Graves at my command

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

I have always wished that the early works of Shakespeare hadn’t so largely disappeared beneath the weight of his monumental tragedies (think Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello) and enchanting comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream being one of the all-time favorites). It was a thrill in 2011 when we got to do two early works, Titus Andronicus (directed by Joel Sass) and The Taming of the Shrew (directed by Shana Cooper): two of the works that Shakespeare was piecing together in the very same years that he was creating his first history plays—the Henry VI trilogy.

By the early 1590s, London’s population had doubled from the beginning of the century, with 200,000 inhabitants ready to fill the theaters. Shakespeare was under 30 years of age and had a wife and three children, whom he had settled in Stratford while he established himself as a playwright in London. In 1592 London was ravaged by a renewed onslaught of the plague—dreadfully feared for its symptoms—first a swelling of the groin, then an evil-smelling pus, fever, carbuncles, coma, and most likely death. (The disease would claim the life of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet a few years later in 1595, at the age of 11).

In London, except for the months when the theaters had to close at the height of the plague, Shakespeare’s players had a hugely busy schedule. His actors were performing in other playwrights’ works as well as his own. But when we look at the earnings for these performances of plays by such writers as Robert Greene and even Christopher Marlowe, something remarkable emerges. We see that on 3 March, 1592 (1591 in Shakespeare’s time because the Elizabethan calendar didn’t kick over till the end of March), the first performance of a Henry VI play was staged: and that the company’s earnings shot up from the usual 86 pence or 82 and a half pence  (today’s equivalent of about $300) to a remarkable 3 pounds and 16 shillings ($1600). Elizabethan audiences loved the Henry VI plays!

Part of this pleasure doubtless lay in the urge to create a collective national history
for the English people in the last years of Queen Elizabeth, the granddaughter of
Richmond (AKA Henry Tudor, AKA Henry VII). By the late 1500s it was clear that
the queen was soon going to die without issue, which made it a hugely unsettling
time for the English nation: and so the Henry VI plays provided a way of looking
back on the unsettled decades that had led to the present glories of the Tudor
dynasty, and to celebrate the benefits of Elizabeth’s long reign. The theater made
history accessible for those who could not read, teaching them to celebrate
England’s heroes and vilify its enemies, in particular the French. Pamphleteer
Thomas Nashe wrote of the Henry VI plays:

How it would have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of spectators who, in the tragedian who represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

So how do audiences see these plays today? More accurately, why don’t audiences see these plays today? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, the figure of Henry VI, historical son to Henry V—a timid, shy man, crowned at the age of 10 months and never growing into maturity even when he succeeded to full sovereignty—has been eclipsed by the personality of his charismatic father, who, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV/Henry V trilogy, has eaten up the stage for centuries. Henry VI, prone to bouts of mental illness which left him in a coma, disappeared altogether from his regency from time to time. And when he was in situ on the throne, he cowered in the face of conflict.

Choosing the Red and White Roses by Henry Payne (1908)

Second, Henry VI Part I, while thrilling to its contemporary audiences, is a play almost entirely composed of rhyming couplets. While fabulous productions like TV’s The Hollow Crown can conquer the effect of these rhymes via stunning visuals and sound effects, Henry VI Part I is a much more difficult play to perform on stage. So we’ve taken two of this play’s fabulous features—the selection of the roses and the wooing of Queen Margaret, poor Henry’s bride, who begins her own ascendancy from her very first entrance, powerless, 15, and given away by her father with no dowry as a cheap gift to England—to a mammoth figure of female empowerment and eventual heartbreak.

Thus begins our tetralogy—the first half of our evening devoted to the finest features of these truly remarkable Henry VI plays, and the second half (post-intermission: hot chocolate, snacks, rollicking bottles of wine)—devoted to a full performance of one of Shakespeare’s most stunning creations—Richard III, the self-declared embodiment of mischievous evil.  We’re beginning work on the tetralogy—what we’re calling The War of the Roses—at the top of the year. And we leave you for now with those famous words of Prospero, which one can imagine straight from the mouth of Shakespeare himself:

“Graves at my command have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth.”

Welcome, Henry VI and all your companions, including Richard—from earth to stage!


Posted in 2018 Season, By Philippa Kelly (dramaturg), Main Stage, War of the Roses | 2 Comments

A Mighty Heart

by Philippa Kelly

Recently I fed watermelon to three pigs and wondered how such sentient creatures—each a unique embodiment of the life force—could ever be eaten by myself or any other human. By coincidence, later that day, Napoleon the Pig was the protagonist at Berkeley’s TheatreFIRST where, on a beautiful afternoon, I walked through Live Oak Park, grabbed a cup of coffee and a cookie, and settled on my travel cushion (the seats are hard) to watch The Farm in a space tucked into the leafy edges of Walnut Street. Jon Tracy’s adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm was performed in Trump-America: the chilly recognition of a nation’s self-induced tyranny existed in a theatrical world of utterly engrossing dance and song—a paradox that only art can freely embody.

But…life in small theaters is not all song and dance. It takes a mighty heart to run a small artistic organization. Yes, small theaters can adjust their programming more nimbly to respond to changes in the world, making great, timely, provocative theater. But their big dreams wage a daily battle with the sheer economic challenge of impossibly elastic budget goals.

In the last months, I’ve seen so much wonderful theater created in the network of small organizations that make up much of Berkeley’s verdant theater life. Ubuntu Theater Project kicked off its season with a heart-breaking Death of a Salesman starring Julian López-Morillas and Dawn L. Troupe, moving into a stream of impressive new works beginning with To the Bone, a portrait of life in the chicken industry. At Symmetry Theatre, Stacy Ross stunned audiences with her portrait of a woman at the onset of dementia in The Other Place. Aurora Theatre Company gave us Luna Gale, tracking the life of a social welfare worker dealing with Child Protective Services, a nail-biting scenario delivered by a fabulous cast in a spectacular, tight-paced production. Shotgun Players, which served up an unforgettable Hamlet in 2016 where actors picked their roles nightly out of a hat, this year churned up every organ in my body with Sarah Kane’s horrifying Blasted. Crowded Fire (where the magnificent Christopher Chen is resident artist); Word For Word; the Playground; African American Shakespeare, Central Works, Indra’s Net, Actor’s Ensemble of Berkeley: I come away from an evening spent at these theater companies with so very much more than the tiny price I pay to get in.

For small theaters and theater projects, all the world is often actually a stage, as they find imaginative and affordable ways to make their work. Cal Shakes’ rehearsal hall, waiting hungrily for the warmth and life of next season’s preparations, was recently home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On translation project, where Lue Douthit joined director Lisa Peterson, Playwright Christopher Chen, Dramaturg Desdemona Chiang, and a group of Cal Shakes’ finest actors to spend three days workshopping Chen’s progress on Antony and Cleopatra. The Paul Dresher Ensemble recently expanded its precincts in West Oakland to provide a home for many more artists, and amidst an assortment of musicians, dancers (the Ensemble has a fully sprung dance floor), opera companies and shadow puppeteers, Ubuntu Theater has made its new rehearsal home, creating site-specific productions to travel throughout the community. The New Conservatory Theater and San Francisco Playhouse have their stages in hotels; The Sandbox Theater sits atop the Strand at ACT; Theater First shares its space with Symmetry Theater and Actors Ensemble of Berkeley; on Potrero Hill Crowded Fire shares space with Golden Thread, 3Girls and the Actors Playground in a community where, as Artistic Director Mina Morita says, “we’re eating, buying our coffee and talking to our neighbors: this is where we’re also performing.” And if you can’t afford a shared space, try a moving car (for a maximum of three audience members) as did the artists who made Car Play this year.

When I see plays at small theaters, I am truly aware that artists are born to exercise a very special gift for illuminating and re-imagining the world: and that no matter where, or how, this theater gets made, it must be made: each one of these productions provides its own unique prism through which our worlds can be bigger and bolder and richer and more generous.

Philippa Kelly is Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes, and upcoming dramaturg for Quixote and War of the Roses.

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Welcome, Queen Margaret! The 2018 Tetralogy

by Philippa Kelly

The prohibition on women on the Renaissance English stage undoubtedly affected the way Shakespeare wrote his female roles: since it was a stretch for young boys to play older female parts, many of his mothers seem purposefully scripted as cold and narrow (think Lady Capulet), aggressive and embittered (think Tamara in Titus Andronicus), apt to be conveniently buried for as long as 16 years (think Hermione in A Winter’s Tale or Thaisa in Pericles); or, far more commonly, absent altogether, presumed dead in childbirth (think Mrs. Lear, Mrs. Prospero, Mrs. Mother Rosalind, Mrs. Mother Viola, just to name a few). The young boy actors at Shakespeare’s disposal would have found it far easier to play girls of their own age or thereabouts—Juliet, Rosalind, Celia, Viola, Cordelia. And who knows? Had Shakespeare had access to a Helen Mirren, or a Glen Close, or a Judy Dench, he may have written many female roles with the uncommon heft and complexity suggested by Lady Macbeth, or by Volumnia in Coriolanus.
It’s also possible that the prohibition of females on stage influenced Shakespeare’s choice to have several of his heroines disguise themselves as boys—that, in other words, by using the theme of disguise he found a way for boy actors to spend the majority of the play “performing” their own gender. While this is a compelling suggestion, there are actually only five times in 38 plays when he does have female characters disguise themselves as young men, and, except in Cymbeline, in each of these plays the boy playing a woman disguised as a boy is paired with a boy playing a woman who doesn’t change her gender. Go figure.
I love to speculate about Shakespeare’s stagecraft in this way—and often find myself changing my mind. No matter which way the argument goes, however, one thing is clear: Shakespeare always, where possible wrote for the actors he treasured. (Just as we at Cal Shakes love to do in casting. We have a wonderful casting treat in store for you next season.) So, for instance, Shakespeare proportioned roles to suit the ratio of men-to-boy actors in his company. Almost all of his numerically larger roles (except Rosalind in As You Like It) are male; and all of them (even Prince Hal, who transforms to Henry V) are appropriate for mature male actors. His famous female pairs (Rosalind/Celia, Viola/Olivia) were likely written for two special boys uniquely able to play female roles well beyond puberty. 

Detail from the “Talbot Shrewsbury book” gifted to Margaret on her betrothal to Henry VI.

 Shakespeare’s history plays with their wartime and action scenes are typically categorized as “masculine” (as is the case today—think We Were SoldiersThe Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down). And yet the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy we’ll be staging next year has a remarkable and exciting difference. Written before Shakespeare turned 30, this tetralogy features a female part of singular duration and importance. Margaret of Anjou first appears in Henry VI, Part I as an immigrant sold by her father without a dowry to the Lord of Suffolk (“She’s beautiful, and therefore to be wooed,/A woman, and therefore to be won”), with the purpose of passing her off to young King Henry VI sight-unseen. In the course of the tetralogy Margaret becomes a queen who gets the husband she is sold to; a powerfully sexual woman who gets the lover she chooses; a mother; a preeminent political force in the War of the Roses; and eventually, in grief and loss, a “raging crone” who refuses to be silenced. This was the first journey Shakespeare gave to a female character in the course of an extended play-sequence; and it would be the only journey of such length and character-evolution in the whole of his oeuvre. Welcome, Queen Margaret—proceed apace!
Posted in 2018 Season, By Philippa Kelly (dramaturg), War of the Roses | 2 Comments

Watch: 2018 Season overview with Philippa and Eric

Grab a cuppa and watch the video below to get a sneak peek into Philippa’s insights in the first of a video series diving deep into the dramaturgical themes of next summer’s plays!

Posted in 2018 Season, Everybody, Quixote, War of the Roses | 1 Comment

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.

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Announcing our 2018 Season!

Dear friends,

It’s always such a pleasure standing in front of you, looking out at the sea of faces that make up our Cal Shakes family, inviting you into our theater, into our stories. Stories, in their way, teach us how to be human. They teach us our morality, our sense of right and wrong, how to love, how to hate, how to live. And as we come to our final show in a season that saw box office records broken, I’m excited to reaffirm our commitment to telling vital stories for these interesting times.

Since I arrived at Cal Shakes, we’ve taken a good hard look at what it means to be a classical theater for the 21st Century. We’ve considered the fiscal challenges of producing professional theater in the Bay Area. We’ve listened to many of your concerns over increasingly hectic summers and the erratic weather of spring and autumn. We’ve heard from many of our most ardent supporters that Cal Shakes should always be BOLD theater—big enough to fill the vast outdoors. We wanted new ways to celebrate the unique experience of the Bruns, be they return engagements of popular productions or extraordinary events that we couldn’t pass up (more on all that later). I’m excited to share that for 2018 we’ll be creating a concentrated subscription season filled with the epic and eventful work so many of you crave, of scale and scope and audacious, uncompromising vision—a true summer at the Bruns, anchored by three plays from June to September, each a vital story that speaks as much to who we are as to who we’ve been.

• First up, a literary classic re-imagined: Quixote, a sparkling new adaptation by Octavio Solis based on Cervantes’ Spanish Golden Age masterpiece but conceived anew, setting La Mancha along the modern-day Texas-Mexico border and filled with flights of fancy and Tejano tunes.

• Next up, a contemporary riff on the medieval morality play: Everybody, by acclaimed playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon), plumbing the depths of the human condition with surprising humor, heart, grace, and dancing skeletons.

• Our season closes with a Shakespearean event of epic proportions: our take on The War of the Roses, a monumental evening of theater spanning four of Shakespeare’s histories—Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III—a fast-paced, far-ranging, vividly theatrical depiction of two powerful families—the Lancasters and the York—and their decades-long fight for the English throne.

Whether you’ve been with us for decades or are joining us for the very first time, thank you for being with us this summer—for the shared laughter and tears and song and celebration, creating community with our artists under the sky. Join us for our 2018 season. We’ve set a big table, and it wouldn’t be the same without you.

See you next season,

Eric Ting

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Artistic Learning: our teachers are students, too

We nurture a culture of learning where we are both teacher and student.

All of our teaching artists are theater professionals with a passion for education. Our two-year professional development initiative funded by the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Trust—the first we are aware of in the Bay Area—offered paid trainings in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; Childhood Development; Working with Students on the Autism Spectrum; Lesson Planning; and several classes on ways to teach Shakespeare to age groups ranging from elementary school through high school.

The reason we make this investment is partly to do with our unique approach to bringing theater into schools: our Teaching Artists partner with teachers to integrate theater-making and learning about a Shakespeare play right in the classroom. This way every student—even those who would never consider signing up for a Theater class—have the opportunity to develop their own creative voice. Every year we get comments from students remarking on their initial reluctance at the beginning of the process and their immense enjoyment by the end. So, we ask a lot more of our teaching artists, and we provide them with more support in navigating the sometimes challenging environments they encounter in classrooms.

Last month we hosted our final training of the two-year initiative. After attending previous rounds of training over the past few years, teaching artists requested one with a hands-on focus, so we partnered with Circle Up Education, an organization whose primary focus is Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Training for Classroom Teachers. The five-hour training was extremely well received by our Teaching Artists:

“I learned a tremendous amount from the training that I will be able to apply immediately in the classroom!”

“Training with Cal Shakes is always a reminder of the fierce and compassionate family of teaching artists in our network. It almost doesn’t matter what we’ve gathered to learn; we resonate and wriggle; we inspire one another. But the diversity and inclusion sessions this year have felt especially visceral and relevant to our work with youth. I think that each of us is always hoping that maybe it’s now; maybe this will be the generation that grows up where Shakespeare belongs to every body in every community. Maybe we get to be on the foundation floor—dug into the dirt of that rebuilding work.”   

“More trainings like this please!”

Developing Self-Awareness & Relationship Building Practices–Enhancing Teaching & Learning in Diverse Classroom Communities was developed with the support of the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Trust as the final session of a two-year initiative funded by the Trust that has training our entire cadre of Teaching Artists.

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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.
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2018 Season: Frequently Asked Questions

It’s true, we’ve announced our 2018 Subscription Season, with two new classics and an epic Shakepeare event. We’ve enjoyed talking to people as they learn about next year’s plans, and have noticed there are a few questions we’re getting a lot, so here they are in one quick FAQ:

Why is the subscription season only three plays next year?
Several reasons!

  • • FLEXIBILITY: We wanted to carve out time in the season to be able to take advantage of unique opportunities—such as bringing back popular shows from past seasonor producing short-run events at the Bruns. (Stay tuned for more information about that as it unfolds!)
  • COSTS: The costs of producing theater in the Bay Area continue to rise. We are opting to produce three plays more fully rather than having to cut corners to produce four.
  • WEATHER: We are hopeful that producing a season during the true summer months will provide a more pleasant (i.e. less cold) experience for our patrons.

Will you always produce only one Shakespeare play?
No; each season is unique. This season we are especially excited by our Shakespeare event, The War of the Roses. Act 1 spans Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3 (the first time the trilogy will be presented in the history of Cal Shakes) and will give new facets and depth to the characters in Act 2, which covers Richard III. The War of the Roses is epic Shakespeare!

Do 3-play subscriptions cost the same as last year’s 4-play subscription?
Absolutely not! You will notice subscriptions cost significantly less this year because subscribers are only paying for three plays, not four.


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Ask Philippa: Measure for Measure Edition

Measure for Measure was written in 1604 at a pivotal moment in Shakespeare’s career. The playwright was 40 and had just finished writing a long line of comedies that explored complex issues of sex, marriage, and personal identity, and great tragedies—Othello, Macbeth, Lear—were in gestation. Measure falls somewhere between them, mixing the darkness of a brutal change of regime with the eventual relief of a comic resolution: along the way, it asks many questions and does not provide easy answers.

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at, or post below to ask her a question.

Measure for Measure continues through September 8. Click here to learn more and buy tickets!

Posted in 2017 Season, Ask Philippa, Main Stage, Measure for Measure | 4 Comments