Entering into The Pastures of Heaven

So folks, we just ended a full week of workshopping the first complete draft of Octavio Solis’ adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. We’re premiering it next year on our Main Stage, and it was quite a week.

Octavio’s play is, simply, beautiful. On the path to making a play, you look for its DNA: what it’s made of. Changes will be made—cuts, rearrangements of scenes, additions, etc.—but what needs to be there at one point is the play’s DNA. Its self. Octavio’s Pastures has real DNA. It has a genuine theatrical life, blending Word for Word’s sensibility of translating literature into theater with my love of the nakedness of storytelling in the hands of actors (as we explored in Nicholas Nickleby). But more importantly, it has heart. And poetry. It’s also very very funny. And that’s all Octavio. He pulls Steinbeck’s quiet words off the page and finds the juxtapositions between humor and pathos in a way that makes me happy to feel like I am in the hands of a Chekhovian writer.

We assembled a group of actors, some of whom had been with the process since it started two years ago, and some new actors. And all were splendid collaborators, able to make characters distinct and alive in an extremely short time; also able to ask smart questions of the text that will inevitably inform our next steps in the development of the piece; and most of all, united, in just six days, into an ensemble. Which is what this play celebrates: the storytelling of an ensemble of actors. It’s sheer theater—authentic and alive.

We invited some funders, board members, staff, and patrons to the “window on the work” yesterday, reading abou half of the play. The feeling in the room was palpable—there was something special going on here. I was, to be quite sentimental, extremely proud, moved, and almost speechless (and for those of you who know me, that is no small feat) by the presence of a wonderful new American play, inspired by one of our great American writers—a classic writer if you will—at a Theater that is taking a big leap forward in defining who it is.

The great folks at Arena Stage sent someone out to chronicle the process. They, along with the NEA, were partners in selecting John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven as one of five NEA Distinguished New American Plays. This, along with support from the Irvine Foundation and other amazing foundations, is making it possible for us to do this piece. And our subscribers delight in the surprises we make for them. So their spirit was in the room as we made steps in the creation of this piece. And our staff, led by the great Jessica Richards, producer of the project, was there every step of the way.

Hence the pride, the being moved, and the almost-speechlessness. I couldn’t do this anywhere else but at Cal Shakes, and in the Bay Area, which is by far the best place in this country to take chances in theatrical expression.

There’s a lot of work still be done with the play, but Octavio knows where to go with it and what to do. Trust the playwright. Especially when it’s Octavio Solis, who listens more than he talks, takes in and thinks hard about what the actors and I are doing, and is open to the collaboration of the ensemble and myself.

I am genuinely happy about what happened last week, which is just a marker in the path of the making of this new American play. And our community engagement—with folks in Salinas, especially the young artists of Alisal Center for the Arts (whose mural inspired by The Pastures of Heaven will be on display at our Theater during the play’s run) as well as students in the Bay Area who are learning about Steinbeck and how to make literature come alive (via our excellent teaching artists)—makes this more than just a play-making process. It’s a community-building process. It makes it all bigger. It makes more impact. And it will forever change this Theater and, I hope, some of the communities we are reaching out to.

More anon.

Jonathan

Pictured above, from top: Jonathan speaks to project artists at the last Pastures workshop; Danny Scheie; Maya Lawson; Craig Marker; photos by Jay Yamada. View more at the New Works/New Communities Flickr page.

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