church mouse; whereas a Duke is anointed to his position by the king, and his Dukedom usually includes the possession of valuable land.) In our play the Duchess Eleanor, wife to the second highest-ranking male character in the play, has dreams above her station—but because her husband, Duke Humphrey, is brother to the deceased Henry V, Eleanor’s insubordinate dreams are not at all far-fetched: if young Henry were to die without issue, Duke Humphrey would be next in line to the throne.
In America today, we see a constant parade of “actors” streaming in and out of the White House. It might seem strange that some of the anointed seem to have gone from principal coffee-maker to Secretary of an important department (and all-too-often walking a path straight from the White House to prosecution). But in the England of The War of the Roses, similar things are seen to happen. Treason, murder, wealth beyond the imaginings of the common people—this is the world of the ruling Plantagenet family, who divide themselves into those of the house of Lancaster and their enemies from the House of York. Which is not to normalize what’s happening on our 2018 “stage”—on the contrary, modern democracy has never looked so much like the distant realm of those who were born with wealth and privilege and spent their lives shuttling portions of it back and forth between each other while the common people starved.
Last month, Artistic Director Eric Ting called playwright (and close friend) Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to discuss the genesis of Everybody, the politics of choosing, morality in theater and the world, and more. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Eric Ting: I want to reach back—I remember you talking to me about an idea you had way back in the day…you kind of sheepishly said to me, “remember that play called Everyman…?” Tell me the origins of Everybody.
Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins: Every play I write is actually the confluence of different impulses that all become the same thing eventually. First, right out of An Octoroon, which was a melodrama, director Sarah Benson and I began this really interesting conversation about morality in the theater. Is theater still a moral force? Is there a relationship between morality and the theater? Because there’s this assumption that people make that when you enter the theater it automatically makes you a better person, or a more engaged person. What An Octoroon taught me is that the theatrical form itself is pretty apolitical. Theater itself can be used for evil as well as good. So I was interested in what would make theater a moral good.
Secondly, I’d been flirting with an adaptation of Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill. I had this weird revelation during the 20th reread of that play that actually, it’s structured like Everyman. It’s kind of a weird twist on it, to unpack a black psyche using this form, but I realized that I was becoming more and more interested in the Everyman urtext that I perceived inside of it.
Third, [founding Artistic Director of Signature Theater] Jim Houghton—who you know was a major force in my life, in many ways, and many dimensions—he was at the time battling cancer and we knew that he was going to retire. He asked me to be in his last season at the Signature, so I had a year to make a play and I thought it was going to be this Emperor Jones thing. But taking in the effects that his dying was having on his institution, and feeling like I was in this environment where his death was constantly on people’s minds and in the air, but no one was allowed to talk about it. So I felt like: obviously what I need to do is ditch Emperor Jones and do this adaptation of this weird morality play!
So that was three tributaries that all led to the choice to do Everybody. The thing that really put a fire under it was Jim. Jim died having never seen the production sadly, but he did come to one of the first readings that I did of it which was really important to me
ET: I didn’t know that. That’s beautiful. Can you talk a little bit about when the conceit of the lottery entered the picture?
BJJ: As I was trying to figure out how to adapt it, the obvious question to me was, who is Everyman? At the time now it’s almost a cliche to even go down this thought process, but I was like: why does it have to be a white man? It’s assumed that it’s going to be a white man, that was the original conceit of it—both the version we all know, but also the one that it was based on, the original Dutch version. It was a white dude going through life and I thought: what if it’s a woman? And I tried that and didn’t love the pressure it put on femininity and it also seemed to give male viewers an out or something. It puts it at a remove from them. Part of the journey of the play is watching the person move beyond the confines of the body, which is what identity is really rooted in as far as we understand it. So for awhile I just tried all these different ideas and then I thought: what if I didn’t choose? What if I released that choice? The thing we can all relate to is the chaos and chance and the different ways that life takes its forms. Life takes the same path. What’s funny is it somehow makes it anti-theater in that regard, because in some ways I made something that’s impossible to rehearse. But also life is impossible to rehearse, you just learn some things and hope. Working with that metaphor became the key to the whole experience. Similarly the whole point of this was to make us question every assumption we have about making theater. Theater is about rehearsal and about repeating action, so how do you build a rehearsal for a thing that won’t by nature repeat?
ET: Do you think critics should see it more than once before they write the review?
BJJ: I think you could encourage them to come back. During the original production, we saw the chatboards, everyone was saying “this is all made up, everyone gets their parts beforehand”…no one wanted to believe the truth of the experience, which is hilarious. Why would we go through all this work to trick you? What would that be worth?
ET: One of the reasons I wanted to produce this was so that I could go to every performance. Because a normal audience member doesn’t get to see that multitude of iterations. I’m curious, this has had a few productions: are there things that have surprised you about it? About the way that audiences have received it?
BJJ: That’s a good question. Surprised me. I’ve only been involved in two productions of it, the original one at Signature, and then there was another one at Julliard right after that. There are people who went to both who had wildly different experiences which I thought was interesting. I think it’s all about the fact that they stepped into the river at some point. Either they liked the first one better or they liked the second one better. It’s funny, the conviction people feel about how they felt about something when I’m like, actually you saw something that only six people saw, who knows? In some kind of sly way I can’t take responsibility for them having a bad time. Because it was a culmination of factors that led to that kind of thing. But I’m glad they enjoyed it the second time, or I’m glad they enjoyed it the first time more.
This is obviously a love letter to actors. One of the real joys is if you get to see it over and over again, there are these moments where you get to see an actor make a totally inspired choice. That could have never ever happened unless they were playing against the right scene partner, in the right moment, and when you see those things, they feel sort of singular, really special. And you feel very—when you think about what these actors actually go through every day to be ready for this weird moment where they draw a card and they know what their night’s going to look like—you’re just like “oh my god actors are genius amazing people.” It’s amazing to see people play with the same thing, once the game is sort of in their bones, over the course of the run, some of them start doing different things, they start to challenge each other and challenge other members of the ensemble, on the team. It starts to feel kind of like a sporting event!
ET: They screw with each other, is what you’re saying.
BJJ: Yeah, exactly. The original company, we had some of them who knew each other from college. And whenever they would play something different every time—and clearly they were trying to mess each other up—it was so riveting and amazing. Or we had Brooke Bloom, she was 7 months pregnant, it was crazy. And her Everybody was just obviously so special. This woman is negotiating the fact that she’s got a baby inside her, it’s just unbelievable! But then to see her playing these other parts, she can’t deny the story that her stomach presented. She always had to make sense of that in the scene and that was always so amazing. Then to see it at Julliard was so amazing, they totally found a different way in. In some ways it was a totally different show, but it was really still the heart of it was still there and it still moved the same way. And it was with actors who were are all roughly the same age because they were in school. Something about the combination of people always suggests a different canvas or palette, that’s always satisfying to me.
ET: Let’s reach back to the lottery a little bit, did you do research around the medieval pageant play?
BJJ: I did. I didn’t do a lot in terms of things that would have felt like I was directing the show, if that makes sense. It’s not even clear that this play was written to be performed, exactly. It didn’t quite show up in anyone’s repertoire until the 19th century. For awhile it was thought of as a tradition, a kind of rhetoric thing. People wrote these plays as one-offs, as debates, competitions. In some ways it was a very irregular or abnormal piece of medieval theater. It wasn’t pageant, it was probably performed in a small chamber-ish way, originally, by monks. I tried to do a lot of reading on medieval theology and ideas at the time of death and dying, things like that. A lot of it was just trying to understand where this play came from and why it took the form it took, because one of the things that’s so striking about it is that it feels to me very self-aware for a piece of theater that old. It totally thinks of itself as theater, I think that’s so interesting. We think of things back then as being crude story, there’s just so much wit in the play about people playing objects.
It wasn’t performed by street players, it was performed by educated people in a monastery. That’s partly behind the impulse to have the actors start in the audience. Dissolving that line between life and theater. That’s partly what the whole play is predicated on. It’s literally unpacking “all the world’s a stage,” that is the working metaphor of the piece. It does feel important to me that you have to remind the audience that they are the ones being talked about.
ET: You talked about your conversations with Sarah Benson about the moral force of theater. So the play is out there in the world, the world is what the world is right now. Do you ever think about what role this play might have?
BJJ: Our tech was happening literally the weekend of the Muslim ban, where people were leaving tech to go down to the airport and protest. Less than six months out of Trump being elected, out of the election. It did feel weird: things about Jim Houghton passing when he did—he was such a force of unconditional belief and love and optimism and community—he just believed in humanity. He believed in theater as a potentially significant force of good. I still to this day think about what his response would have been to the election. I just wondered what he would have felt about this world and sometimes I’m really thankful that he left before he saw that world, to be such a helpful guy. But it did feel really key to me that I wanted to make a piece that felt affirming in some way. That’s the funny thing about the original too is that it’s a play about death but also it’s a play about hope. There’s a hope for humanity to change itself, to die a noble death, to right its wrongs. As a flawed person—I mean back then it was basically a public service announcement for Catholicism, but it was still this idea that all a person needs to know is that change is possible, that redemption is possible, and that’s the perfect thing: to just tell people that there are other choices in life.
With the lottery, chance has made the choice: this is the person that you have to identify with if you want to think about your life and death, if you want this play to work, this is who’s in the room with you right now, and this is who chance has elected to be this person. That for me was about asking people to acknowledge their capacity for radical empathy. What if—can you do the work right now, can you imagine that what this woman is going through on stage is actually a metaphor for your life as well? That felt really important to me, I think that was something that was important in that moment too, was to feel connected to people who didn’t look like you but who reminded you that they were in possession of the same thing you are, which is a body that is going to die. That felt important. It honestly feels like there’s an existential threat right now. To not just America and Americans, but to the world. It’s important that we take at least 75 minutes to acknowledge that and to throw some words out around it. I think that’s what Everybody ultimately was trying to be in this moment, in that moment specifically but definitely now. It’s like, what if there was a way to talk about identity politics that was inclusive, that also acknowledged the reality of death and the reality of chance and change. That’s why I’m always so moved when I think that the roots of this play are apparently in Buddhism. You go back through all of it and it’s such a Buddhist fable.
ET: Nataki [Garrett, Everybody director] and I were chatting to a few guests last week and they asked, “Is there anything shocking to us?” And I remember saying something along the lines of how shocking it was to be sitting in an audience in 2018, and listening to characters identified as Love and Death and God, and what it meant to feel an audience engage with something that was operating on a level of symbolism or metaphor. For me, that was the first real challenge of the play. Everything else was a pleasure and a joy, like: Lottery! But then the moment that it started to become clear that these were abstractions, it felt like a delicious challenge but it felt very challenging.
BJJ: It’s how theater was consumed for so long. This was the theater that Shakespeare was watching, that’s why he has characters named Vice. It’s just funny that it’s become so unfamiliar to us in some way. I joke that this play is Buddhism but that was really the a-ha! moment for me. This is a really old story. It’s been going on since there were stories. The version I thought I knew, this English version, is cribbed from a Dutch version, and the Dutch version was influenced by this thought—and then things get hazier and hazier but, this is a story that is just going to keep getting passed down. As long as there’s language. As long as there’s people.
McRoskey Mattress Company is entering its sixth season as a Cal Shakes Business Partner and Production Sponsor. McRoskey was proud to sponsor black odyssey during the 2017 season and is delighted to support Everybody this season. Cal Shakes celebrates human potential; McRoskey is proud to make products that help people achieve their dreams.
McRoskey Mattress Company has been helping people enjoy life-changing sleep for over 100 years. Founded in San Francisco in 1899 by the McRoskey brothers, the company focuses on products that help people sleep well: thoughtfully-made beds, sumptuous pillows, beautiful blankets, and woven linens.
Based on an ethos of simplicity and transparency, McRoskey beds are made from materials that matter: wood, wire and fiber. Wrapped in all-cotton ticking with vented sidewalls, McRoskey beds are designed to sleep cool, wicking away heat and moisture from the sleeper. By building a traditional double-sided mattress, McRoskey guarantees that the comfort will last for years.
McRoskey craftspeople use time-tested techniques to build each mattress and box spring for enduring comfort. Encasing a steel spring core in layers of fiber materials (up to 20 total!) creates the perfectly comfortable sleep surface.
As a valued Production Partner, every year McRoskey challenges Cal Shakes audiences to match its donations to the ongoing “Pay It Forward” campaign at the end of each performance. McRoskey is the preferred mattress brand for many of Cal Shakes’ key stakeholders. McRoskey CEO, Robin McRoskey Azevedo, a longtime fan of Cal Shakes, notes: “Attending Cal Shakes at the Bruns is a delightful experience. The setting is superb, and live theatre always gives you something to think about.”
I have a recurring nightmare that if my plane goes down over the Pacific, my husband Paul will have to go through all my stuff and realize that I was even untidier than he imagined (#dontlookunderthebed); that I had trouble ever throwing anything away; and that the replication of foodstuffs in our un-closable pantry (Did I forget to buy coconut milk? What if it’s gone off?) shows just the periphery of my life of anxious perturbation. Waking from such dreams, I try to remind myself that when the plane goes down I’ll be dead—it doesn’t matter. But it does matter. Because while we are living, breathing, sentient, reasoning (and deeply unreasonable) beings, we are the sum of how we’ve chosen to live—of what we’ve bought, what we’ve thought, what we’ve said, what we’ve allowed to be done to us, and what we’ve done to others. Each of us is known in very different ways in different contexts. And while each of us journeys through the world in a unique way, the most fundamental part of our experience unites rather than differentiates us: everybody is born—and everybody dies. And everybody knows that nobody knows what “not being alive” will feel like.
Wow, heavy stuff. But can we just have fun today and think about death tomorrow? No, we can’t. In Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins plays, in a certain sense–well, God. He wants us to think about death today, at the California Shakespeare Theater, in 2018: in a wonderfully deep-delving, hilarious, poignant, 90-minute-long encounter with our utterly impossible, incorrigibly self-centered humanness.
Lance Gardner, Jenny Nelson, Sarita Ocón, Jomar Tagatac, and Stacy Ross will draw their roles via lottery during each performance of Everybody.
Everybody’s preoccupations could be described in a number of ways: What am I without my stuff? Who are my friends, really? Is there anything in the term “blood relative” from which I can learn about my death? Might it be Parkinsons? Might it be cancer? Might it be heart disease? The only thing we know for sure is not that it “might be”—but that, in some form or other, at some time not yet to be named or known, death will be. It will be. It is the only inevitable, unbudgeable truth of our entire lives.
Detail from frontispiece of Everyman first edition c1530.
Coming into Everybody at Cal Shakes, imagine the same moment 520 years go, when a group of semi-professional actors performed a short, rhyming “morality play” called Everyman in an inn, or even on the street. Most people who watched the performance would have lost at least one brother or sister or parent. Some would die very shortly thereafter—there were none of the drugs and procedures that are routine today, and without which, back then, lives were lost: antibiotics, vaccines, internal surgeries, even chemical painkillers (aspirin wasn’t manufactured till 1899). The character of Everyman played an unremarkable human being, a person sauntering along (or in a chair, on a horse, at the dinner table, in bed) who is suddenly called to their death.Quick! How does he account for his life in order to make a good death? How can he be sure that the checks and balances of his life will guarantee an entry into heaven? Everyone (in this place and time, listening to this incarnation of the story) was Catholic then—and Everyman was called a morality play because it reminded human beings that their deeds would be weighed and measured at death, possibly ameliorated by a cleansing detox in purgatory–that everything is accountable and nothing gets by the all-seeing eye of God.
“I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, my wife to believe in God, because it means that I shall be cheated less often…If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent Him,” wryly noted Voltaire in a much more pagan era a few centuries later. Today, not all of us believe in God; but there’s no escaping death–except that there’s earthly gratification and insatiable appetite. There’s lush, verdant, death-defying, all-consuming life. And there’s ice cream.
I absolutely love Everybody. It is an encounter with the human self, the fact of being mortal. Re-shaped by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and in the hands of director Nataki Garrett—and with this cast of remarkable actors—Everybody is one of the most moving, painful, joyful, funny experiences I have had at our theater in 15 years.
Come talk with me about Everybody. I’ll be in the grove—a lot!
How can theater help us find and be all of ourselves? For Artist-Investigators Cat Brooks and Anna Maria Luera, this was the question driving their work with Rysing Women during the 2015-2016 season.
Rysing Womyn works with the women that society is prone to throw away: the angry, the rageful, the sad, the traumatized, the oppressed, the exploited. Artivist and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project Cat Brooks and actor and theatre facilitator Anna Maria Luera worked with young women of color in the project to find refuge in creativity and artistic expression.
Watch below to hear Brooks and Luera discuss creating and holding space where young women can share their stories, find joy and healing in laughter, and “be all of themsel[ves].”
Want to see more from Rysing Women? Check out Slaying Our Inner Demons, an experimental visual essay based on one of the poems that came out of this Artist-Investigator project, and Cat Brooks’ essay on the project here.
Full Transcript of Video:
CAT: Community–based art has always been a part of my life and understanding the power of theater to heal, theater saved my life quite literally. I would not be here, had I not found the theater.
RYSING WOMYN: The Artist-Investigator Program at California Shakespeare Theater investigates how the tools of theater artists can be applied outside the rehearsal room.
Cal Shakes 2015-2016 Artist-Investigators Cat Brooks and Anna Maria Luera helped young women of color find refuge in creativity and artistic expression through the Rysing Womyn project.
ANNA MARIA: There’s a joy spread in being like what can happen, what is the impacts that these young women can make on the world, in their work, that we’re facilitating and really creating space for them to be all of themself, through art, through political education, through healing.
CAT: We would get there, and the girls would slowly roll in. Sloooowly roll in. And uh, food, like Anna was talking about, so we got to the point where we just realized that they had to eat, every time, so. We’d eat, and then Anna talked earlier about ritual being very important. So we had the ritual of checking in. Going around and just honoring whatever the girls are walking in with. And sometimes the girls would go into very deep detail about what they were feeling. And sometimes it was, “I’m cool,” right, or “I don’t feel like it” and that’s sort of the check–in. And then a meditation, a grounding and a meditation, a getting in the space. And then, some sort of vocal warm up, breathing, exercise to move in that direction and then it varied. So then it was either political education and improv and journaling or it was improv and journaling and then doing the, you know, reading. We used poems a lot, as a way to get them used to reading words and comfortable with putting emotion on it. And we would do, you know, give different direction about how to read it. We did that a lot. And then we would close out with “Pass the Pulse,” which was my favorite piece of it, and then,and every time the girls would hug each other, tell each other they love them, hug us.
ANNA: They were beautiful, they are so beautiful.
CAT: And then off they would go.
ANNA MARIA: Many of our girls, most of our girls, if not all of them had some very basic needs not met. And then we said, come to this theater program, right, and I believe it’s a necessity ‘cause they tell their stories and who they are, but those things, if they’re not working in connection with meeting basic needs, then the part where they don’t have food, they don’t have housing, they are in and out of foster care. All of these things will overthrow your whole program.
CAT: Things we didn’t know, right, or think about: the demographic that we were working with, transient, right…not time-bound. The idea initially was that they would improv their wayto writing their own pieces, and then there were so many shifts in girls, and timing, and when we’re going to perform, and then we weren’t going to perform. There was one period we went from having, like, 15 girls, right, to 8, to 2, right, for the extended period of time. So balancing the realities of Black girls from low-income communities, who have gone through some things that I can’t even imagine the weight of. I’m going to cry. So balancing them bringing all of themselves and all of their experience into the space with trying to incorporate theater discipline and like, being on time, or grounding yourself before you begin the work, or not talking when somebody else is doing a monologue, or commitment to being at rehearsal on time and for the duration, things that…you know, asactors, that’s how we live our lives, was challenging. But we never stopped trying.
ANNA MARIA: Yeah, yeah.
CAT: There was one young woman, she would need to leave early. It was always, it was always, something, right, with her.
ANNA MARIA: We had to talk her into everything.
CAT: Oh my God. I love her, and…
ANNA MARIA: And she showed up all the time.
CAT: And she would show up every week and then there was this one time and she legit had to leave early. It was like a legit thing but it was closer to performance, and I was irritated. She bounced out, right, and then like 2 minutes later the door opened again, and she came back and gave this very thorough explanation about why she needed to go, apologized basically for interrupting the process, assured us that she was going to go home and do the work she needed to do, and she would see us next week and then she left, and I was like…
ANNA MARIA: She would’ve never done that a year ago.
CAT: I was like, “Did that just happen, that just happened.”
ANNA MARIA: That amount of accountability that this young women who’s what, 16/17, adults don’t have that.
CAT: Because at first the mandate was you had to perform when we first started, and then, again, things we learned, right, that for a bunch of reasons that just was not going to work. The re-trigger, re-traumatization of the young women, and so we put it out there. We were like, here’s your option, ‘cause we want you to write the piece and so it was an option whether you decided you want to do your own piece or if we could hire some actors that could perform your pieces for you. And a lot more girls thought that they were going to have end up having to act. I think just knowing that they had the safety net of the actors, allowed them to write the piece. Right? It was like “OK, so I’m not really going to have to get up and perform this, right, in front of an audience? Someone else will do it? OK, I’m gonna finish the piece,” but at the end the majority of the girls who remained in the cohort, they wanted to read their, they wanted to perform their own stuff. The other learning I think around the come as you are, what the fullness of that really means, right, and so, I would never go to work high. Right, I can never show up to rehearsal high or drunk or whatever else or go out before the show and, right…but it was more important for them to be in the space and allow them to make the decision about their sobriety in that space and let the power of the work that they were doing in the theater, for them to choose it, than us going you have to show up this way and that way and this way, otherwise you can’t be in the space. And that was not always comfortable, right…
ANNA MARIA: But they couldn’t come in the space and not participate at all…and so that was very clear, and if they didn’t participate they didn’t get paid that day.
CAT: There’s that feeling that you get when you walk into a theater, right, as an actor. When you walk into a theater space and it’s empty and there’s the stage and the work’s getting ready to start. You know and then the lights and the sound, there’s just…And it was really important for us that they had that experience of doing theater on a stage with the lights and a tech and the audience and they got that, right.
ANNA MARIA: And we really I think also tried to incorporate the theater exercise to match with the political education. So if we played a…if we like, or ritual. So if we played a imaginary objects game, later on they would bring another imaginary object that meant something to them into an altar space. If they did statues and it could be like statues in a place in Hawaii that their practicing on, just fun stuff, but later on they would bring those kinds of activities into a space where we talk about police brutality. So it’s like really using those activities, theater activities to forward the vision of what we want for the young people and to also bring them to a space that’s like, we know it feels weird and sometimes we feel weird and it’s okay. And so when we gather the pieces there’s a bunch of themes that came up. Family themes, a lot about mothers, and some of them were mothers, violence, the political themes that came through that were beautiful. It is very easy in this work to say, here are all the hard stories and everybody can feel sorry for you, but being clear that our young ladies are bad asses and they’re warriors and survivors and they laugh and joke and make fun of each other and hold each other in space so in seeing, like the fullness of our group, I wanted their stories to really be about that. They started also doing things that were about them. One young woman comes in and all she says in her check–in is, “this is like the worst day of my life” and she starts crying, and all the young women surrounded her, put their hands on her, and hugged her and held her. We didn’t start, we didn’t do that. They did that on their own and so when you see them care for each other like that…
CAT: In ways that have been modeled for them, right.
ANNA MARIA: Yes.
CAT: It was a practice.
ANNA MARIA: One of the young women who had kind of started off really strong and then had a bunch of stuff happen to her and then came, was coming back, she was back there with them and like going through the pieces and they were like giving her notes and telling her say it like this and those are the things where we go, not only are they down for each other, but they’re down for the work and they’re down for themselves to do the best possible work that they can do for each other. Young people and our young women, we want them to come and feel safe and taken care of. So when you’re going into a space that can be extremely difficult, when young people are in gratitude like that, for what you have to offer them, for how you love them, because we’re in gratitude for them, and that back and forth is really like, we would leave all the time and be like, man, I’m so glad I came.