Cal Shakes and Word for Word research The Pastures of HeavenThe first part of the following was originally printed in the Pericles program; Part 2 is a blog-only exclusive.
In the wee hours of Monday, March 19, a motley crew of theater types hit the road for Salinas—playwright Octavio Solis, Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, Word for Word Artistic Directors Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter, and an assortment of Word for Word company members and Cal Shakes staffers. We packed ourselves into a trio of vehicles and headed a hundred miles south to Salinas, to get the lay of the land that sculpted John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, which Cal Shakes and Word for Word have commissioned Solis to adapt through our next New Works/New Communities project. I went along to help document the excursion; it was an interesting part to play—a watcher and transcriber of watchers and transcribers, a member of the press reporting on a two-day dramatic adaptation junket.
The first stop on Day One of our trip (after a fast-food breakfast—this was a road trip, after all) was The Farm, an agricultural education center just outside of Salinas. The grandfather of our host, Chris Bunn, founded Bunny Farms (so named because of his long ears) in the 1930s, and now they grow a variety of seasonal produce, much of it organic. Mr. Bunn explained to us some of the intricacies of modern farming, talked about the history of agriculture in the valley, and even let us hoe a row or two. We learned about local artist John Cerney, a Salinas native whose larger-than-life people sculptures dot the landscape of the Central Valley, and fascinated our crew—The Farm commissioned Cerney to pay tribute to its workers, and the giant people can be seen throughout its fields.
Before we knew it, our caravan was off to the Firehouse Recreation Center to interview seniors who would surely impart upon us the wisdom of the ages, spin yarns about the ways of life in Steinbeck’s time, and so very many more things … if only they hadn’t already had their lunch and skedaddled. So we moved onto our next destination—or rather, the quest for our next destination, Corral de Tierra. Corral de Tierra is a massive tract of valley land that Steinbeck’s titular Pastures are based on, the landscape on which the novel’s delicate narratives rest; nowadays, however, it’s a prime piece of real estate upon which a golf course, country club, and multimillion-dollar homes lay. We drove around for upwards of an hour, pulling into parking lots and onto curving road shoulders, imagining Ms. Morgan climbing up to Castle Rock (one of the wildly grooved formations visible from the road) to think about her father, or Edward “Shark” Wicks lumbering down the way, gunning for the bad boy Jimmie Munroe. While we were peeking past a particularly tempting “No Trespassing” sign, NW/NC project director Jessica Richards got the call we’d been waiting for: The next day we’d be allowed access to Markham Ranch, where many of the aforementioned multimillion-dollar houses lay. And so we bid farewell to much of our party, and Richards, playwright Solis, and myself repaired to a local Ramada for a good night’s rest.
Road Trip! Part 2:
After enjoying our complimentary continental breakfast (hey, we’re a nonprofit theater) we hustled back to the Firehouse Recreation Center. This trip was far more successful than the day before, and Solis found himself in the middle of a bilingual story circle, populated by seniors from all over the age range that the word implies. There was the thrice-married bookkeeper who’s welded in the San Francisco shipyards; the ranchero who came from Mexico with his family as part of the U.S. government-sponsored Bracero Program; and the sixtysomething woman who showed us her tattoos and spun many a hard-luck tale. We were so fascinated by the seniors’ stories that we were nearly late for our meeting with National Steinbeck Center CEO Steve Hoffman who had been on the job for a only a few months and who, we were pleased to learn, had been deeply involved with theater arts back in South Dakota. The meeting was a great one—he seemed eager to work with us, and we discussed the museum hosting Steinbeck Project events, his bringing groups to the Bruns (on a bus with champagne, even!), and even partnering to restore some archival Steinbeck recordings.
We tooled around the Center proper for a while, and I’m happy to report that it’s a truly engaging museum, packed to the rafters with interactive exhibits, video of actors from Western Stage readings from Steinbeck, original possessions of Steinbeck’s (including books and a desk), clips from films made of the author’s work, and much more. Solis’ favorite part, by far, was the modified camper truck that Steinbeck piloted around in Travels with Charley; the trailer is named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse, which delighted the playwright as he’s currently adapting Don Quixote for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Me, I liked the giant Steinbeck crossword puzzle.)
After the Steinbeck Center, we hurried to pick up sandwiches in quaint downtown Salinas and get in the gate at Markham Ranch by 2 p.m.—the time our gate code would expire. Sadly, between parking and ordering and driving up the way again, we found ourselves running too late, and when a phone call elicited the information that the man who programmed the gate code was gone for the day, we despaired. Would we have to only imagine the verdant dells of los Pastos del Cielo, never seeing them up close?!
But wait. What’s this? A car going through the gates just as we pull up to Markham Ranch? And just what is Octaivio Solis doing?! He’s driving his own car through those closing gates, spiked iron security (yes, really) be damned!?!
And then we were in. We were oohing and ahhing over hill and dale, peeking at alpaca and horses, getting barked at by protective housedogs as we mooned over rock formations. The landscape is breathtaking up there—truly what inspiration’s made of. And the gated community only drove home what John Steinbeck predicted in The Pastures of Heaven’s final chapter, that the ways of the Munroes and Maltbys are long gone, and the modern world has come to Corral de Tierra. But one could easily see how folks could move to this place and work the hard land while still believing in their personal dreams. It’s that stunning, that otherworldly.
And so, with one last snap of the digital camera and a wave to the livestock, we headed back to the Bay Area. The Steinbeck Project rolls on, and we at Cal Shakes are glad of it.