Theatrical Morality: a conversation with Eric Ting and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Last month, Artistic Director Eric Ting called playwright (and close friend) Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to discuss the genesis of Everybody, the politics of choosing, morality in theater and the world, and more. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Eric Ting: I want to reach back—I remember you talking to me about an idea you had way back in the day…you kind of sheepishly said to me, “remember that play called Everyman…?” Tell me the origins of Everybody.

Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins: Every play I write is actually the confluence of different impulses that all become the same thing eventually. First, right out of An Octoroon, which was a melodrama, director Sarah Benson and I began this really interesting conversation about morality in the theater. Is theater still a moral force? Is there a relationship between morality and the theater? Because there’s this assumption that people make that when you enter the theater it automatically makes you a better person, or a more engaged person. What An Octoroon taught me is that the theatrical form itself is pretty apolitical. Theater itself can be used for evil as well as good. So I was interested in what would make theater a moral good.

Secondly, I’d been flirting with an adaptation of Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill. I had this weird revelation during the 20th reread of that play that actually, it’s structured like Everyman. It’s kind of a weird twist on it, to unpack a black psyche using this form, but I realized that I was becoming more and more interested in the Everyman urtext that I perceived inside of it.

Third, [founding Artistic Director of Signature Theater] Jim Houghton—who you know was a major force in my life, in many ways, and many dimensions—he was at the time battling cancer and we knew that he was going to retire. He asked me to be in his last season at the Signature, so I had a year to make a play and I thought it was going to be this Emperor Jones thing. But taking in the effects that his dying was having on his institution, and feeling like I was in this environment where his death was constantly on people’s minds and in the air, but no one was allowed to talk about it. So I felt like: obviously what I need to do is ditch Emperor Jones and do this adaptation of this weird morality play!

So that was three tributaries that all led to the choice to do Everybody. The thing that really put a fire under it was Jim. Jim died having never seen the production sadly, but he did come to one of the first readings that I did of it which was really important to me

ET: I didn’t know that. That’s beautiful. Can you talk a little bit about when the conceit of the lottery entered the picture?

BJJ:  As I was trying to figure out how to adapt it, the obvious question to me was, who is Everyman?  At the time now it’s almost a cliche to even go down this thought process, but I was like: why does it have to be a white man? It’s assumed that it’s going to be a white man, that was the original conceit of it—both the version we all know, but also the one that it was based on, the original Dutch version. It was a white dude going through life and I thought: what if it’s a woman? And I tried that and didn’t love the pressure it put on femininity and it also seemed to give male viewers an out or something. It puts it at a remove from them. Part of the journey of the play is watching the person move beyond the confines of the body, which is what identity is really rooted in as far as we understand it. So for awhile I just tried all these different ideas and then I thought: what if I didn’t choose? What if I released that choice? The thing we can all relate to is the chaos and chance and the different ways that life takes its forms. Life takes the same path. What’s funny is it somehow makes it anti-theater in that regard, because in some ways I made something that’s impossible to rehearse. But also life is impossible to rehearse, you just learn some things and hope. Working with that metaphor became the key to the whole experience. Similarly the whole point of this was to make us question every assumption we have about making theater. Theater is about rehearsal and about repeating action, so how do you build a rehearsal for a thing that won’t by nature repeat?

ET: Do you think critics should see it more than once before they write the review?

BJJ: I think you could encourage them to come back. During the original production, we saw the chatboards, everyone was saying “this is all made up, everyone gets their parts beforehand”…no one wanted to believe the truth of the experience, which is hilarious. Why would we go through all this work to trick you? What would that be worth?

ET: One of the reasons I wanted to produce this was so that I could go to every performance. Because a normal audience member doesn’t get to see that multitude of iterations. I’m curious, this has had a few productions: are there things that have surprised you about it? About the way that audiences have received it?

BJJ: That’s a good question. Surprised me. I’ve only been involved in two productions of it, the original one at Signature, and then there was another one at Julliard right after that. There are people who went to both who had wildly different experiences which I thought was interesting. I think it’s all about the fact that they stepped into the river at some point. Either they liked the first one better or they liked the second one better. It’s funny, the conviction people feel about how they felt about something when I’m like, actually you saw something that only six people saw, who knows? In some kind of sly way I can’t take responsibility for them having a bad time. Because it was a culmination of factors that led to that kind of thing. But I’m glad they enjoyed it the second time, or I’m glad they enjoyed it the first time more.

This is obviously a love letter to actors. One of the real joys is if you get to see it over and over again, there are these moments where you get to see an actor make a totally inspired choice. That could have never ever happened unless they were playing against the right scene partner, in the right moment, and when you see those things, they feel sort of singular, really special. And you feel very—when you think about what these actors actually go through every day to be ready for this weird moment where they draw a card and they know what their night’s going to look like—you’re just like “oh my god actors are genius amazing people.” It’s amazing to see people play with the same thing, once the game is sort of in their bones, over the course of the run, some of them start doing different things, they start to challenge each other and challenge other members of the ensemble, on the team. It starts to feel kind of like a sporting event!

ET: They screw with each other, is what you’re saying.

BJJ: Yeah, exactly. The original company, we had some of them who knew each other from college. And whenever they would play something different every time—and clearly they were trying to mess each other up—it was so riveting and amazing. Or we had Brooke Bloom, she was 7 months pregnant, it was crazy. And her Everybody was just obviously so special. This woman is negotiating the fact that she’s got a baby inside her, it’s just unbelievable! But then to see her playing these other parts, she can’t deny the story that her stomach presented. She always had to make sense of that in the scene and that was always so amazing. Then to see it at Julliard was so amazing, they totally found a different way in. In some ways it was a totally different show, but it was really still the heart of it was still there and it still moved the same way. And it was with actors who were are all roughly the same age because they were in school. Something about the combination of people always suggests a different canvas or palette, that’s always satisfying to me.

ET: Let’s reach back to the lottery a little bit, did you do research around the medieval pageant play?

BJJ: I did. I didn’t do a lot in terms of things that would have felt like I was directing the show, if that makes sense. It’s not even clear that this play was written to be performed, exactly. It didn’t quite show up in anyone’s repertoire until the 19th century. For awhile it was thought of as a tradition, a kind of rhetoric thing. People wrote these plays as one-offs, as debates, competitions. In some ways it was a very irregular or abnormal piece of medieval theater. It wasn’t pageant, it was probably performed in a small chamber-ish way, originally, by monks. I tried to do a lot of reading on medieval theology and ideas at the time of death and dying, things like that. A lot of it was just trying to understand where this play came from and why it took the form it took, because one of the things that’s so striking about it is that it feels to me very self-aware for a piece of theater that old. It totally thinks of itself as theater, I think that’s so interesting. We think of things back then as being crude story, there’s just so much wit in the play about people playing objects.

It wasn’t performed by street players, it was performed by educated people in a monastery. That’s partly behind the impulse to have the actors start in the audience. Dissolving that line between life and theater. That’s partly what the whole play is predicated on. It’s literally unpacking “all the world’s a stage,” that is the working metaphor of the piece. It does feel important to me that you have to remind the audience that they are the ones being talked about.

ET: You talked about your conversations with Sarah Benson about the moral force of theater. So the play is out there in the world, the world is what the world is right now. Do you ever think about what role this play might have?

BJJ: Our tech was happening literally the weekend of the Muslim ban, where people were leaving tech to go down to the airport and protest. Less than six months out of Trump being elected, out of the election. It did feel weird: things about Jim Houghton passing when he did—he was such a force of unconditional belief and love and optimism and community—he just believed in humanity. He believed in theater as a potentially significant force of good. I still to this day think about what his response would have been to the election. I just wondered what he would have felt about this world and sometimes I’m really thankful that he left before he saw that world, to be such a helpful guy. But it did feel really key to me that I wanted to make a piece that felt affirming in some way. That’s the funny thing about the original too is that it’s a play about death but also it’s a play about hope. There’s a hope for humanity to change itself, to die a noble death, to right its wrongs. As a flawed person—I mean back then it was basically a public service announcement for Catholicism, but it was still this idea that all a person needs to know is that change is possible, that redemption is possible, and that’s the perfect thing: to just tell people that there are other choices in life.

With the lottery, chance has made the choice: this is the person that you have to identify with if you want to think about your life and death, if you want this play to work, this is who’s in the room with you right now, and this is who chance has elected to be this person. That for me was about asking people to acknowledge their capacity for radical empathy. What if—can you do the work right now, can you imagine that what this woman is going through on stage is actually a metaphor for your life as well? That felt really important to me, I think that was something that was important in that moment too, was to feel connected to people who didn’t look like you but who reminded you that they were in possession of the same thing you are, which is a body that is going to die. That felt important. It honestly feels like there’s an existential threat right now. To not just America and Americans, but to the world. It’s important that we take at least 75 minutes to acknowledge that and to throw some words out around it. I think that’s what Everybody ultimately was trying to be in this moment, in that moment specifically but definitely now. It’s like, what if there was a way to talk about identity politics that was inclusive, that also acknowledged the reality of death and the reality of chance and change. That’s why I’m always so moved when I think that the roots of this play are apparently in Buddhism. You go back through all of it and it’s such a Buddhist fable.

ET: Nataki [Garrett, Everybody director] and I were chatting to a few guests last week and they asked, “Is there anything shocking to us?” And I remember saying something along the lines of how shocking it was to be sitting in an audience in 2018, and listening to characters identified as Love and Death and God, and what it meant to feel an audience engage with something that was operating on a level of symbolism or metaphor. For me, that was the first real challenge of the play. Everything else was a pleasure and a joy, like: Lottery! But then the moment that it started to become clear that these were abstractions, it felt like a delicious challenge but it felt very challenging.

BJJ: It’s how theater was consumed for so long. This was the theater that Shakespeare was watching, that’s why he has characters named Vice. It’s just funny that it’s become so unfamiliar to us in some way. I joke that this play is Buddhism but that was really the a-ha! moment for me. This is a really old story. It’s been going on since there were stories. The version I thought I knew, this English version, is cribbed from a Dutch version, and the Dutch version was influenced by this thought—and then things get hazier and hazier but, this is a story that is just going to keep getting passed down. As long as there’s language. As long as there’s people.

Everybody plays through August 5. Get tickets or more information here.

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And there’s ice cream: a meditation on life, death and Everybody

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

I have a recurring nightmare that if my plane goes down over the Pacific, my husband Paul will have to go through all my stuff and realize that I was even untidier than he imagined (#dontlookunderthebed); that I had trouble ever throwing anything away; and that the replication of foodstuffs in our un-closable pantry (Did I forget to buy coconut milk? What if it’s gone off?) shows just the periphery of my life of anxious perturbation. Waking from such dreams, I try to remind myself that when the plane goes down I’ll be dead—it doesn’t matter. But it does matter. Because while we are living, breathing, sentient, reasoning (and deeply unreasonable) beings, we are the sum of how we’ve chosen to live—of what we’ve bought, what we’ve thought, what we’ve said, what we’ve allowed to be done to us, and what we’ve done to others. Each of us is known in very different ways in different contexts. And while each of us journeys through the world in a unique way, the most fundamental part of our experience unites rather than differentiates us: everybody is born—and everybody dies. And everybody knows that nobody knows what “not being alive” will feel like. 

Wow, heavy stuff. But can we just have fun today and think about death tomorrow? No, we can’t. In Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins plays, in a certain sense–well, God. He wants us to think about death today, at the California Shakespeare Theater, in 2018: in a wonderfully deep-delving, hilarious, poignant, 90-minute-long encounter with our utterly impossible, incorrigibly self-centered humanness. 

Lance Gardner, Jenny Nelson, Sarita Ocón, Jomar Tagatac, and Stacy Ross will draw their roles via lottery during each performance of Everybody.

Everybody’s preoccupations could be described in a number of ways: What am I without my stuff? Who are my friends, really? Is there anything in the term “blood relative” from which I can learn about my death? Might it be Parkinsons? Might it be cancer? Might it be heart disease? The only thing we know for sure is not that it “might be”—but that, in some form or other, at some time not yet to be named or known, death will be. It will be. It is the only inevitable, unbudgeable truth of our entire lives. 

Detail from frontispiece of Everyman first edition c1530.

Coming into Everybody at Cal Shakes, imagine the same moment 520 years go, when a group of semi-professional actors performed a short, rhyming “morality play” called Everyman in an inn, or even on the street. Most people who watched the performance would have lost at least one brother or sister or parent. Some would die very shortly thereafter—there were none of the drugs and procedures that are routine today, and without which, back then, lives were lost: antibiotics, vaccines, internal surgeries, even chemical painkillers (aspirin wasn’t manufactured till 1899). The character of Everyman played an unremarkable human being, a person sauntering along (or in a chair, on a horse, at the dinner table, in bed) who is suddenly called to their death. Quick! How does he account for his life in order to make a good death? How can he be sure that the checks and balances of his life will guarantee an entry into heaven? Everyone (in this place and time, listening to this incarnation of the story) was Catholic then—and Everyman was called a morality play because it reminded human beings that their deeds would be weighed and measured at death, possibly ameliorated by a cleansing detox in purgatory–that everything is accountable and nothing gets by the all-seeing eye of God.

“I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, my wife to believe in God, because it means that I shall be cheated less often… If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent Him,” wryly noted Voltaire in a much more pagan era a few centuries later. Today, not all of us believe in God; but there’s no escaping death–except that there’s earthly gratification and insatiable appetite. There’s lush, verdant, death-defying, all-consuming life. And there’s ice cream.

I absolutely love Everybody. It is an encounter with the human self, the fact of being mortal. Re-shaped by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and in the hands of director Nataki Garrett—and with this cast of remarkable actors—Everybody is one of the most moving, painful, joyful, funny experiences I have had at our theater in 15 years. 

Come talk with me about Everybody. I’ll be in the grove—a lot!

Everybody begins performances July 18. Click here for more information and to buy tickets!

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Announcing the cast & creative team of Everybody!

The cast of Everybody, clockwise from top left: Alexandra Van De Poel, Avi Roque, Britney Frazier, Jenny Nelson, Victor Talmadge, Jomar Tagatac, Sarita Ocón, Stacy Ross, Lance Gardner.

 

 

 

 

 

You can’t take it with you, but everybody tries. When Everybody faces imminent death, which companion—Beauty, Friendship, Stuff, or Love—will make it to the final destination? The core company of actors will be cast by lottery each night, letting fate decide the journey as they play out this new riff on an ancient morality tale with surprising grace, humor, and heart.

“In this day, in this country, in this moment, we need compassion, and that is what this play so beautifully makes the case for,” commented Cal Shakes Artistic Director Eric Ting. Director Nataki Garrett added, “I have been working with Branden and his plays since 2010. I have a deep and profound respect for his words and his ways of expressing a desire for connection.”

“I was especially struck by the original Everyman because of the way it marries the experience of the commons—and theater is one of the few commons left to us in the modern world—with the most intimate questions of spirit and faith, and transience, and the questions of what ultimately matters in life,” says Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. He continues, “And what I love about theater is that you have to be there or it’s gone— it doesn’t wait for anybody. It rewards people who care about the form and who show up. So how perfect a metaphor is that for life? And where better to practice feeling the fear of death and solitude than in a place where we are all together, breaking bread and sharing laughter?”

Returning to the Bruns with Everybody are: Lance Gardner (2016’s Much Ado About Nothing, Fences, You Never Can Tell, and Othello), Sarita Ocón (Quixote Nuevo, Cal Shakes’ All the Bay’s a Stage touring production of Twelfth Night, A Streetcar Named Desire and To The Bone at Ubuntu Theater Project), Stacy Ross (2016’s Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Lady Windemere’s Fan, among many others), and Jomar Tagatac (2017’s As You Like It, Life Is A Dream). Joining them in their Cal Shakes debuts are: Britney Frazier (Campo Santo’s Casa de Spirits, Ethos De Masquerade, H.O.M.E., and Superheroes; Hedda Gabler at Cutting Ball Theater), Jenny Nelson (Sense and Sensibility and Cinderella at Pacific Conservatory Theatre) , Avi Roque (The Crucible at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, We’re Gonna Be Okay and Men On Boats at American Theater Company), Victor Talmadge (Broadway’s November, National Tours of The Lion King and The King and I, and Weathervane Productions’ A Lesson From Aloes, among many other regional credits), and Alexandra Van De Poel (The Prince of Egypt at TheatreWorks, A Christmas Carol at A.C.T.).

Everybody’s creative team includes: Scenic Designer Nina Ball (whose previous designs for Cal Shakes include As You Like It, Othello, Twelfth Night, and The Comedy Of Errors); Costume Designer Naomi Arnst (Cal Shakes’ All the Bay’s a Stage touring productions of The Tempest and 12th Night; Santa Clara University’s Legally Blonde, the Musical); Lighting Designer Xavier Pierce (Cal Shakes’ black odyssey,The Glass Menagerie, and August Wilson’s Fences ); and Sound Designer Jake Rodriguez (Hamlet and Nicholas Nickleby at Cal Shakes, Magic Theatre’s Bruja, A.C.T.’s Rock and Roll, plus the world premieres of Passing Strange, The People’s Temple, and Fetes de la Nuit at Berkeley Rep).

Everybody is a sparkling new riff on the 15th-century morality play The Summoning of Everyman by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whom the New York Times calls “one of this country’s most original and illuminating writers.” A finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Everybody is Cal Shakes’ second official offering under the New Classics Initiative (NCI), exploring what it means to be a classical theater in the 21st century, and to allow living writers to expand our classical canon.

Directed by Nataki Garrett making her Cal Shakes debut, Everybody plays July 18 – August 5 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Get tickets and more info here!

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Announcing Lead Artists for our Epic 2018 Season

 

 

 

We’re thrilled to announce the directors for our 2018 Season—KJ Sanchez (Quixote Nuevo), Nataki Garrett (Everybody), and Eric Ting (The War of the Roses). We’re also excited to announce the Cal Shakes debut of Sesame Street’s Emilio Delgado, who will play our Quixote, as well as the return of Cal Shakes favorites Aldo Billingslea, Stacy Ross, and Danny Scheie in The War of the Roses.

“I’m thrilled to be working with these fantastic collaborators in 2018,” Artistic Director Eric Ting said.

“KJ’s work with American Records (a theater company whose mission is to make theater that chronicles our time and serves as a bridge between people) and her passion for the communities she makes work with is so close to our own mission at Cal Shakes and an excellent entry point into our reimagined Quixote Nuevo. And Nataki’s roots in Oakland, reputation as a “change-leader” and champion of new and diverse voices in the American theater, along with her close artistic relationship with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins makes her a perfect fit to direct Everybody.”

Ting continued, “I’ve already had the pleasure of working with KJ and Nataki on casting for the 2018 Season. All three shows lend themselves to strong ensembles, and each show will have crossovers with several actors joining more than one show. I love that KJ and Nataki are game for helping to create such a vibrant company of new faces and returning favorites. I know our returning audiences love seeing Danny Scheie (You Never Can Tell, The Mystery of Irma Vep), Stacy Ross (Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night) and Aldo Billingslea (black odyssey, Fences) on our stages. Many of us know Emilio Delgado from his 30+ years on Sesame Street as Luis, the friendly Fix-It Shop owner, and we’re all delighted to welcome him to La Mancha, Texas, the fictional setting of our Quixote Nuevo, for the summer!”

Read the whole press release here.

Your epic summer—filled with fantastical escapades, Shakespearean intrigue, and classic works reimagined for today—is closer than you think. Subscriptions are on sale now!

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