Othello in Rehearsal

by dramaturg Philippa Kelly
Today is my first blog posting for the rehearsal process of Othello, our first show with our new Artistic Director, Eric Ting, at the helm. I’d describe the rehearsal period so far as fast, furious and focused. But Eric is also encouraging us, at every point, to be deeply thoughtful and self-questioning as we tackle this hugely dense text in the tiny 3 and a half weeks’ rehearsal period we have. 
 
The world he’s creating is one where Othello is a Muslim, likely converted to Christianity, the textual suggestions for which might live in lines like: ‘“For Christian shame put by this barbarous brawl!” “Are we turned Turks?” And then of course there’s the final soliloquy in which, in the devastation of his deed, Othello depicts himself as both the Christian punisher and the “malignant and…turbann’d Turk” who must be punished.
 
Yesterday Eric asked our Assistant Director, Denmo Ibrahim, to tease out some of her thoughts and questions. Denmo is wondering about Othello’s striking of, and eventual strangulation of, Desdemona—if we suggest a Muslim background to his life (and still perhaps a private Muslim practice in the play?), are we helping to imprint stereotyped media images of Muslim men and violence? Denmo also asked: “Does Othello bring his faith to bear through the killing? Or does he leave behind his faith in order to do the killing? Is the strangulation a liberation or a hate crime?”
 
Denmo’s words moved me to contemplate Othello’s conversion to Christianity as perhaps both his “real” identity (the identity of the “Othello now”) and the palimpsest—you scrape it away and there is the convert who is always, by virtue of conversion, “other.” Aldo (playing Othello) also talked about otherness as his own lived identity: he has, for instance, been pulled over by the police 37 times with no viable cause other than the color of his skin.
 
Our culture today is in many public aspects one of “seeming”—we’re bombarded by images from all kinds of media. We post on Facebook quick messages that we admire each other on so many levels (what levels?). We become electronic “friends” with people we’ll never meet, but to whom we treat images of a lunch or a dinner or an event that was awesome or in some way inspiring. Who are we really, behind these images? 400 years ago, things both were and were not similar. In a society moving out of feudalism, clothes literally made the man: the more you wrapped yourself in the attributes of your role, the more “true” you were to your self. There were even laws against nurturing private ambitions that might lead you to comport yourself beyond your station. Today’s familiar division between outward and inward selves is a modern phenomenon born largely of capitalism, and Shakespeare was at the cusp of the change, where “seeming” began to spell “public,” and “who we really are” had a private ring to it. 
 
In Othello Shakespeare has created a play that echoes with that change. The play is full of images of “being” and “seeming”—“I think my wife is honest.” “Long live she so, and long live you to think so.” “Men should be what they seem.” And images of Othello’s being happy if the whole army had tasted Desdemona’s sweet body “So had I nothing known”… It’s not until the image is punctured, in other words, that the truth is a problem. And in the end, the whirl of being and seeming collapse Othello’s reason and judgment: he just wants proof as his truth, and, sadly, will do anything to get it. 
 
And here’s another question: today, as then, do we set up our human killing machines at the expense of their humanity and personal relationships, however much we plaster the noble warrior, the Westpoint officer images, across it?
 
Finally, I dedicate this to Larry Smith, my friend across the Pacific, who died yesterday while rehearsal was in process. Larry was a professor of Business and Management, but loved theater. (Why is there a “but” there?!)  Death is an end-point: though in Shakespeare’s Othello, it’s not. Many characters speak quite lengthily after they’re stabbed and even strangulated. Why is this? Perhaps because death is so final; and theater gives us the chance to think that perhaps it need not be: that there can BE a last word, instead of the unknown, never-fully-prepared for, eclipse.
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Othello: an interview with Eric Ting

Recently our Artistic Learning department sat down with Eric Ting to discuss our upcoming production of Othello. Eric’s Cal Shakes directorial debut begins performances September 14.

Artistic Learning: How will you stage this play to be relevant to the current cultural dialogues about racial injustice and identity?  Will you use a modern setting?

Eric Ting: We’re imagining our audience sharing the space with a company of modern day actors who investigate/interrogate the classical story of Shakespeare’s Othello through a contemporary lens, trying to understand how this problem play lives as a reflection of some of the challenges we face in American society today.

AL: Directors must frequently choose a specific focus from such a large and complex play.  Are you coming at it as a domestic tragedy, a political firestorm, an examination of psychological manipulation – what’s the core idea you want to illustrate to the fullest in this production?

ET: All of the above. Religion is certainly surfaced in our choice to reflect Othello as a Muslim—though even that identity is sublimated in this story (because when we encounter Othello he has “converted to Christianity” we think to better assimilate into Venetian society). Politics exist not so much as a manifestation of the war with the Ottomites (like much of the wars the US fights today, that war is backgrounded to the more domestic concerns of the drama); but rather we will be exploring the presence of a political figure like Donald Trump and asking how that injection of volatile political rhetoric might pave the way for more manifest examples of xenophobia, releasing years of pent up race-hatred (i.e.: Iago). Lastly, Othello is a play about two marriages, a domestic tragedy writ large about the daily battles wrought “in the name of love” — love of God, love of Country, love of each other.

AL: How are you directing the actors to handle the language in this play?  The language sometimes floats in eloquent verse, and sometimes explodes in very direct insults that might be very offensive if said to someone today.  What does it take to have an actor move between these ways of speaking, and how do you want the audience to hear and understand these different expressions?

ET: My impulse is always to play against the poetry of Shakespeare’s language. The words themselves elevate his plays to soaring heights, but when actors indulge in that poetry it often sends the plays into a more melodramatic space. He wrote in blank verse, and as such, his writing is all the more remarkable for its construction—vivid, honest language held to a rigorous form. It’s that pursuit of surfacing the familiar, the banal, the human in Shakespeare’s plays that also—I believe—demand that we not try to censor the very real prejudices that have existed across time, from Shakespeare’s Venice to our communities today.

AL: Is there any comic relief in this play?  Should there be?

ET: Yes. And absolutely. Comedy accentuates tragedy, like salt with chocolate. Certainly there’s a lovely scene that we begin with: two men, ugly drunk, commiserating late one night about the unfairness of the world. But also: Shakespeare writes into the play a “CLOWN” character that, to my eyes, is not particularly funny (HA!). So we’ve made a production choice to replace those clown scenes with a series of jokes — the sort of jokes that accentuate our society’s treatment of outsiders, the sort of humor that “others” us.

AL: Okay, the ultimate question – are you more drawn to Othello, or Iago? Why?

ET: Mmmm. Good Question. I think the one doesn’t exist without the other, no? It’s almost biblical, the conflict between these two — like Cain and Abel.

Tickets to Othello are available here.
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Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue Series: June 11 recap

Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue Series seeks to explore the intersections between theater and civic practice. Through facilitated dialogues with community organizations and presentations of work by community-based artists, we hope to explore how theater can be a tool for highlighting voices of marginalized communities and for igniting change. This year’s Dialogues will explore four different themes related to our 2016 Season.

Lisa Evans (Associate Director of Artistic Engagement), Regina Victoria Fields (Artistic Engagement Fellow), and Tierra Allen (Artistic Engagement Coordinator). Photo by Eric Ting.

On Monday, July 11, Cal Shakes and Impact Hub Oakland hosted The Construction of Gender: Actualizing Women’s Empowerment.

The event began with a panel moderated by restorative justice practitioner, youth organizer, and artist Tatiana Chaterji featuring preacher, writer, and organizer Elena Rose; actress, director, and playwright Margo Hall; and youth worker and theater artist Anna Maria Luera.

The panel discussion focused on the societal expectations of the role of women, the importance and impact of self determination in regards to artistic representation, and what an expansive definition of womanhood can look like.

The panel was then followed by performances by The Rysing Womyn project, Campo Santo: H.O.M.E., RYSE Performing Arts, and Elana Rose.

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When Life Imitates Art—or the Other Way Around

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

In nineteenth century California, divorce was on the rise, available on the basis of any of six marital “conditions”: adultery, cruelty, abandonment, neglect, intemperance, or felony conviction. On the basis of information we can glean from George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, at least four of these six requirements would have satisfied the courts in the case of the Crampton family. Yet Fergus Crampton and his wife have stayed married, though apart, for the past eighteen years. Why? A five-letter word: shame. It was shameful to have divorce proceedings begun against you, and Mr. Crampton has the dignity of family and reputation to uphold. So he has remained, married in name only, for the best part of two decades. And his wife has not even remained “married in name”. She has adopted, and published her treatises under, the name of ‘Mrs Lanfrey Clandon.”

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(background, l-r) Michael Torres as Fergus Crampton, Elizabeth Carter as Mrs. Clandon, Lance Gardner as Philip, Khalia Davis as Dolly, (foreground, l-r) Sabina Varela Zuniga as Gloria, and Matthew Baldiga as Valentine in YOU NEVER CAN TELL.

Cal Shakes audiences, meet the messed up Crampton/Clandon family of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, one of his bizarrely named ‘pleasant plays’ because of its strong strain of farce. In many ways this dysfunctional family we meet in California is indeed Shaw’s family, imported over the Atlantic from Ireland and England. His Irish father was in his 50s when he married a woman he thought to be of means. But he was in for bitter disappointment – his wife brought in little money, precluding him from retirement and necessitating his acquisition of a second career (as a corn merchant) after being dismissed at his job as a civil servant. George Bernard Shaw (Bernard) was the last of their children. When he was fifteen his mother, who had fallen in love with her voice teacher, took off after him when he moved to London, taking her two daughters with her and leaving Bernard with her dissolute, depressive, alcoholic husband. Bernard left Dublin a year later to join his mother in London. There he would remain under the same roof, while continuing the distant relationship that he and his mother had shared since his infancy, for the next 26 years before his own marriage.

And the dysfunctional resemblance doesn’t stop there. Shaw, like his character Valentine in You Never Can Tell, met and came to love a strong, socialist (not socialite!), wealthy woman called Charlotte Payne Townshend: but he was loathe to marry her. Like Valentine, he was impecunious, and didn’t want to be seen as a fortune hunter.

Well, to see what happened to Shaw, come see You Never Can Tell. You’ll get a pretty good idea without ever having to consult Wikipedia…

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You Never Can Tell: REALLY

You never can tell…. what a play is really like until you dig deep into the process of breathing life into it for the stage. George Bernard Shaw’s play was first marketed as a light-hearted farce in the style of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, which had debuted in 1895, the year before Shaw wrote his play. “I cannot say that I cared for the Importance of Being Earnest,” Shaw said of Wilde’s farce about a man who once began life as a child left in a railway station in a handbag, his biggest problem being that he has to negotiate High Society without any parents to show for himself. “It amused me, of course,” Shaw said of Wilde’s play, “but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening…though I laugh as much as anybody at a farcical comedy, I am out of spirits before the end of the second act, and out of temper before the end of the third, my miserable mechanical laughter intensifying these symptoms at every outburst.” So Shaw decided to write his own play, You Never Can Tell, about children in search of respectable parents – or, indeed, any parents at all – in an upper-class milieu that requires them.

Tablework—the period in which we sit puzzling over the text and wondering who our characters are, where they come from, what they think of each other, and what their words mean–was fascinating. One of the qualities of the amazing Lisa Peterson as director is that she doesn’t want anyone ever to “speak” their lines without knowing why they say them. And these characters, under her scrutiny, grew from frothy concoctions into wildly transgressive and thought-provoking people whose lives and motives we wanted to explore. Why does Valentine (Matthew Baldiga), the 2-dollar dentist, have only one name? Is it because he is the only character disinterested in his past? He falls for Gloria (Sabina Zuniga Varela), who’s been trained by her mother to be a New Woman, a socialist, and a feminist heralding the coming of the twentieth century. And Gloria, despite all her training, falls for the first silly man she meets. What happens to them both? We discovered also that Gloria is not the only New Woman in this play–Shaw has three of them: one who’s self-fashioned (Mrs. Clandon); one’s who’s trained up (Gloria); and one who simply, delightfully, irrepressibly can’t help it (Dolly–Khalia Davis). We looked at fathers and sons as well as mothers and daughters, with Danny Scheie playing the unflappable, ever-calm Irish waiter always ready with a soothing cup of tea, a platitude and a cocktail, remaining unruffled only until his own son hits the scene.

And we had a fascinating time bringing this play across the Atlantic, setting it in a seaside urban setting in California. This entailed many hours of “translation” by Lisa and myself, as we looked at words that might seem too British and wondered about their contemporary nineteenth-century American counterparts. We looked at legal conventions in America at the time; etiquette for restaurants and table-settings; etiquette for greetings and introductions. In bringing all this so quickly and deeply to the table, Lisa did something fantastic. She asked each actor to research an aspect pertaining to their role: Danny, for example, to research the influx of Irish waiters who had come to America in the nineteenth century (early on in my research I had also found that besides Irish waiters, a major source of wait staff was found amongst African Americans, recently released from slavery after the Civil war and yet with no homes and no rights. African American waiters would get no tips, as they were still regarded as slaves; Irish waiters did get tips.) We found the origin of the word, “tip”: ‘To Insure Promptitude.” Liam Vincent, playing Bohun, the son of the waiter, is in our play a highly successful and marvelously pompous man of the law who dances as purposefully as he speaks. Liam was tasked with researching the status of family law at the time as opposed to the American equivalent to a British QC. Anthony Fusco, playing the family lawyer and ex-radical McComas, was asked to research Herbert Spencer, on whom his ideals were once built. Every actor brought a huge amount of fascinating research to the table, so impressive that I suggested we make a production notebook out of it so that we can keep this as a record for future productions.

As dramaturg, I would say that this process has kept me as busy as the busiest show I’ve ever worked on. Most nights I am up until 2- or 3:00am, thinking and researching. But this play, often wrongly dismissed as silly and yet so rich, deep, profound, and hilarious, has been worth every second. The cast is amazing. LeeAnn Dowd, the assistant director, has been a source of wonderful materials, from parasol etiquette to brands of wine to be served at table, running lines with the actors in the spare time she has, baking Irish soda bread at night to add to the “flavor” of Danny’s Irish thespian heritage. Stage Manager Laxmi Kumeran and her crew are of course a crew to dream of. I could go on and on–every single actor dives deep, from the miserable Crampton (Michael Torres) to the straight-backed, principled Mrs. Clandon (Elizabeth Carter) devoted to not having sex. I love this play. I love the cast. Lisa has made us as rich and real as we can be.

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Ask Philippa: You Never Can Tell Edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

You Never can Tell is, to put it simply: Shaw. It’s his life, his mother and father, his courtship with Charlotte Payne Townshend (like his character Valentine, the impecunious Shaw was afraid of marrying a wealthy woman because he didn’t want to look like a fortune-hunter). It’s a fascinating play, inspired also by Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, which Shaw found funny but frothy. He wanted to give the Wilde story some meat: which he did. Shaw’s play introduces the New Woman (three versions of her); it’s the first play in history to be about a dentist; and it has the lowest character on the totem pole, a waiter, be the dispenser of the most wisdom. The play is a riot; but it’s richly thoughtful and intriguing.

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

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Watch: Fences Audience Responses

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We caught up with audiences after Opening Night of August Wilson’s Fences, and the responses were wonderful! Click to see the playlist of them all.

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Ask Philippa: Fences Edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

Fences is the third in a cycle of ten plays through which African American playwright August Wilson sought to document the way in which his community experienced different forms of systematic oppression over different decades during the twentieth century. All of the plays in this series (the Pittsburgh Cycle – named after the city where Wilson grew up and spent over half of his life) are set inside, in the yard of, or involve the purchase of, a house, with families that struggle to forge, re-make and retain their identities in the shadow of oppression. Wilson’s characters are famous for their capacity, as he put it, to “embody universal experience in the black experience,” and we see this in Troy’s metaphysical struggles to understand his life in the face of death. We see it also in Rose, who realizes, only too late, that the confines of her marriage were the product of her own limited expectations for herself as well as her husband’s domination.

I can’t wait for you to see Fences, the first of Wilson’s plays to win the Pulitzer Prize, and the first of his plays ever to be staged at Cal Shakes.

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

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Family, Lies, and Honesty: A Peek Behind the Curtain

Regina Victoria Fields is Cal Shakes’ 2016 Artistic Engagement Fellow, and the Assistant Director for Fences. Below, she shares her thoughts about the rehearsal process and Fences‘ place in the community.

This is a story about me and my family.

It’s the first day of Fences rehearsal and the high-ceilinged rehearsal room feels more like a reunion than a meeting. Laughter is all around as old friends and colleagues shake hands and rekindle friendships. Cal Shakes regulars like Margo Hall and my former professor Aldo Billingslea move through the space being greeted by board members and staff members alike. Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges charms everyone around her, shaking hands with everyone she doesn’t know and skipping through the space to hug those she does.

The Cal Shakes community has gathered to meet the artists and hear August Wilson’s play for the first time in our rehearsal space at 701 Heinz. In many ways, they are my family. I interned for the company through their Professional Immersion Program in 2014, and understudied both A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with five harrowing performances, see: http://calshakes.org/blog/2014/09/the-understudy-diaries/) and King Lear. Now, two years later I’m the Artistic Engagement Fellow and the Assistant Director for Fences.

As the Artistic Engagement Fellow, my supervisor Lisa Evans has tasked me with some unique projects related to the production. These included collecting the stories of women at the Allen Temple Senior Center Project and North County Women’s Shelter—whose voices you will hear in the show—and cultivating panelists for our Women’s Empowerment Panel. New Artistic Director Eric Ting is an invaluable addition to the company, in my humble opinion. He’s been establishing new processes such as an Artistic Circle comprised of the Education, Casting, Production, and Engagement departments, to ensure all have equal input on the artistic business of the company. The other Fellow LeeAnn Dowd and I are encouraged to participate as much as any full time staff. Eric speaks about engagement and performance as a circular feed—each should feed into the other, instead of the conventional formula of performance-first thinking. This type of engagement allows for a greater inclusion of community perspective in the art we create at the Bruns while we are still in rehearsal.

Assistant directing is often a complicated game, some directors don’t want you to speak or contribute in any way, and you’re often left trying to figure out how much space you’re allowed to take up or if you should just become invisible altogether. This is not how Raelle works. She believes in the emerging artist, even when you don’t believe in yourself. In her first e-mail to the company weeks before rehearsal she stated: “I started as an apprentice at a company and without being given the same duties and respect as every other artist on the team, I would not have learned as quickly and thoroughly as I did. So let me say it out loud: they are not interns to be dismissed, but emerging artists to work side by side with production and artistic teams to make sure we have an amazing show.”

The Power of Truth-telling

Storytelling is a constant search for the truth. A note Raelle continuously gives her actors is that she does not want to see them lie. It’s an honest trade: Raelle will never lie to you. She’s impressively direct, and personally, as a 23-year-old female-presenting person, being direct isn’t something you’re taught; it’s something that you have to learn later in life. In the first week of rehearsal she was already encouraging me and the other emerging artists to be louder, to take up more space, to be leaders.

In a search for the truth, you have to wade through a lot of lies. One of the lies Raelle refuses to subscribe to is the often-touted theory that August Wilson’s women are invisible. During the development of the concept of this piece, it was really exciting to me that this Fences would be more female-centric. As the Artistic Engagement Fellow, to bring women’s voices to the forefront, some of which is mentioned above. When asked about it, however, Raelle will be the first to tell you this piece is not “Rose-centric”. She’s simply acknowledging the female character that is the other half of her partnership has just as much—if not more—importance to the play than Troy. It then becomes the story of outside stresses on a partnership, instead of the tragedy of a fallen man.

Loving Honesty

Honesty is never easy. As we journey through the process of creating this play, there are some bumps and bruises as the creative team finds their way around the space and each other. Someone once told me that picking a creative team wasn’t necessarily about who is the most talented, but rather with whom you would be willing to spend 12 hours in a dark room. Raelle and I had a really honest dialogue during a meeting with sound designer and close friend Mikaal Sulaiman. When asked, Raelle said some of her best work happens when she has her friends and family in the room, because “we train people that they can’t be themselves in theatre and that’s why I love having friends and family in the room because you can be honest with them.” We’ve all seen art where the director was afraid to mention a strange performance quirk because they wanted to be kind, but that doesn’t come from a place of love or honesty, and can cause the art to suffer. “I’m a black girl with a low voice so when I’m not mad at you I sound like I’m yelling,” Raelle says, chunky headphones on sideways as we wait between sound samples. “But professionalism doesn’t mean antiseptic. Conflict is inevitable when you’re trying to make something great, and at the end of the day, no matter what, family is family.” She goes on to explain that at the end of the day whether you’re friends or not, it’s about being real with each other. An honest criticism should never be taken personally; we should trust that we are all just trying to create something great.

This is a concept worth remembering at the end of the rehearsal week. After spending anywhere from 36-48 hours together in the first week, just like a real family we have officially begun to get on each others’ nerves. The end of the first week is the rawest part of a process. We start the week in a high, happy place of connecting with the language and engaging with the story for the first time. By the end of the first week we’ve attempted to carve out most of the story and characters, and have a sketch of the whole show. Sunday’s rehearsal consists of “stumbling” through the show, which is exactly what happens. We stumble through and realize what we do and don’t know, and what is and isn’t working. This creates a vulnerable baring of the artistic nerve that leads to friction in the space. Actors begin to dart furtive looks around the room if their colleagues misstep, Raelle is pointing out notes or changes that have been neglected, and tension is high. We ended rehearsal early, and not without some agitation.

Over the next two days this agitation festers into contemplation. On Tuesday, everyone enters the room in aggressively high spirits, a glint in their eye, determined to get it right. Acting artists have had time to absorb their notes, and they attack the material with a new zeal. There is a universal agreement in the room at the start of week two that this work is difficult because it’s dangerous and fresh. Like a real family, we’ve reconciled after the fight, because the art is what’s important. As Raelle says, “It’s not even about being friends or family…and it’s not about brutality…it’s about the ability to be honest—lovingly honest—to make something real.”

This is a story about me and my family.

Fences is about the inner workings of a black family, and if you come from a family of color, it’s easy to relate on some level to the Maxsons. The design of the show allows us into the facade of the home, creating an artfully sharp transparency. In Raelle’s production, I can see the strength of my mother in Rose, and the noble responsibility of my father in Troy. This is not a museum piece. This Fences feels like it could happen in your neighborhood. This story is about my black and brown family and how their essence lives inside of August Wilson’s words. It’s about my Cal Shakes family, and how with every season they strive to grow both artistically and ethically. It’s about the ups and downs a creative family goes through to create something temporary and vital out of truth and love, and the opportunity to share it with you.

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