Season Artist Profile: Paloma McGregor

In the months leading up to the start of our 2013 Main Stage season, I am once again profiling the creative minds behind our productions. The final installment of the 2013 Season Artist Profile series introduces you to choreographer Paloma McGregor, whose movement work on last summer’s Spunk helped make it one of the liveliest productions in our nearly-40-year history. This season, she again teams up with her sister, director Patricia McGregor, for our production of A Winter’s Tale.

What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Paloma. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.

Stefanie Kalem: What are your most recent, current, and upcoming projects?

Paloma McGregor; photo courtesy of Angela's Pulse.

Paloma McGregor; photo courtesy of Angela's Pulse.

Paloma McGregor: I rounded out last year with two exciting projects: 

In September, I directed a devised performance work about food systems at UC Berkeley, developed during a five-week residency with three dozen participants from across the Bay Area. In October, I was invited to show a work-in-progress development of my latest Angela’s Pulse project, Building a Better Fishtrap, at St. Mark’s Church as part of Danspace Project’s DraftWork series. Fishtrap, based on my father’s fishing stories and my memory of building a small fishtrap as a child, is a performance work that explores water, memory, and home, as well as examines what we take with us, leave behind, and reclaim. I have been developing the piece for more than a year. In December, with support from the Jerome Foundation, I traveled home to St. Croix to do more research for the project, including spending two weeks as a fisherman’s apprentice. I will continue developing the work this year, involving Patricia in the text development and dramaturgy, and plan to premiere the work in the 2014–15 season.

Also this year, Patricia and I are excited to spend time in June, July, and August at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, developing a new musical together (our latest Angela’s Pulse endeavor). The piece is based on the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case on mixed-race marriage. At a time when marriage rights are once again at a historical crossroads, we will revisit this political precedent, and the young black woman and white man who had to choose a quiet life apart or the fight of their lives.

I joined NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics as a yearlong Artist in Residence, researching embodied memory, agency, and cultural reclamation.

And…I’m still dancing, collaborating as a performer two works that premiere this Spring: How to Lose a Mountain, choreographed by Cassie Meador, artistic director of Dance Exchange, and last days/first field, choreographed by Jill Sigman. 

SK: Had you any experience with designing movement for an outdoor stage before Spunk? How was Spunk/Cal Shakes different? What were the challenges or advantages specific to choreographing for our stage?

IndomitablePM: I grew up in a culture of public performance. In St. Croix, formal parades and informal “tramps” at Carnival time are an integral part of community life. My first major performance as a child dancer was in an outdoor theater, Island Center, the same stage that Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem performed on. Two summers ago, I brought those experiences to my work as choreographer for Indomitable: James Brown, a show Patricia directed for SummerStages in New York. The show involved—among other things—a soul train line that the audience could join. With Cal Shakes, I was able to build on these experiences with the added gift of time: I had weeks to work in the actual performance space, during which I could consider the setting, stage, scenic design, lighting, and costumes in my movement development.

SK: What’s your experience with Shakespeare—watching it, working with it—in general, and A Winter’s Tale in specific?

PM: My first introduction to Shakespeare was the witches’ chant from Macbeth—”Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”—which I used to recite when I was maybe 5 or 6, as though it were a nursery rhyme! Later, in high school, King Lear drew me in with its tragic reflections of love, justice, and betrayal. I saw A Winter’s Tale at Shakespeare in the Park a few years ago, and delighted in its magic and wit.

SK: What can you tell me about your thinking about the Cal Shakes production this early in the game? What role will movement play in the story? What other early thoughts can you share?

Aldo Billingslea, Omoze Idehenre, and Tyee Tilghman in Cal Shakes’ SPUNK; photo by Kevin Berne.

Aldo Billingslea, Omoze Idehenre, and Tyee Tilghman in Cal Shakes’ SPUNK; photo by Kevin Berne.

PM: I often say that characters reveal themselves in their bodies first, before they ever say a word. I am excited to develop and differentiate the two worlds of this piece—Sicilia and Bohemia—by distinguishing the ways their people walk, stand, sit, revel, fume … and dance.

SK: I understand you were a journalist for a time. What kind of writing did you do? I’m thinking of that famous quote (attributed to everyone from Martin Mull to Thelonious Monk to Laurie Anderson) that says “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—but is there any way that journalism and dancing intersect? The skills you use, the perspective you need? Or do they engage completely different parts of your brain and body?

PM: I like to think of the brain as just another important part of the body. So being a dancer allows me to use my full body to hone the skills I practiced as a journalist: listening deeply and to everything, obsessing over details, noticing subtle shifts, adjusting to what the circumstances require, being efficient and creative, thinking and acting fast, and synthesizing multiple layers of information to make a legible statement. Good storytelling, whether in the body or on the page, necessitates patience, persistence, and grace.

SK: What was the first piece of dance or performing arts that you saw that inspired you to think, “I want to be a part of that”?

Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun

Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun.

PM: As a young child in St. Croix, I saw Alvin Ailey perform. After the show, I took my autograph book back to have the dancers sign it. They were all so beautiful and kind, and I knew one day I wanted to be like them. Every time I sign a program for a child now, I think of that moment.

My first memory of going to see theater was Annie Get Your Gun, probably when I was 6 or 7. The lead character was so dynamic, funny, and brave, and I believe she shaped some of my early notions of what a strong, sassy woman was capable of—ideas that stick with me today. I remember that show when I think about the impact I want my work to have.

SK: What or who inspires you right now? Any particular writers, music, current events, people, et cetera?

PM: My mom and sister are always an inspiration when I think about working with purpose, integrity and compassion. My current project is tangling with objects and sites as containers of memory, so visual artists are inspiring me a great deal, particularly Theaster Gates and El Anatsui. The slow, powerful work that’s happening around developing, supporting, and perpetuating sustainable environmental practices inspires me each day.

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SPUNK Makes Bay Area Top Ten Lists for 2012

Patricia McGregor by Matt Holliday

Patricia McGregor by Matt Holliday

So far, so good: Patricia McGregor’s 2012 Cal Shakes production of Spunk is number four on Chad Jones’ Theater Dogs top ten, and also made Sam Hurwitt’s Idiolect 2012 round-up. In addition, Jones named Cal Shakes Associate Artist Stacy Ross his MVP of the year, giving a shot-out to her fellow AA James Carpenter along the way.

Stay tuned: We’re certain to have more to list as the lists keep coming!

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Dance Jamming with Traci Bartlow and the Cast of SPUNK

Artistic Intern Andrea Safar gives a report from inside the Spunk rehearsal room.

 

cast of Cal Shakes Spunk with director Patricia McGregor and choreographer Poloma McGregor.

Spunk rehearsals. How to even begin to describe them? They are a vortex of laughter, comfort, and warmth. The ensemble converts the chilly white-walled room into a home and there’s no way you will leave without a smile on your face! 

Luckily, I have been given the task of producing the Friday night dance parties—or Onstage Dance Jams— wherein local choreographer Traci Bartlow, will invite audience members onstage after the 90-minute show to learn a few moves and dance together. The audience will learn moves from the Lindy Hop, jazz dances, and even how to Charleston. Traci was invited to rehearsal to show the cast the same steps so that they can incorporate them in the performance.

They started their dance rehearsal with the same warm-up the cast always uses. We stood in a circle (I was lucky enough to be included) and we clapped and chanted “I am,” “I want,” “I need,” “I feel,” with all of us, one by one, completing the sentences. It was full of joy and L. Peter Callender, who plays Sykes and Slang Talk Man, finished it by saying “I feel … like I need to give everyone a hug!” and we all jumped around embracing and laughing and just being glad to be in the same room with one another.

Traci then turned on some music and had the group follow her dance steps. They barely stumbled, and were almost immediately in sync and having a good time. The jazzy and cool music—similar to the tunes in the show—filled the room and everyone felt the rhythm and flow within them. Even those of us who weren’t dancing were still moving a little in our chairs or tapping our feet. I can already envision the audience members feeling the music move them the same way when watching Tru Peterson, playing Guitar Man, make music on stage.

 

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Ask Philippa: SPUNK Edition

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes and production dramaturg for Spunk, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. Spunk runs July 4–29, 2012.

Spunk Inside Scoop by Jay Yamada

Philippa Kelly, Margo Hall, Patricia McGregor, and L. Peter Callender at the Inside Scoop event for SPUNK; photo by Jay Yamada.

To honor …  and adapt … Black southern dialect forms the living heartbeat of this musical theater piece, lovingly made by George C. Wolfe in 1982, in which the Broadway genius—already a significant star by the age of 35—adapted three of Zora Neale Hurston’s short stories to create Spunk. An anthropologist as well as an artist, Hurston used the language of her southern people—not the language of Dickens or Shakespeare or even of Richard Wright—to represent the world she came from. She saw oral culture as the key to the selves that slip down through the family tree: the spirits of parents and grandparents that live on in tongues, not texts.

Are you going to see our  production of  Spunk? Do you have questions or comments about the production’s music, cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

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Original Music from SPUNK

SPUNK costume sketches by designer Callie FloorHere are a couple of original musical compositions by Anthony Michael Peterson, a.k.a. Tru, who plays Guitar Man in our upcoming production of Spunk. These tracks, recorded by Will McCandless, are similar to the original music Tru is adding to Chic Street Man’s already smokin’ score.

Tru’s ukulele ditty
Tru’s acoustic number
Tru on slide guitar 

 

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Spunk Cocktail Contest

Spunk will grace the Bruns stage with joyous poetic language, powerful movement, and the wailing sounds of the blues this July. What similarly flavorful and fulfilling cocktail would you wish to sip while soaking up the Spunk experience?

Invent a bourbon-based drink, name it, and tell us about it no later than Friday, July 6 one of these ways:

  • Email marketing@calshakes.org with the subject header “Spunk cocktail contest.”
  • Post your recipe on Twitter with the hashtag #zoracocktail.
  • Share on our Facebook wall.

The creator of the winning cocktail will be rewarded with their choice of a Spunk T-shirt or free entry to our July 12 pre-performance Cal Shakers party at the Bruns. 

Click here for more information about the party.

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Meeting and Greeting the Story Inside Us All

Marketing Intern Jessica Reinhardt offers a look into the Spunk meet and greet with Director Patricia McGregor and cast.

“There is no agony like hearing the untold story inside of you.”—Spunk

Spunk Costume Photo

Spunk costume design by Callie Floor.

The rehearsal space at Cal Shakes was abuzz with laughter and smiling, eager faces. I settled into my seat within the sea of interns, all excited to see what a Meet and Greet entails. The story of Spunk unfolded as director Patricia McGregor captivated the room with her moving language and an enthusiasm that everyone could feel. A key theme in Spunk is home, and Patricia began to connect her concept of what it was like to grow up in the South to the show. She explained how her hometown inspired a sense of community by focusing on the meaning of sharing and storytelling.

 She then began to bridge the gap of time by bringing everyone in the room back to the good old days. Her vivid descriptions of drinking ice-cold lemonade on your granddaddy’s porch was accompanied by Anthony Peterson, A.K.A. Tru, (Guitar Man and musical director for Spunk) improvising bluesy rhythms on his lap steel guitar. Everyone was rapt as Tru set the mood of the story, sculpting the emotions of the Deep South right there in front of us. 

 Patricia quoted an old adage: “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” There are bumps in the road in every person’s journey and one of the things that get people through is the simple feeling that someone cares; everyone needs to feel appreciated and loved and this is one of the beautiful themes of this show. The audience even gets to feel the love by actively participating and engaging with the actors just before the show begins, at the top of the first act.

 We got to hear from Paloma McGregor, Patricia’s sister and choreographer for Spunk, who gave her perspective on how movement and dance are incorporated in the show: The lively nature and movement mixed with dynamic character roles is definitely something to look forward to. The cast themselves sure had a lot of spunk, the type of actors whose chemistry you could see just as they sat around their table. The cast was sure not afraid to laugh, and this was just part of their magnetism.

 Patricia talked about how it was important for her to honor Zora Neale Hurston’s vision of giving a voice to the voiceless. This theme is something every person can relate to, regardless of skin color or age or any of the other categories designed to divide us. Everyone has their own personal story and should embrace where they have been in order to get to where they are going. I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait to see these characters come to life and “git to the git with some pain n’ some spit n’ some spunk.”  

 Spunkthree tales by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe, music by Chic Street Manplays at the stunning Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA July 4-29, 2012.

 

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Spunk Song Contest: The journey is the reward

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington rehearsing onstage at the Savoy, 1948; photo © Wayne Miller / Magnum Photos.

What song helped you along your personal journey? The dynamic characters in Spunk, stories by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe, embody the all-too-human experience of struggle, love, loss, and—perhaps most of all—finding a place to call home.

Submit songs that have inspired and fueled your journey—literally or metaphorically—no later than June 11 to marketingintern@calshakes.org, tweet it with the hashtag #spunkjourney, or post it on our Facebook wall. We’ll include a list of the most popular and our other favorites in the Spunk program, play them at our opening night post-performance party, and post the playlist online! Spunk’s characters “git to the git with some pain n’ some spit n’ some spunk.” What songs git you to the git?

Here are some songs submitted by the Cal Shakes staff to get you thinking:

Mumford & Sons “After the Storm
Simon and Garfunkel “Homeward Bound”
Cole Porter “Don’t Fence Me In”
Alex Kramer and Joan Whitney “Far Away Places”
Jolie Holland “Goodbye, California”
Genesis, “Follow You, Follow Me”
The Beatles “Blackbird”
James Taylor “Carolina In My Mind”
Pulp “Weeds”
Journey “When the Lights Go Down in the City”
Green Day “Christie”
The Goo Goo Dolls “Broadway”
The D.I.’s “Mohawk vs. D.A.”
Rusted Root “Send Me on My Way”
Coldplay ”Fix You”
Tom Petty “Learning to Fly”
Jack Penate “Pull My Heart Away”

 

 

 

 

 

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The Triangle Lab: What’s in a Name?

A report on the naming of our partnership with Intersection, courtesy of Partnership Project Director Rebecca Novick.

Rebecca NovickLast August, I was invited by Jonathan Moscone and Deborah Cullinan (executive director of Intersection for the Arts) to help develop the partnership they had formed. After a successful collaboration some years ago on Hamlet: Blood in the Brain, Cal Shakes and Intersection wanted to work together on something larger than creating one new play;  with a generous grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation in-hand, the staff from both organizations had been meeting for some time to determine what this partnership would look like. They had some goals and projects in mind but it was proving harder than they had expected to get started: The two organizations worked in very different ways, both staffs were tremendously busy with their regular work, and little things like different calendar systems and big things like different approaches to season planning were all adding up to insurmountable.

With so much conviction from the leaders of both organizations, and so much talent on the two staffs, I knew it wouldn’t take much to unlock the potential of this partnership, but one thing was puzzling me: I didn’t know what to call the project. What started out as a minor administrative question—what should I write on my file folder? What should I name the folder in my computer?—quickly emerged as a key issue we needed to address. As Shakespeare can tell you, the names of things matter very much, and if you can’t name something, you may not know yet what it is.

Many meetings later, while deep in discussion of the kind of community relationships we wanted to create, I found myself drawing a triangle, showing the connections between a theater, artists, and community members. “That’s it!,”  Jonathan exclaimed. “That’s the name!”  Thus was born the Triangle Lab. A lab (because we’re experimenting) and a triangle because we are examining the triangular relationship between artists, institutions, and communities. We want to find ways to strengthen each side of the triangle and to make sure we are putting equal value on each of the corners. This name proposes that we always consider the community that a play might engage as much as we consider what artists we’re working with, and that we carefully work to connect artists to communities at every stage of the process.

The goal of the Triangle Lab—now a program run jointly by Cal Shakes and Intersection for the Arts—is to learn how to “make new plays together,” that is to say, how to make new plays with theater institutions, artists, and community members working in close collaboration, as equal partners. We’re aiming to expand who participates in theater-making and how they participate.

Our first experiments will invite people, in many different ways, to tell the stories of their places (their homes, the places they come from, the journeys that have brought them to the place they now call home). These experiments will surround and enrich two productions of work by artists who deeply explore place. Spunk (the second show in Cal Shakes’ 2012 season) showcases Zora Neale Hurston’s intricate stories of African-American life during the Harlem Renaissance while Allelulia (to be produced at Intersection in 2013 with Jonathan Moscone directing), by distinguished playwright Luis Alfaro, traces a journey up Highway 99 from Disneyland to San Francisco. Though these plays are stories by renowned artists, in the Triangle Lab we believe that everyone is a storyteller—we want to invite as many people as we can to tell stories about their places. Stay tuned for more information on how you can participate in this exploration.

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Ask Philippa: Off-season Edition!

Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes, shares her thoughts and answers your questions on our upcoming 2012 season programming and about productions past.

Philippa Kelly by Jay Yamada

Photo by Jay Yamada.

Throughout his 20-year writing career, Shakespeare was fascinated with metaphors of rehearsing and scripting: the very things we do in life to re-make the past and to predict and forestall the future. No matter how we might wish it, there is no rehearsal that can prepare us for, or insulate us against, the vagaries of life itself; and there are limitless possibilities for misspeaking our intentions and mishearing what we ought to understand. This is the stuff of comedy as well as tragedy, history as well as romance.

What was Shakespeare doing in the “lost years”, the period immediately prior to 1592? What were his preoccupations when the 35-year-old author wrote Hamlet, at the end of the 16th century? Why was The Tempest one of his very last plays, even though up to that time he was in still in the full vigor of his life and production schedule? Thoughts, questions, opinions about Shakespeare or about any of his plays (they need not just concern Hamlet and The Tempest), are welcome in the “comments” section below. Also welcome are questions about George C. Wolfe and Zora Neale Hurston, whose Spunk we’ll be doing next season, as well as Noël Coward, whose Blithe Spirit is third in the Main Stage line-up.

 


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