Maybe your curse and the farm’s curse has mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of rattlesnakes.

There were actual actors roaming the halls for most of last week, starting Tuesday; once I got over the shock of it, I started asking after what was going on. I mean, I love me some Dan Hiatt, Nancy Carlin, and Catherine Castellanos, but I’m not used to seeing them just ambling about during the off-season, not to mention that Catherine (who, in my humble–oops, I mean, IMHO–stole the show as Queen Margaret in Richard III this season) was doing her ambling in a full-leg cast, thanks to an injury sustained during the San Jose Rep production of The Triumph of Love.

Tuesday afternoon the following email arrived from Associate Artistic Director Joy Meads:

“As you may have noticed from the actors and playwright walking around, we are conducting our first workshop for PASTURES OF HEAVEN this week. We’ll be working on one of the stories (number 4, the turalecito story) using exercises drawn from Word For Word’s practice and inspired by the RSC’s development of Nicholas Nickleby. We’d like to invite you to drop in and observe the workshop at any point this week.”

Pastures of Heaven (or, as Joy, who has a bit of a volume control problem, puts it, PASTURES OF HEAVEN) is the latest piece our New Works/New Communities program is sinking its teeth into. With NW/NC, Cal Shakes partners up with community groups, other theater companies, and various and sundry other orgs to adapt and create new theater with roots in the classics. In 2006, we partnered with partnered with Campo Santo (the resident company at SF’s Intersection for the Arts) and playwright Naomi Iizuka to create Hamlet: Blood in the Brain; and, in 2006/2007 with playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, MFA students at A.C.T., and community organizations working with homeless LGBT youth in San Francisco to reimagine A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Now, with playwright Octavio Solis, Word for Word Performing Arts Company, and community organizations still TBA, we’re adapting John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven.

I am using the following method. The manuscript is made up of stories, each one complete in itself, having its rise, climax and ending. Each story deals with a family or an individual. Each story deals with a family or an idividual. They are tied together by the common locality and by the contact with the [central family].

- John Steinbeck in the introduction to The Pastures of Heaven

Pastures is an anthology of interconnected stories, stories that unfold in the farming community of early twentieth-century Salinas. It is hard to imagine a collection of short fiction being easily adaptable to the stage, even a collection so interrelated by place and persons. Because short stories vary–in their main characters, and usually in their tone–from each other. And because, any time you’re adapting something written for the page to be performed on the stage, you’re dealing with exposition that was not created to be spoken. Luckily, there are things like set design, sound, lighting, and costumes to add to the conversation. And even luckier is our partnership with Word for Word, a professional ensemble whose mission is to stage short stories in their entirety., and our commissioning of Octavio Solis, who has also been working on an adaptation of Don Quixote for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

And, even luckier, perhaps, is that Pastures of Heaven features dialogue like this:

Maybe your curse and the farm’s curse has mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of rattlesnakes. Maybe there’ll be a lot of baby curses crawling around the pastures the first thing we know.

Oh, yeah.

But of course, the performance is still some time away, and the adaptation’s just begun. So on Friday, I sat in on a little of the workshop. And this is a little of what I saw:

Actor Dan Hiatt reading passages from a book called Grow It, by Richard W. Langer, and attempting to explain, somewhat, the difficulties of farming. (Left to right: Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, the back of playwright Octavio Solis’s head, Word for Word company member Patricia Silver, the back of Word for Word co-Artistic Director JoAnne Winter’s head, and Hiatt.)

Octavio listening intently as a workshop participant showed pictures of a 1930s-era one-room schoolhouse, while talking about how this schoolhouse would have had no segregation, and that1930 was a watershed year for educational theory, when educational conservatives and progressives squared off over who should be educated (the most gifted or the least), and how and what to teach to them.

It’s a fascinating process, and on Saturday NW/NC held rehearsals at Z Space in San Francisco. Joy told me on the phone today that “it went great!” She’s usually more verbose, but she’s otherwise occupied, having just finished her last week at Cal Shakes, and therefore being in the midst of packing for chillier climes. In fact, I shouldn’t let you think that the Pastures workshop was all that happened last week.
Because it wasn’t.

On Friday, most of us ditched work early to meet up at the Townhouse, an Emeryville bar and restaurant that (as my former coworker Vicky would say) is both hoity and toity. We drank, we ate hors d’oeuvres, and things happened.

Jon Moscone delivered a very funny, sweet toast to Joy while Daunielle moved furniture around.
Joy made a speech that I, apparently, found quite amusing.
And Cal Shakes Board Vice President Nancy Kaible presented to us a song that her daughter had written for her friends moving to Chicago, and then adapted for Joy’s going-away.
She fiddled with the wee boom box a bit, and we asked the staff to turn down the nonthreatening jazz that was playing over the Townhouse’s sound system.
And then? Well… the following is a bit unsafe for workplace consumption. Unless you work somewhere cool like Cal Shakes, that is.
And then we laughed.
And laughed, and laughed.
Joy may have even cried a little.
 
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