The Unexpected Othello

Othello set, photo by Eric TingI’ve seen my share of “circle-ups.” You know the circle-up: actors and crew and anyone else in the green room or rehearsal room stand in a circle before the show. Sometimes holding hands, they offer up intentions, prayers, dedications, thoughts, vibes, and energy for the coming performance. It usually culminates in something climactic, something similar to, but not generally the clichéd hands-in/low-to-high “gooooo TEAM!” that you see in movies (sure, sometimes—it’s fun). It’s visceral, it’s magical, it’s meaningful. Not every ensemble does it, of course, but those who do find the ritual as important a part of the process as learning their lines.

Last Wednesday when I went to a run of Othello, I participated in a circle-up that was just the first of many unexpected experiences that day.

Eric opened the rehearsal asking everyone in the room to join the circle. All of us: box office staff, production assistants, marketing and development folks, everyone, circled up with the actors, and Eric began by leading us all in a series of movements: simplified gestures of wudhu (ablution, or cleansing of the body in preparation for prayer), and simplified gestures of prayer.

We stood together, those who knew the movements focusing on their own thoughts, those of us joining in for the first time eagle-eyed on someone more practiced. We entered their emotional and mental rehearsal space with them. Eric and the cast murmured one-word prompts: “mouth,” “nose,” “face,” etc. while we followed as best we could.

Scoop your hand to your mouth and turn to spit: three times. Sniff imaginary water, turn to blow it out: three times. Scoop your hand up and over your face, behind your ears and down: three times. Each hand brushes the other arm, hand to elbow: three times. Scoop up and over your head, hairline to nape: once only. Run fingers up the wrinkles in the ears, bottom to top with your fingers: once only. Pass your hands from toes to ankle, each foot: three times.

Hands up to ears. Arms crossed over your chest, right hand over left. Bend in a forward fold, 90 degrees. Stand up. Kneel. Forehead to ground. Kneel. Head right. Head left.

There was no climactic event, but the care taken by those who were practiced at the ritual made it clear this was a serious entry point to the production. The actors would revisit these gestures individually throughout the show.

After wudhu, the actors and audience both took their seats—actors onstage in a small circle of chairs, and audience surrounding them on three sides, just steps away. (For this production, for the first time ever, we have reconfigured the seats into a ¾ thrust.) The actors began. Their circle rippled, broke, moved, but always reformed.

This Othello blurs the moments between when actors are themselves and when they are characters. We see the sublime gestures of prayer juxtaposed with the profanity of jokes that move beyond tasteless into potentially harmful. The actors constantly interrupt the action for a nerdy dramaturgical aside or a personal anecdote, making it hard to get too caught up in the dramatic emotion of it all—which makes the moment that you realize you’ve felt Emilia’s betrayal or Othello’s pride all the more exciting because of it.

This Othello will play like a love letter to Shakespeare and the theatrical form itself. If that all sounds a bit grand, I think that is because I’m trying to describe an experience that cannot be constructed using any other medium—it has to be seen on a stage. I feel like the best theater is like that; it shouldn’t be a story better told through song, or a TED talk, or a Netflix binge. It has to be a piece of theater.

Before I joined the team at Cal Shakes, I worked for two different experimental theater companies; I’m definitely on board for reimagined and even deconstructed classics. I’m so looking forward to seeing the fruits of the hard work that this ensemble has created. When we say “investigation” of Othello, it truly is an investigation: curiosity is sewn into every stitch of this production. What if? What’s that like? What do you mean? Why do you want to see that? Why do you hate to hear that?

This Othello wants you to ask those questions and will encourage you to ask more. It is, as Eric has repeated many times elsewhere, not a museum piece. This is like no other Othello you’ve seen—and I’m here for it.

Alicia Coombes is the Publications Project Manager at Cal Shakes. She’s worked in many capacities throughout the Bay Area theater scene, from dramaturgy to marketing, directing, and crew.

Othello begins performances September 14.

 

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Ask Philippa: Othello Edition

ask-philippa-othelloAs Othello opens, the story of the great General’s marriage is quickly spat out to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, as a scandalous piece of news. ‘An old black ram is tapping your white ewe,’ says Iago, Othello’s subordinate. But why is the story of Othello’s marriage delivered in this way? Who is Othello–the great General so esteemed for saving Venice, or the scandalous over-reacher who has “reached” into a senator’s home and stolen away his daughter?
And who does he become? As the play progresses, jealousy is awakened as a sleeping monster in Othello’s breast, eroding his marriage, his confidence, his belief system, and his very identity. And for this great war machine, Othello, a new and shocking question emerges that he has no tools to deal with: what is the price of a life in a world away from warfare?

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 pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

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Othello in Rehearsal

by dramaturg Philippa Kelly
Today is my first blog posting for the rehearsal process of Othello, our first show with our new Artistic Director, Eric Ting, at the helm. I’d describe the rehearsal period so far as fast, furious, and focused. But Eric is also encouraging us, at every point, to be deeply thoughtful and self-questioning as we tackle this hugely dense text in the tiny 3 and a half weeks’ rehearsal period we have. 
 
The world he’s creating is one where Othello is a Muslim, likely converted to Christianity, the textual suggestions for which might live in lines like: ‘“For Christian shame put by this barbarous brawl!” “Are we turned Turks?” And then of course there’s the final soliloquy in which, in the devastation of his deed, Othello depicts himself as both the Christian punisher and the “malignant and…turbann’d Turk” who must be punished.
 
Yesterday Eric asked our Assistant Director, Denmo Ibrahim, to tease out some of her thoughts and questions. Denmo is wondering about Othello’s striking of, and eventual strangulation of, Desdemona—if we suggest a Muslim background to his life (and still perhaps a private Muslim practice in the play?), are we helping to imprint stereotyped media images of Muslim men and violence? Denmo also asked: “Does Othello bring his faith to bear through the killing? Or does he leave behind his faith in order to do the killing? Is the strangulation a liberation or a hate crime?”
 
Denmo’s words moved me to contemplate Othello’s conversion to Christianity as perhaps both his “real” identity (the identity of the “Othello now”) and the palimpsest—you scrape it away and there is the convert who is always, by virtue of conversion, “other.” Aldo (playing Othello) also talked about otherness as his own lived identity: he has, for instance, been pulled over by the police 37 times with no viable cause other than the color of his skin.
 
Our culture today is in many public aspects one of “seeming”—we’re bombarded by images from all kinds of media. We post on Facebook quick messages that we admire each other on so many levels (what levels?). We become electronic “friends” with people we’ll never meet, but to whom we treat images of a lunch or a dinner or an event that was awesome or in some way inspiring. Who are we really, behind these images? 400 years ago, things both were and were not similar. In a society moving out of feudalism, clothes literally made the man: the more you wrapped yourself in the attributes of your role, the more “true” you were to your self. There were even laws against nurturing private ambitions that might lead you to comport yourself beyond your station. Today’s familiar division between outward and inward selves is a modern phenomenon born largely of capitalism, and Shakespeare was at the cusp of the change, where “seeming” began to spell “public,” and “who we really are” had a private ring to it. 
 
In Othello Shakespeare has created a play that echoes with that change. The play is full of images of “being” and “seeming”—“I think my wife is honest.” “Long live she so, and long live you to think so.” “Men should be what they seem.” And images of Othello’s being happy if the whole army had tasted Desdemona’s sweet body “So had I nothing known”… It’s not until the image is punctured, in other words, that the truth is a problem. And in the end, the whirl of being and seeming collapse Othello’s reason and judgment: he just wants proof as his truth, and, sadly, will do anything to get it. 
 
And here’s another question: today, as then, do we set up our human killing machines at the expense of their humanity and personal relationships, however much we plaster the noble warrior, the Westpoint officer images, across it?
 
Finally, I dedicate this to Larry Smith, my friend across the Pacific, who died yesterday while rehearsal was in process. Larry was a professor of Business and Management, but loved theater. (Why is there a “but” there?!)  Death is an end-point: though in Shakespeare’s Othello, it’s not. Many characters speak quite lengthily after they’re stabbed and even strangulated. Why is this? Perhaps because death is so final; and theater gives us the chance to think that perhaps it need not be: that there can BE a last word, instead of the unknown, never-fully-prepared for, eclipse.
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Othello: an interview with Eric Ting

Recently our Artistic Learning department sat down with Eric Ting to discuss our upcoming production of Othello. Eric’s Cal Shakes directorial debut begins performances September 14.

Artistic Learning: How will you stage this play to be relevant to the current cultural dialogues about racial injustice and identity?  Will you use a modern setting?

Eric Ting: We’re imagining our audience sharing the space with a company of modern day actors who investigate/interrogate the classical story of Shakespeare’s Othello through a contemporary lens, trying to understand how this problem play lives as a reflection of some of the challenges we face in American society today.

AL: Directors must frequently choose a specific focus from such a large and complex play.  Are you coming at it as a domestic tragedy, a political firestorm, an examination of psychological manipulation–what’s the core idea you want to illustrate to the fullest in this production?

ET: All of the above. Religion is certainly surfaced in our choice to reflect Othello as a Muslim—though even that identity is sublimated in this story (because when we encounter Othello he has “converted to Christianity” we think to better assimilate into Venetian society). Politics exist not so much as a manifestation of the war with the Ottomites (like much of the wars the US fights today, that war is backgrounded to the more domestic concerns of the drama); but rather we will be exploring the presence of a political figure like Donald Trump and asking how that injection of volatile political rhetoric might pave the way for more manifest examples of xenophobia, releasing years of pent up race-hatred (i.e.: Iago). Lastly, Othello is a play about two marriages, a domestic tragedy writ large about the daily battles wrought “in the name of love”—love of God, love of Country, love of each other.

AL: How are you directing the actors to handle the language in this play?  The language sometimes floats in eloquent verse, and sometimes explodes in very direct insults that might be very offensive if said to someone today.  What does it take to have an actor move between these ways of speaking, and how do you want the audience to hear and understand these different expressions?

ET: My impulse is always to play against the poetry of Shakespeare’s language. The words themselves elevate his plays to soaring heights, but when actors indulge in that poetry it often sends the plays into a more melodramatic space. He wrote in blank verse, and as such, his writing is all the more remarkable for its construction—vivid, honest language held to a rigorous form. It’s that pursuit of surfacing the familiar, the banal, the human in Shakespeare’s plays that also—I believe—demand that we not try to censor the very real prejudices that have existed across time, from Shakespeare’s Venice to our communities today.

AL: Is there any comic relief in this play?  Should there be?

ET: Yes. And absolutely. Comedy accentuates tragedy, like salt with chocolate. Certainly there’s a lovely scene that we begin with: two men, ugly drunk, commiserating late one night about the unfairness of the world. But also: Shakespeare writes into the play a “CLOWN” character that, to my eyes, is not particularly funny (HA!). So we’ve made a production choice to replace those clown scenes with a series of jokes—the sort of jokes that accentuate our society’s treatment of outsiders, the sort of humor that “others” us.

AL: Okay, the ultimate question–are you more drawn to Othello, or Iago? Why?

ET: Mmmm. Good Question. I think the one doesn’t exist without the other, no? It’s almost biblical, the conflict between these two—like Cain and Abel.

Tickets to Othello are available here.
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Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue Series: June 11 recap

Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue Series seeks to explore the intersections between theater and civic practice. Through facilitated dialogues with community organizations and presentations of work by community-based artists, we hope to explore how theater can be a tool for highlighting voices of marginalized communities and for igniting change. This year’s Dialogues will explore four different themes related to our 2016 Season.

Lisa Evans (Associate Director of Artistic Engagement), Regina Victoria Fields (Artistic Engagement Fellow), and Tierra Allen (Artistic Engagement Coordinator). Photo by Eric Ting.

On Monday, July 11, Cal Shakes and Impact Hub Oakland hosted The Construction of Gender: Actualizing Women’s Empowerment.

The event began with a panel moderated by restorative justice practitioner, youth organizer, and artist Tatiana Chaterji featuring preacher, writer, and organizer Elena Rose; actress, director, and playwright Margo Hall; and youth worker and theater artist Anna Maria Luera.

The panel discussion focused on the societal expectations of the role of women, the importance and impact of self determination in regards to artistic representation, and what an expansive definition of womanhood can look like.

The panel was then followed by performances by The Rysing Womyn project, Campo Santo: H.O.M.E., RYSE Performing Arts, and Elana Rose.

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When Life Imitates Art—or the Other Way Around

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

In nineteenth century California, divorce was on the rise, available on the basis of any of six marital “conditions”: adultery, cruelty, abandonment, neglect, intemperance, or felony conviction. On the basis of information we can glean from George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, at least four of these six requirements would have satisfied the courts in the case of the Crampton family. Yet Fergus Crampton and his wife have stayed married, though apart, for the past eighteen years. Why? A five-letter word: shame. It was shameful to have divorce proceedings begun against you, and Mr. Crampton has the dignity of family and reputation to uphold. So he has remained, married in name only, for the best part of two decades. And his wife has not even remained “married in name”. She has adopted, and published her treatises under, the name of ‘Mrs Lanfrey Clandon.”

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(background, l-r) Michael Torres as Fergus Crampton, Elizabeth Carter as Mrs. Clandon, Lance Gardner as Philip, Khalia Davis as Dolly, (foreground, l-r) Sabina Varela Zuniga as Gloria, and Matthew Baldiga as Valentine in YOU NEVER CAN TELL.

Cal Shakes audiences, meet the messed up Crampton/Clandon family of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, one of his bizarrely named ‘pleasant plays’ because of its strong strain of farce. In many ways this dysfunctional family we meet in California is indeed Shaw’s family, imported over the Atlantic from Ireland and England. His Irish father was in his 50s when he married a woman he thought to be of means. But he was in for bitter disappointment – his wife brought in little money, precluding him from retirement and necessitating his acquisition of a second career (as a corn merchant) after being dismissed at his job as a civil servant. George Bernard Shaw (Bernard) was the last of their children. When he was fifteen his mother, who had fallen in love with her voice teacher, took off after him when he moved to London, taking her two daughters with her and leaving Bernard with her dissolute, depressive, alcoholic husband. Bernard left Dublin a year later to join his mother in London. There he would remain under the same roof, while continuing the distant relationship that he and his mother had shared since his infancy, for the next 26 years before his own marriage.

And the dysfunctional resemblance doesn’t stop there. Shaw, like his character Valentine in You Never Can Tell, met and came to love a strong, socialist (not socialite!), wealthy woman called Charlotte Payne Townshend: but he was loathe to marry her. Like Valentine, he was impecunious, and didn’t want to be seen as a fortune hunter.

Well, to see what happened to Shaw, come see You Never Can Tell. You’ll get a pretty good idea without ever having to consult Wikipedia…

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You Never Can Tell: REALLY

You never can tell…. what a play is really like until you dig deep into the process of breathing life into it for the stage. George Bernard Shaw’s play was first marketed as a light-hearted farce in the style of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, which had debuted in 1895, the year before Shaw wrote his play. “I cannot say that I cared for the Importance of Being Earnest,” Shaw said of Wilde’s farce about a man who once began life as a child left in a railway station in a handbag, his biggest problem being that he has to negotiate High Society without any parents to show for himself. “It amused me, of course,” Shaw said of Wilde’s play, “but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening…though I laugh as much as anybody at a farcical comedy, I am out of spirits before the end of the second act, and out of temper before the end of the third, my miserable mechanical laughter intensifying these symptoms at every outburst.” So Shaw decided to write his own play, You Never Can Tell, about children in search of respectable parents – or, indeed, any parents at all – in an upper-class milieu that requires them.

Tablework—the period in which we sit puzzling over the text and wondering who our characters are, where they come from, what they think of each other, and what their words mean–was fascinating. One of the qualities of the amazing Lisa Peterson as director is that she doesn’t want anyone ever to “speak” their lines without knowing why they say them. And these characters, under her scrutiny, grew from frothy concoctions into wildly transgressive and thought-provoking people whose lives and motives we wanted to explore. Why does Valentine (Matthew Baldiga), the 2-dollar dentist, have only one name? Is it because he is the only character disinterested in his past? He falls for Gloria (Sabina Zuniga Varela), who’s been trained by her mother to be a New Woman, a socialist, and a feminist heralding the coming of the twentieth century. And Gloria, despite all her training, falls for the first silly man she meets. What happens to them both? We discovered also that Gloria is not the only New Woman in this play–Shaw has three of them: one who’s self-fashioned (Mrs. Clandon); one’s who’s trained up (Gloria); and one who simply, delightfully, irrepressibly can’t help it (Dolly–Khalia Davis). We looked at fathers and sons as well as mothers and daughters, with Danny Scheie playing the unflappable, ever-calm Irish waiter always ready with a soothing cup of tea, a platitude and a cocktail, remaining unruffled only until his own son hits the scene.

And we had a fascinating time bringing this play across the Atlantic, setting it in a seaside urban setting in California. This entailed many hours of “translation” by Lisa and myself, as we looked at words that might seem too British and wondered about their contemporary nineteenth-century American counterparts. We looked at legal conventions in America at the time; etiquette for restaurants and table-settings; etiquette for greetings and introductions. In bringing all this so quickly and deeply to the table, Lisa did something fantastic. She asked each actor to research an aspect pertaining to their role: Danny, for example, to research the influx of Irish waiters who had come to America in the nineteenth century (early on in my research I had also found that besides Irish waiters, a major source of wait staff was found amongst African Americans, recently released from slavery after the Civil war and yet with no homes and no rights. African American waiters would get no tips, as they were still regarded as slaves; Irish waiters did get tips.) We found the origin of the word, “tip”: ‘To Insure Promptitude.” Liam Vincent, playing Bohun, the son of the waiter, is in our play a highly successful and marvelously pompous man of the law who dances as purposefully as he speaks. Liam was tasked with researching the status of family law at the time as opposed to the American equivalent to a British QC. Anthony Fusco, playing the family lawyer and ex-radical McComas, was asked to research Herbert Spencer, on whom his ideals were once built. Every actor brought a huge amount of fascinating research to the table, so impressive that I suggested we make a production notebook out of it so that we can keep this as a record for future productions.

As dramaturg, I would say that this process has kept me as busy as the busiest show I’ve ever worked on. Most nights I am up until 2- or 3:00am, thinking and researching. But this play, often wrongly dismissed as silly and yet so rich, deep, profound, and hilarious, has been worth every second. The cast is amazing. LeeAnn Dowd, the assistant director, has been a source of wonderful materials, from parasol etiquette to brands of wine to be served at table, running lines with the actors in the spare time she has, baking Irish soda bread at night to add to the “flavor” of Danny’s Irish thespian heritage. Stage Manager Laxmi Kumeran and her crew are of course a crew to dream of. I could go on and on–every single actor dives deep, from the miserable Crampton (Michael Torres) to the straight-backed, principled Mrs. Clandon (Elizabeth Carter) devoted to not having sex. I love this play. I love the cast. Lisa has made us as rich and real as we can be.

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Ask Philippa: You Never Can Tell Edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

You Never can Tell is, to put it simply: Shaw. It’s his life, his mother and father, his courtship with Charlotte Payne Townshend (like his character Valentine, the impecunious Shaw was afraid of marrying a wealthy woman because he didn’t want to look like a fortune-hunter). It’s a fascinating play, inspired also by Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, which Shaw found funny but frothy. He wanted to give the Wilde story some meat: which he did. Shaw’s play introduces the New Woman (three versions of her); it’s the first play in history to be about a dentist; and it has the lowest character on the totem pole, a waiter, be the dispenser of the most wisdom. The play is a riot; but it’s richly thoughtful and intriguing.

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 pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

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Watch: Fences Audience Responses

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We caught up with audiences after Opening Night of August Wilson’s Fences, and the responses were wonderful! Click to see the playlist of them all.

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