by resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream between 1594 and 1598, when the playwright was in his early to mid-thirties (solidly-middle-aged by the standards of his time, “young” by today’s measurements, where the Y and Z generations have an estimated average life-span of 103!)

Midsummer was preceded by Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the three Henry VI plays that we produced last season. The play’s closest companion, however, was Romeo and Juliet, of which it can be seen as an inversion: while Romeo and Juliet begins as a comedy about youthful infatuation, suddenly plummeting into intense passion and ultimate tragedy, Midsummer begins with a cruel threat of death, soaring from there through darkness, misunderstanding and panic all the way to a glorious comic resolution that is celebrated in multiple marriages. The use of trickery, too, is inverted in the two plays, one for tragic purposes, the other for comic: in Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers are tricked by fate into losing their lives; while Midsummer’s lovers are tricked into complicated, intersecting versions of misunderstanding and despair, ultimately to be resolved within joyous concord.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake

But why doesn’t Midsummer end with the several weddings that provide a gorgeous wrap-up to the hectic cross-currents of alarm and confusion? Instead of ending with its weddings, the play has a final act that counters concord with discord: all of the wedding couples are forced to sit through a performance of The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, a Romeo and Juliet-style horror-show complete with blood and gore, hilariously rendered by an inept group of unschooled actors.

I think this ambivalent ending provides one of the analogues that make the play so powerful in our present day, when myths about happy families and forever-marriages are no longer hammered in as they were after the two world wars.  As a part of their wedding celebration, Shakespeare’s contented lovers witness love that doesn’t end up happily ever-after. They witness, in other words, the future that might easily have confronted them, or the future that they still might face. Swearing to love forever doesn’t necessarily mean forever: there was any number of accidents (falling into a pothole, catching an infection, burning in a house fire), that ended many sixteenth-century marriages almost before they had begun. In a time that was governed by carpe diem (“live for the day,”) people understood, at the most profound level, that happy-ever-after is a dream to be longed for, but, perhaps, something that exists as only a dream.

P.S. Subscriptions to our 2019 Season are available now. If you’ve already subscribed, please consider a donation to Cal Shakes to show your love today!


Agents of Change? or, the struggle for a theme

Subscriptions and Flex Passes for 2019 are on sale now.

A Theme for This Season’s Plays: that’s kind of a “theaters-announcing-their-season” thing, right? I’ve worked with a few artistic directors following all sorts of models for planning a season, and I’ve learned that the capital-t Theme emerges in many different ways, and for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s the element that helps to focus the planning team’s energies when considering dozens of scripts, sometimes (real talk) it’s a request from the marketing team for helping drive the messaging, and often, it’s a trend you start to notice as you’re hammering the final details of the final play into place before announcing.

Last year’s theme—“EPIC”—was a perfect way to describe 2018’s plays. It also evoked the sheer amount of work every artist, administrator, artisan, and technician involved had to undertake as a member of the company. EPIC is a marketing-friendly word, sure, but it also helped name and frame exactly what we were undertaking, how much fun the audience had to look forward to, and what we had achieved at the end of the season.

This year, the through-line is a little harder to capture with a single word. Wearing my marketing hat, I find this tricky. But with my dramaturg glasses on, I find this FASCINATING.

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Last September, our Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly wrote some initial thoughts about our two Shakespeare plays in conversation with each other. She mentioned the themes of witchcraft, the social constraints placed on women, and, surprisingly—climate change (sort of):

“There is so much in Shakespeare about elements in the climate reflecting/portending human states of being. Pathetic fallacy means that nature mirrors, and finds ‘universal’ expression for, a human state of mind—for example, the wind and rain in King Lear that batters the king and gives physical expression to the torment of his internal being.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the perversion of the seasons expresses the perversion of human goodness and orderliness. Old Hiems (winter) wears a necklace of spring flowers. In the topsy-turvy emotional world of Midsummer, everything in nature is affected by the struggles and constraints of mortals and fairies: everything in nature is thus distorted and damaged, thirsty for nurture just as the humans and fairies are thirsty for love.

In Macbeth we have a terribly unruly night presaging the death of Duncan:

The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.”

In an email I wrote to Artistic Director Eric Ting, I said, “I’m trying to build language for next season that runs a through-line. I think I’m landing on something about humanity’s influence (power? manipulation? transformation? alchemy?) on the world and the people around them, but I’m trying to find a pithy way to put it. The other day you mentioned the plays addressing a “panoply of humanity” which is pithy but not quite what I’m going for. Thoughts?”

This was the thematic brainstorming that resulted:

The Consequence of Our Humanity
Agents of Change
Manipulators Abound
We’re Not All Gods
Move Fast and Break Everything
Witches, Fairies, Gods, and Women: Changing the World Around Them Since Like, Forever.

…no? Well, like I said, this year’s capital-t Theme is not lending itself to a single word or phrase.

But it’s there, that overarching refrain. That we manipulate the people in our lives to get what we want, even if (perhaps especially if) we think it’s also what we deserve. That Mother Nature is strong, but she’s losing the battle royale against our human whims. That when given power after having had none, we often abuse it. That when losing power after having had it, we often revolt, in ways large and small. That we all affect the world around us, often—despite the best of intentions—for the worse.

That it’s never too late to set things right, no matter the cost.

Subscriptions and Flex Passes for 2019 are on sale now.
Click below to learn more about the shows:


A message from Sarita Ocón, Theater Artist

I was so honored when Cal Shakes asked me to share my story.

You may remember me from this past season as Dulcinea in Quixote Nuevo. And you may remember my heartfelt appeal at the end of the show, inviting you and other audience members to participate in the Pay It Forward Campaign. Night after night, I was so moved by your generosity and that of the whole
Cal Shakes Familia.

I was also truly blown away when Cal Shakes decided to dedicate several nights’ fundraising revenue to another organization supporting work against a humanitarian crisis. We were all deeply affected by the crisis unfolding along the Southern border as immigrant children were being separated from their parents. So when Cal Shakes audiences came together to raise more than $7,000 for RAICES (an organization working with these families), my corazón (heart) burst with joy and gratitude.

To witness my Cal Shakes community come together in such a tremendous way was a moment I will never forget. Cal Shakes does more than tell epic stories to audiences from all walks of life—Cal Shakes builds community and, by making art that matters more to more people, inspires audiences and theater makers to become active change agents in the world.

This is something that inspires me to want to give back to Cal Shakes. I hope it will also inspire you to support Cal Shakes with your donation today.

Love and light,

Sarita Ocón
Theater Artist


Survey Says…

The War of the Roses

You may have seen them walking about the Bruns with tablets in hand—our fearless volunteers asking people to answer a few questions. Hundreds of you took the time to respond. (Six won a year’s supply of Peets!)

Based on the % of people’s responses, the top 8 things you love about the Cal Shakes experience (besides seeing the season’s epic shows) are:

  1. Picnicking
  2. Spending time with the people I arrived with
  3. Purchasing food/drink at the café
  4. On-site parking
  5. Enjoying the grounds
  6. Purchasing drinks or merchandise at the bar
  7. Grove Talks
  8. Meeting new people

We also received dozens of comments and suggestions, ranging from sharing minor frustrations to special call-outs to staff and artists. Some of these we can address (i.e., retire dysfunctional assisted listening devices); some are beyond our control (the weather). Some comments helped us learn where we need to do a better job communicating (a lot of you asked if you can get programs online before the show—yes!). We take all your comments seriously and appreciate you letting us know how we can improve the time you share with us at the Bruns.

Thank you, and see you next summer!


Announcing a new Marcus Gardley commission!

We’ve received a prestigious Hewlett 50 Arts Commission! 

A program of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Hewlett 50 Arts Commission awards 10 Bay Area-based non-profit organizations. Each will receive $150,000 to create important and unique work that facilitates discussions around the most pressing local issues.

For this commission, Playwright Marcus Gardley will seeks inspiration from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to write A Thousand Ships, based on the women of the Richmond Shipyards.

Playwright Marcus Gardley

“We are thrilled to have been selected for this significant and meaningful commission,” commented Cal Shakes Artistic Director Eric Ting. “Since the launch of Cal Shakes’ New Classics Initiative (NCI) with Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey in 2017, we’ve sought to elevate classic works through the voices of writers living and engaging with our contemporary moment. The Hewlett 50 affords us one of our first full commissions for a New Classic, allowing us the sort of timeline to build meaningful and deeply rooted engagement between our artists and the larger Bay Area.”

“I am deeply honored to receive this commission,” added playwright Marcus Gardley. “To have the opportunity to create another play with Cal Shakes and to tell another Bay Area Story is truly an incredible gift. I do not take it lightly. I am extremely grateful to have Hewlett’s support, and I look forward to sharing our next story with the community and the world beyond. Time to start writing!”

With A Thousand Ships, Gardley returns to a subject he first explored more than a decade ago in This World in a Woman’s Hands, the lives of the women like his two great-grandmothers who came to the Bay Area during World War II to work in the Richmond Shipyards. Eager to revisit these “Rosie the Riveters” and their stories, he plans to integrate their friendships, tragedies, loves and enduring spirit into a larger narrative of the region’s history, fused with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. A Thousand Ships will explore themes of migration, community, and the notion of making home and family among strangers in a new land. Along with choreography, media design and special effects, the music of the period such as Ella Fitzgerald, the Andrew Sisters, and blues and folk songs will be integral to evoking the world of the shipyards. The play will also spotlight the Bay Area’s role in gospel music. The project reunites key artistic collaborators from both black odyssey and This World in a Woman’s Hands, Linda Tillery and Molly Holm, to create a vocal score that weaves this musical heritage into the story’s telling. A Thousand Ships is slated to premiere at Cal Shakes’ Bruns Amphitheater as part of the 2021 season.

Marcus Gardley, Molly Holm &  Linda Tillery during black odyssey 2017 music workshops.

As with previous NCI projects, Cal Shakes will provide opportunities for Bay Area residents, and in particular, Richmond residents, to engage with A Thousand Ships. Cal Shakes will host intergenerational Story Circles to bring community voices into the developmental orbit of the work at key points in its journey towards its world premiere. Story Circles will include women who worked in the shipyards, as well as their descendants, to help them connect to each other and connect their stories to the larger historical and social context. Additional programming includes residencies in schools and community settings, on-site audience enrichment programs, and Community Night previews. Cal Shakes also offer discounted tickets to community partners and subsidized ticket options for the general public as well as seniors, students, and teachers.

Exploring what it means to be a classical theater in the 21st century, Cal Shakes’ New Classics Initiative engages living writers in dialogue with our classical canon to see old stories through new eyes, challenging, expanding, and revitalizing our very notions of universal. Previous New Classics include black odyssey and Octavio Solis’ Quixote Nuevo (2018); upcoming projects include the world premiere of Madhuri Shekar’s House of Joy in 2019.

Launched in 2017 to celebrate the foundation’s 50th anniversary, the Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions is a five-year, $8 million initiative supporting the creation and premiere of 50 new works by world-class performing artists working in five disciplines.  The largest commissioning initiative of its kind in the country, the program is a symbol of the Hewlett Foundation’s longstanding commitment to sustaining artistic expression and encouraging public engagement in the arts across diverse communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

More information about the Hewlett 50 Arts Commission can be found at: hewlett.org/50Commissions.


Help us make Cal Shakes a home to all

Hello friends,

This past season, thousands of people like you gathered together to share unforgettable stories, told by the finest artists the Bay Area has to offer, against the most beautiful backdrop imaginable. For those brief hours, we made a home—together—at Cal Shakes.

From left: Hugo Carbajal and Emilio Delgado in Quixote Nuevo; Cleavant Derricks, J.D. Mollison, Michael Curry, Ruthie Price, and Santoya Fields in black odyssey; Student Matinee; Catherine Luedtke, Stacy Ross, and Danny Scheie in The War of the Roses. Student Matinee photo by Jay Yamada, others by Kevin Berne.


Donations from our supporters are what makes this possible. Contributing to a home for extraordinary artists and artistry creates the work you want to see on our stage. Sustaining this work also requires additional resources that aren’t funded by ticket sales alone. You can help make Cal Shakes a home for audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

Your gift helps us produce epic stories and helps us attract and support the most exciting artists working in American theater today. Your gift helps us serve thousands of school children at the Bruns, at our Summer Conservatory, and in their own classrooms. And your gift helps us welcome thousands of audience members each year to the place I am so grateful to call home.

As you prepare to share your own home with family and friends, please include Cal Shakes in your year-end giving plans and make a donation today.

With gratitude,

Eric Ting
Artistic Director


Announcing the 2019 Season!

A note from Artistic Director Eric Ting:

“Our Epic 2018 Season was one of our most exciting yet! I’ve never felt so inspired, so revitalized, as I was this past year watching our staff and guest artists rise to meet the ambitions of our shows. It’s the sort of effort that one grows into and steps out the other side wiser, stronger, fuller.

We are still finalizing many of the details, but those that are falling into place have been delightful and compelling. It promises to be a season of courage, of enchantment, of desire, of valor. We look forward to you joining us for our 2019 season under the stars—it wouldn’t be the same without you!”

The 2019 Season:

First up, Shakespeare’s delightfully charming comedy of desire, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Four lovers escape into the woods and find themselves entangled in the royal politics of a magical world. When it comes to love, what’s fantasy and what’s reality? Tricks abound and wires cross as we all seek escape from (or surrender to) the clutches of love.

Next, Cal Shakes presents for the very first time a play by Bertolt Brecht, The Good Person of Szechwan. In a city of “haves” and “have-nots,” can a good person stay good even as their fortunes rise? The Good Person of Szechwan is a fable for our times exploring the lengths to which one must go to keep clean in a dirty world.

The season continues with the World Premiere of House of Joy by Madhuri Shekar. House of Joy is being produced as part of Cal Shakes’ New Classics Initiative, which engages living writers in dialogue with our classical canon to see old stories through new eyes, challenging, expanding, and revitalizing our very notions of universal. Set in a place and time something like 17th century Delhi, House of Joy is a tale of adventure and intrigue drawn from Indian legends and history. An elite bodyguard must choose between protecting the empire and protecting her vulnerable charge, but who will she betray?

Finally, Cal Shakes presents Macbeth, Shakespeare’s cautionary tale of unbridled ambition. Determined to fulfill a prophecy of greatness, Macbeth’s hunger for power consumes all he holds dear. How far would you go to take what you’ve been told you deserve? And who will rise up to stop you?

Season packages for the four-play season are available now; single and group tickets go on sale to the public spring 2019. Prices start at $132 for a four-play subscription, with discounts available for seniors, youth, and full-time K-12 educators.