Statement of Solidarity with the Trans Community

Image credit: Micah Bazant

On October 21, The New York Times leaked a draft of a memo from the Department of Health and Human Services, which revealed the current administration’s intent to define gender as “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.” This proposed legal change denies the existence and experiences of trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people, and would roll back recognition, rights, and protections for these communities.

With the changes proposed in the memo, the role of gender identity would be lessened under Title IX anti-discrimination laws in favor of the limited definition. This would mean transgender people would not be able to dispute discrimination in terms of physical attack, housing, employment, education, or healthcare. Having to take invasive genetic tests to prove one’s sex with a DNA sample is a very real possibility and would be a violation of one’s personal rights.

Cal Shakes strives to be a theater where people of all gender identities and expressions are safe, supported, and welcome. Trans, intersex, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people are members of our staff, audiences, community partners, student groups; they are our family, and deserve safety, respect, and self-determination. We stand unequivocally with them and we do not support any government policies that endanger their safety and agency. Trans rights are human rights. From the law to our offices to our amphitheater, our family #WontBeErased.

There are many direct action steps you can take, including some listed here by Out Magazine. There are also many organizations that you can support with your time, in-kind donations, or financial contributions.

Here are some organizations that Cal Shakes partners with that support the trans community that you can support:

Other local and national organizations you can support:

If you are a person impacted by this proposed change and are in need or support or resources or in crisis, here are some organizations ready to help:


Call for Artists’ Angels!

Our 2018 Season is shaping up to be an epic adventure, with many guest artists returning to the Bruns (like some of our friends from black odyssey) or joining us for the first time (like our friend from Sesame Street, Emilio Delgado).

Want to help? If you:

  • have an in-law or guest unit with a private entrance,
  • are vacating your house or apartment for part of the summer,
  • or have frequent flier miles, hotel points, or car rental connections going unused,

…you can! Join our Artists’ Angels program by providing hospitality for the extraordinary visiting artists who come work at Cal Shakes and help enrich our work and community. In exchange for your in-kind contribution of housing, you will be acknowledged as an Artists’ Angel and be invited to attend the opening night dinner and performance for your hosted artist’s production, in addition to receiving all the benefits offered at your level of donation.

If you or someone you know is able to help us welcome our visiting artists, please contact Camille Rohrlich at


The War of the Roses… What in the World?

by Philippa Kelly

Where do leaders come from? Are they measured by a moral compass, or are they, as Richard III suggests, bred from a psychopathology where crooked backs make crooked minds? Or do we judge them by what they accomplish?

If the third premise were true, the bloody and tempestuous period of the War of the Roses would slide and disappear into the Lancaster defeat of the Yorkists that closed out the decades-long brutality between two feuding families, merging into the relative harmony and prosperity of Tudor England. But the sum of human lives is measured by more than lands conquered and victories achieved: it’s known by the bitter loss of sons; by the thwarted ambitions of mothers; by the passion and lust that can drive human beings together in the most perilous of circumstances. Such passions, ambitions, and rancors mark the War of the Roses as depicted by Shakespeare in his Henry VI plays.

While the War of the Roses had ended in 1487, a century before Shakespeare began writing, audiences still thirsted for the revenge that had since been prohibited by Church and State. The bloodied knives piercing iron mail; the heads sliced from offending shoulders; the treachery, duplicity, ambition and regret: these characterize Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays, all of them performed during the very early 1590s before the playwright turned 30.

Shakespeare clearly wrote the three Henry VI plays, together with Richard III, as a tetralogy, to be performed consecutively (although Henry VI Part I was probably written after Parts II and III). Certain characters in the Henry plays close out one play and open another, while the close of Henry VI Part III clearly beckons Richard III.  Furthermore, in an electric exchange in Richard III, two grieving mothers look back bitterly at the Henry VI sequence in which they’ve witnessed the destruction of each others’ sons (and psyches) by opposing families. Richard III is often performed alone: but it is a special thrill to place it in concert with the three abridged plays that Shakespeare so clearly wrote to precede it.

In Shakespeare’s tetralogy we get a world where, in an absence of ideology, human beings strive to convince us of the merits of their own choices and motivations. We get a world where “fake news” is not a modern phenomenon, but an age-old method by which characters exploit each others’ ignorance. And it’s a world where the French threat is represented by two of the strongest women in all of Shakespeare—the driving honesty of Joan la Purcell (better known as Joan of Arc) and the subtle manipulations of Margaret of Anjou, a passionate lover, and then a passionate mother, acting always at the expense of the husband to whom she was sold at the age of 15. And the War of the Roses perhaps suggests to us that even in a godless universe, human beings still seek gods; and we still seek to know ourselves amidst an array of pretenses.


American Life in Art: Sam Shepard

by Maggie Kissinger

“The reason I began writing plays was the hope of extending the sensation of play (as in ‘kid’) on into adult life. If ‘play’ becomes ‘labor,’ why play?” —Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard was one of America’s most prolific playwrights, penning some of the country’s most haunting and beloved plays. His body of work spanned nearly half a century, transforming the American theater landscape by questioning its very nature and confronting values that have been immortalized through myth. No playwright has managed to put more of American culture on-stage before or since.
Shepard got his start in the Off-Off Broadway movement that began in the 1960s. This revolutionary scene was perfect for Shepard, for he was not the kind of playwright who followed convention for the sake of it. He demanded that theater accept him on his own terms. He became a cult figure in the OOB movement, which was known for producing work that presented an often nightmarish America where myth collides with reality.
Despite his indifference to commercial theater, Shepard won 10 Obie Awards, the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Buried Child, and the 1986 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for A Lie of the Mind. Shepard also appeared in over 30 films, some in acclaimed roles. He was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983).

The acclaimed actor and playwright died on July 27, 2017 in his home in Kentucky due to complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Maggie Kissinger is a dramaturg and teaching artist living in New York City. She served as an Artistic Learning Intern with the Cal Shakes Conservatory this past summer.

Disability, Expectations, and Disruption in The Glass Menagerie

by Melissa Hillman

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play,” narrated through the main character’s memories of his mother, Amanda, and disabled sister, Laura. Tom, the main character, is the filter through which we see Laura and her disability. This filter becomes critically important when thinking about how disability is portrayed on our stages. When staging a woman’s disability as seen through the eyes of an able-bodied man, the issues that arise mirror the issues of living with a disability in the “real world.” Those of us who live with disabilities spend a great deal of time managing the emotions other people have about our disabilities, disrupting the narratives they create about us, and struggling to be seen as our own, individual selves with complex intersectional identities. Women know how much of our lives are spent managing emotions and opinions about us as women—about our bodies, our families, and our choices. It’s no surprise that one of the most famous disabled female characters in western dramaturgy is only seen as the memory of an able-bodied man.

So when we stage Laura Wingfield, approaching the character as an opportunity for disabled representation through the framework of the memory of an able-bodied man is a challenge. The casting of disabled actor Madison Ferris as Laura in the recent Broadway revival generated many deeply emotional responses from both reviewers and audiences. There were claims that casting Ferris—the presence of Ferris’ disabled body onstage, along with the wheelchair she uses—was exploitative.

That casting was thrilling to me, personally, in part just because there are so few representations of disabled people on our stages, and so many able-bodied actors portraying us, often badly. (How hard is it to learn to use a cane properly? Evidently very hard.) In part, however, it was thrilling because the very phenomenological fact of Ferris’ disabled body onstage disrupts the play’s attempt to contain Laura as a memory and assign to her all the symbolic meaning the play wishes her to carry. One of the main complaints about Ferris’ performance was that she was too bold, too assertive. She lacked the shy, retiring wallflower quality that is too often ascribed as the proper behavior for “improper” bodies. If you must inflict yourselves on us, at least do it quietly. Be as slight—or as invisible—as possible. Ferris’ rejection of that, and director Sam Gold’s staging of her that highlights the difference her body exhibits as it moves through space, was uniquely troubling to people who were made uncomfortable by the reality of the disabled body they had expected to be neatly contained as a memory—an echo of a disability, primly played by an able-bodied actress whispering demurely while walking with a slight, but pretty, limp.

This discomfort was what led people to call it “exploitative,” an absurd claim that’s steeped in ableism. To call a disabled female body onstage “exploitative” is to assert that the public display of our bodies markedly differs from the public display of the bodies of able-bodied female actors. We fill our stages with thin, white, young, able-bodied women and measure all female bodies with their distance from that “norm.” We accept unquestioningly that thin, white, able-bodied women are naturally meant to be displayed, and every female body that varies from that too distinctly should be hidden from view. To label the display of a disabled female body “exploitative” is to say that our bodies are so far from the “norm” that they’re naturally meant to be private, hidden from view, and that any display of them is improper. “Exploitative” implies that just allowing ourselves to be seen is, in some way, a crime. This is, in a word, balderdash.

Lisa Portes’ tight, muscular staging of Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes creates yet another layer of disruption of this “norm” by using all actors of color. The actor playing Laura (Phoebe Fico) is a young woman of color with a visible mobility disability. The physical presence of the actor’s disabled body onstage as Laura disrupts the other characters’ strenuous and relentless efforts to create a “Laura” that is acceptable, both to themselves and to others, paralleling our culture’s relentless efforts to contain and define women, people with disabilities, and people of color.

Portes’ staging goes right for the jugular in attacking this. Amanda, Laura’s mother, persistently seeks to define Laura, controlling the language people—even Laura—use to define her and steadfastly ignoring anything Laura wants or says. Portes throws the focus on Laura in these moments and highlights Amanda’s inability to truly see her daughter. Fico’s Laura walks with crutches because Fico walks with crutches, yet Amanda insists Laura’s disability is “barely noticeable.” Part of the oppression of people with disabilities by the able-bodied majority is that the way we walk, move, talk, and occur in space are assigned value by the able-bodied based on our difference from the able-bodied “norm.” “It’s barely noticeable” is not a compliment. We know disability is an indelible part of our humanity, and assuring us that you don’t see it, think about it, or even notice it is only assuring us that you are studiously ignoring a major aspect of our humanity. It’s reminiscent of telling a Black person “I don’t see you as Black.” It means “I don’t see you at all; I see a fictional version of you.” In scenes with Amanda, Laura wavers between trying to get Amanda to see her (insisting she can clear the table, describing the pleasure she gets from her walks), managing Amanda’s emotions about her, and hiding. Portes’ staging never allows the audience to forget about the real Laura even as Amanda creates a fictional Laura she finds more comfortable.

But the most powerful staging of the play centers around Laura and Tom.

Glass Menagerie is not just a memory play; it’s an act of exorcism. Tom has done something inexcusable and is attempting to rid himself of the guilt by retelling this story of his past to the audience. He’s an unreliable narrator, but not in the way you would expect. He’s fully aware of the selfishness and inexcusability of his acts, and doesn’t shrink from portraying that. But where he’s the most unreliable is in his implications that any disaster that might have befallen his sister after his departure from the family was her own fault. Nowhere is this more pointed than in the scene between Laura and Jim, the “Gentleman Caller.”

The entire play is Tom’s memory, but Tom had no way of knowing what went on between Laura and Jim while he was in the next room. That scene is a fiction Tom creates with a fantasy Laura for the audience to consume. All she needs is confidence! Throw down your crutches and dance, and all will be well! This is the heart of Tom’s exorcism ritual. “Please believe this scene, audience, so I can be absolved of my guilt. Please believe that whatever might have happened to Laura was her own fault—her own choice.” He has created a Laura that absolves him of his guilt. Creating a fictional Laura as a scapegoat for his own cruel treatment of his family echoes our culture’s relentless scapegoating of the oppressed for their own oppression. Absolving Tom would simultaneously absolve the audience of any guilt they may be feeling about the way women, people with disabilities, and, in this production, people of color are treated in our culture. Portes’ final moment demolishes the possibility of absolution. She puts all the power in Laura’s hands and allows her to deny absolution to him and to us. It’s a powerful ending. I won’t reveal what happens, but watch for it. It’s small and quiet and immensely powerful.

If we have any hope of disrupting the multiple levels of containment of the disabled body in The Glass Menagerie, it can only be through staging the work with a disabled actor. The only possible way of creating space for disabled people, for holding even the smallest space for our voices, experiences, and lives, is to disrupt Tom’s memory with the phenomenological fact of a visibly disabled body on stage and allow the play to cohere around that body, allowing the play to cohere (in part) around the ways in which able-bodied people attempt to manage their experiences of people with disabilities and, in so doing, often marginalize and silence us, replacing our real bodies and voices with narratives of their own creation. Using a disabled actor as Laura then becomes a revolutionary act that begins the process of disrupting centuries of false, “acceptable” depictions of disabled bodies constructed in place of the real disabled bodies that were silenced and hidden.

Disability is a complex issue. There are numerous types of disability, and actors with disabilities are not, of course, interchangeable. Many types of disability are invisible, and that becomes a serious consideration when working in a primarily visual art form. Yet just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible or not worth considering. We are at the very beginning of considering these issues, and the way forward must be creating space for disabled bodies and voices, both on the stage and in gatekeeping positions. We’re opening a new door in this industry and just beginning the process of imagining what’s possible.

Melissa Hillman is the Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley. She holds a PhD in Dramatic Art from UC Berkeley and has taught at Cal, the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and Maybeck High School. She has written for Huffington Post, Theatre Bay Area Magazine, Southern Theatre Magazine, Quartz, and many others, but most often writes for her own blog, Bitter Gertrude, found at

Click here to get tickets for The Glass Menagerie, playing through July 30.


#ThrowbackThursday: The Triangle Lab Wall at the Bruns

December 17, 2015

 Before they enter the Bruns amphitheater to watch one of Cal Shakes’ mainstage productions, we invite our audiences to interact with themes from the work on our Triangle Lab wall. Here is a look back at the exhibits from our 2015 season, and the stories our audiences had to share:

 For Twelfth Night, we invited audiences to consider ways, big or small, that they’ve been surprised by their capacity to love:

 “As a gay man, I never thought I could love unconditionally until I had kids. Thank you, Goddess!”

“I never thought I could love myself until I learned to embrace my flaws and forgive myself”

“I never thought I could love being difrent until I relised it’s all I’ve got” [sic]

“I never thought I could love after my divorce until I saw her in a mirror, dancing w/ me step for step!”

 For Life is a Dream, audiences voted for destiny or free will as the driving force shaping our lives (destiny beat free will four to one!):

 “Destiny due to genes – the rest we can choose (except for all the -isms out there)”

“my actions are my only true belongings”

“Destiny is romantic but I build my DREAM -SAF”

“‘LIFE IS LIKE A SONNET’ ‘freedom within a form'”

“The things that happen are random – the way I respond isn’t!”

“Because I’m a hopeful romantic.”

 The Triangle Lab wall for The Mystery of Irma Vep was built like a haunted house attraction, encouraging audience members to reach beyond it to feel “zombie brains” and other vaudeville horrors. We also asked audiences to suggest titles for the wall’s horror library, and their submissions ranged from the wildly imaginative to the terrifyingly everyday:

“If you ever find a trail of fruit loops…FOLLOW THEM!”

“night of th living pasta By Aiden” [sic]

“The Day the Adult Children Returned Home to Live! by Seymore Frustration”

“The Boy who cried and was reprimanded by his misogynistic Father by A. Feministe”

For King Lear, we invited audiences to examine their links to heritage and legacy—what we inherit from others, and what we hope to leave behind: 

 “I, Yousef, bequeath love, prayer and blessings to you and your family because everyone needs gratitude in their lives, prayer and an unconditional, loving heart.”

“I, Debbie Carter, bequeath my music to my students & my children because music should be played by many people, over & over again.”

“I inherited the word ‘strength’ from my mommy <3. That’s important to me because it was the morning of her last day on Earth. She gave me a bracelet with the word ‘strength’ on it as a good luck talisman before we headed to a casino she had a bad headache. It was a hemmohrage.” [sic]

“I inherited nothing and everything from my heritage. That’s important to me because you gotta be who are 100% but accept that you are everyone else at the same time. Oneness.” [sic]

On the Bruns stage, Cal Shakes shares stories with our community—and on the Triangle Lab wall, our community shares their stories with us. As valuable as it is for us to learn how audiences connect their diverse lives to the themes of each play, we most love that the wall helps these audiences connect to each other, right before they sit down together, gathered around a story.


#ThrowbackThursday: A Look Back at LIFE is LIVING

October 29, 2015

 For the last eight years, Youth Speaks has presented the LIFE is LIVING Festival in West Oakland, a free celebration of urban life through art, wellness, and environmental action. The festival has served as an incubator for a multigenerational community of local and national hip hop, spoken word, dance, and visual artists and is an exemplar of the work we wish to investigate: how to integrate the arts more fully, more vitally, into community life. This year, the Triangle Lab joyously partnered with Youth Speaks to curate LIFE is LIVING’s first ever theater stage.

We presented excerpts from our upcoming tour of The Tempestcomplete with a performance of music composed for the production by our Laney College collaborators and Olive Mitra:

Teaching artists Carla Pantoja and Carlos Aguirre from Cal Shakes’ Artistic Learning department engaged the crowd in interactive workshops on stage combat and beatboxing:

We also presented a diverse and inspiring line-up of local artists whose work spoke to the festival’s themes of life, community, wellness, equity, and action:

The Lower Bottom Playaz performed Wilson in the Afternoon, an homage to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle charting African American experience through the twentieth century.

COOL (Congregation of Liberation) explored how queer black artists work together to heal themselves and their communities of internalized oppression and trauma with Black Don’t Crack.

 Campo Santo shared an excerpt from their newest piece, Babylon is Burning.

 Josh Healey performed a comedic story about the intersection of environmental justice and systemic racism. Carlos Aguirre shared his spoken word, rap, and beatbox adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart.

Dahlak Brathwaite and Dion Decibels presented an excerpt from Spiritrials, a personal exploration of the criminal justice system; the Triangle Lab’s own Lisa Evans explored family, legacy, and changemaking in “Lessons From Rivers” ; and Tova Ricardo, Oakland’s 2015 Youth Poet Laureate, opened the day with a powerful poem.

The State of Black Oakland poured libations and honored the lives of black folks slain by state violence.

This collaboration was intense—involving two very different arts institutions, and 10+ theater acts, at a day-long outdoor festival bustling with a range of activity across seven stages—and the result was intensely moving. Together we brought a vibrant and unique dimension to LIFE is LIVING and engaged community members with theater in a way we don’t often have an opportunity to—400 people over the course of the day! Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Cal Shakes Theater Stage.

All photos by Sonjhai Meggette of Esoteric Images.