Behind the Scenes at a Student Discovery Matinee

The following is an account of our Student Discovery Matinee Series from the perspective of Trish Tillman, director of Artistic Learning. the first half of this piece ran in Cal Shakes’ May 2010 newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.

When I was growing up, I was lucky to be able to see many kinds of performances in my city: Some of them I liked, and some I didn’t; either way, just going into the theater itself gave me a thrill. I always felt a powerful combination of anticipation, ceremony, and specialness, which made me feel alive. Part of our mission at Cal Shakes is to provide that kind of experience to as many students as we can, which takes a lot of inspiration, organization, and good humor.
To give you a sense of what I mean, here’s a little backstage look at how the staff experience our Student Discovery Matinees9:50am – Each group is led to a designated grove on the theater grounds to await their time to be seated. Each group gets an entrance time so that not all 550 students are trying to get into the theater at once!

10:05am – As they wait, students usually decide to picnic. Even though it is barely past breakfast, we notice that they seem to be devouring their lunches.

10:25am – Students line up to enter the amphitheater. Their faces light up as they enter the space and see the set. No curtains, no dim lights. The set for John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven is like a giant three-story dollhouse featuring different rooms on many levels; a real, rusted 1920s-era Ford pickup truck sits on the stage, one wheel off. Then students start to talk about what this play might be like—the sense of anticipation grows.

10:45am – Teaching Artist Clive Worsley takes the stage to do his fabulous pre-show welcome. He goes over some key points from the play in plain, student-ready language; has the students do a call-and-response; and generally primes the energy of the house.

11:00am – Music starts. An actor enters. The audience is suspended in the moment before everything begins, breathing lightly. Then the other actors come onstage, and … ACTION!

11:30am – As the play progresses, we sit among the groups, always amazed at how real and potent theater is for young people: T

hey laugh loudly, gasp outwardly

at the surprise moments, and snicker at any hint of romance. They’re told not to talk, but inevitably they want to check in with their friends with a glance or a poke as they share the experience. We feel that as long as it’s about the show and it’s respectful, reactions are good. 

12:20pm – Intermission. Kids rush to the café for goodies. We watch to make sure no one strays off into the woods and we overhear them chatter about Act One

which characters they like, which parts stick in their mind, and which girls have already picked an actor to have a crush on. 

12:31pm – Sweater comes off. Sunscreen goes on. The fog is long gone. Act Two begins!

Sarah-and-students1:30pm – The crowd rises, applauding loudly. The actors look happy and the students start to chatter. Clive jumps up on stage to give instructions for the Question and Answer session.

1:40pm – The post-show Q&A is a treat rarely enjoyed by our evening audiences. The actors, once out of their costume bonnets and aprons, reappear onstage to answer questions ranging from, “How do you become a professional actor?” and, “How did you do that stage effect?” to, “Have you been in movies?” and, “Is anyone in the cast boyfriend and girlfriend?” 

2:07pm – Back down the hill they go. If the students are lucky, they run into one of the actors leaving the theater to get some rest before the evening show, and can pepper them with additonal questions.

2:10pm – We prepare the grounds for the evening performance, repeat to each other the amazing things we heard from the students that day, and begin looking forward to the next Student Discovery Matinee.

Seats are still available for the June 8 and 10 Student Discovery Matinees of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven!

In addition, our Student Discovery Matinees for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About NothingSeptember 30, Oct 6, 8, 12, and 14are booking up fast. Please forward this to a teacher you know or, to bring your own school group, please call Ava Jackson, Artistic Learning Coordinator at 510.809.3292 or email You can also learn more by visiting our website at

7am – Wake up and realize that we are going to be receiving over 500 students, age 8 to 17, in a matter of hours! Mentally check the paperwork prep we’ve done for the last two months, and get moving.

7:30am – Down an essential cup of coffee and head to the theater.

8:30am – Arrive at the theater parking lot. The chill from the night before still has a hold on the air, so we pull on extra sweatshirts and jackets. We set up orange cones for traffic patterns in the parking area and then trek up the hill to the amphitheater. Then all of us, a group of about 12-15 staff and volunteers, gather to familiarize ourselves with today’s schools and seating chart. Each person is assigned to lead one or two groups, given a reminder of the rules to tell the students.

8:45am – Wipe dew from chairs. Let them have dry seats! We put out programs on the seats for the show, pick up any remaining trash from the previous evening’s performance.

8:58am – The shuttle driver departs to pick up groups coming by BART. Other staff and volunteers duck backstage to set up breakfast for the actors who will be arriving soon to work hard in the sun for the next two hours. Grab more coffee.

9:25am – Groups begin arriving; buses and cars fill the lot. The Cal Shakes staff is on hand to greet them, share the rules of attending outdoor theater, and do a head-count. Our walkie-talkies crackle as we communicate from the top of the hill to the bottom parking lot about who’s arriving.


9:45am – As groups arrive, they line up and begin the ascent. We always hear students wondering aloud about where the heck the theater is out here in the woods. 

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