Happy 451st Birthday Shakespeare!

By Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

“With Shakespeare’s depth of humanity as our touchstone, we build character and community through authentic, inclusive and joyful theater experiences.” This is Cal Shakes’ mission, and today we celebrate the 451st birthday (399th death day) of our bard. William was born in 1564 to John Shakespeare (leather merchant turned prominent alderman and town bailiff – equivalent to town mayor) and Mary Arden (local heiress). No birth records exist for William, but the records of the local church in Stratford-Upon-Avon indicate that a “William Shakespeare” was baptized on April 26 of that year. From this we deduce that he was born on or about April 23: infant mortality at that time was very high (25% of children died before the age of 2, and, indeed, three of Shakespeare’s siblings died in early childhood), which meant that children were baptized a few days after their birth.

William was the third of eight children. The very sketchy records of his early life have caused endless speculation as to how he obtained the immense breadth of education demonstrated in his plays. Historians surmise that William was able to till his naturally gifted mind by virtue of being a public official’s child, entitled to attend the King’s New School in Stratford, which afforded a classical education. As was the case in all Elizabethan grammar schools, Latin was the primary language for learning. Although Shakespeare likely had some lessons in English, Latin composition and the study of Latin authors like Seneca, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil, and Horace would have been the focus of his literary training. (Just as an extra point of interest, during the years that Shakespeare attended the school, at least one and possibly three headmasters stepped down because of their devotion to the Catholic religion proscribed by Queen Elizabeth.) William’s father’s fortunes declined when young William was about 14, however, and he never got to go to university.

In 1582, when William was 18, Anne Hathaway, a 26 year-old woman of some family means, became pregnant with his child. They married late in that year, before the birth of their first daughter, Susannah. William soon deposited his wife and family in Stratford – including the couple’s twins, Hamnet and Judith, born in 1585 – and the playwright went to London to build his theater company and pursue his craft, returning to Stratford only when onslaughts of the plague forced the closure of the theaters in London. It was in these fallow years that he wrote most of his sonnets as well as his longer poems. Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at the age of eleven, and, given that it took three days to get a message from Stratford to London, and the contagion of the plague so great that by the time Shakespeare received news of his death, his son had already been buried.  Judith and her father were not close, and Susannah remained William’s favored child until the end of his life.

Over a period of 18 years, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (give or take two recently discovered and believed to be his and a couple of collaborations) and 154 sonnets. He stopped writing about three years before his death in 1616. Some scholars have speculated that this was because he had nothing left to say: however, I think this theory is highly unlikely when applied to a man of 47 who wrote a late play as gifted as The Tempest. It’s much more likely that he developed Scrivener’s Palsy, a degenerative disease that impeded his capacity to write. If you look at the range of his signatures, they markedly change as his physical state deteriorates. He could barely sign his final will, made in March 1616 (altered to convey his displeasure at his daughter Judith’s marriage to a man who had at the same time got another woman pregnant).

Shakespeare, registered as “Will Shakespeare gent”, was buried on 26 April 1616 at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford Upon Avon. His tombstone is inscribed with the unlikely quatrain said to have been prepared by him:

Good Friend for Jesus sake forbear

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blest be the man that spares these stones,

And curst be he that moves my bones.


  • Vegetables discovered in Shakespeare’s day: cabbage and carrots
  • Households made their own beer and ale
  • Flush toilets were a long time coming: families deposited their waste matter in mounds outside the house.



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Play On: Madness and Reality in Twelfth Night

By Cory Downing

I’ve always seen Twelfth Night as perhaps Shakespeare’s most extreme experiment with human psychology. For a writer who is successful in large part due to an understanding of human psychology, Twelfth Night takes enormous risks in terms of the sheer number of characters whose actions, back to back to back, threaten to strain credulity. I simply can’t think of another writer who could take proud, pious Malvolio and drive him so swiftly and completely to yellow-stockinged, cross-gartered puppyhood, and then, even further, to piteous vulnerability. Certainly there are stories such as that of Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or even Athelstan from the History Channel’s show Vikings, with straight-laced characters struggling with and abandoning some of or all of their virtues for lust or love or some other purpose. But Twelfth Night has always struck me as pressing the boundaries of plausibility, without once (barring a bad performance) truly breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Think of Duke Orsino, who goes through fewer character changes than the rest of the cast, and who, in the hands of a lesser playwright, might be a very weak character. Instead, he is at once brilliant, absurd, relatable, and memorable. We have all heard his famous line “If music be the food of love, play on,” though few remember that the following lines are “Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,/The appetite may sicken, and so die.” He’s willing to go to enormous lengths not so much for any love interest in particular, but for the sake of love itself.

Twelfth Night is arguably Shakespeare’s most homoerotic play, taking especially the impetus of Duke Orsino’s obsession with love to force not only himself, but two other characters (Olivia and Viola) into situations of questionable heterosexuality. Olivia lusts for Viola-as-Cesario, while Viola-as-Cesario-as-Olivia helps Orsino practice his fantasies with his “male” servant. Both instances serve as sources of comic relief, and perhaps they subtly gesture also toward Shakespeare’s own bisexuality. The veil of laughter, pulled back, unmasks questions at the forefront of today’s political landscape regarding sexual identity and sexual orientation. What would happen if there were no Sebastian, the “male Viola”, to come in, pair off with Olivia, and tie up all the loose ends? Would Olivia really abandon her attraction to “Cesario”? Is her attraction to Sebastian really the same as her interest in Cesario—is she, a smart, layered, powerful woman, truly that shallow? Is it not interesting how Orsino, immediately upon revelation of Viola’s true gender, instantly agrees to a relationship with her, no questions asked? Is this merely Orsino being Orsino? Shakespeare tying up loose ends? (Go look at Shakespeare’s genderbending Sonnet 20!)

Along the way to the absurd conclusion of Twelfth Night – duels, mistaken identities, psychological torture, pranks, marriages—every step is marked clearly by completely reasonable choices made by understandable characters. A woman dressing as a man for safety of travel, particularly in a dangerous and comparatively sexist time, makes plenty of sense. For a woman pretending to be a man to continue pretending, long after it starts becoming dangerous and ironic, if only to keep her position’s advantages, makes just as much sense. Pranking a hated, stuffed shirt of a person in power is a desire many have—and it is perfectly understandable, on the other end—who hasn’t been crazy for love with no reasonable hope of success? This is the magic of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Who needs powerful, mysterious fairies when humans will make wonderful fools of themselves all on their own?

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Off to Ashland!

Antony and Cleopatra. Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival

This October 2-4, Cal Shakes Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly will lead a trip to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Attendees will stay at the Ashland Springs Hotel and attend three plays during their stay, while enjoying dinners, cocktails, and conversation with Philippa and other guests. Philippa will lead discussions on each play and give her own insight. If you are interested in attending or learning more, please call or email Interim Special Events Manager Zoe Westbrook at 510.809.3297 or ashlandtour@calshakes.org no later than Friday, May 15th.

This year’s fantasy weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will begin the moment we put our cases down in our beautiful rooms at the Ashland Springs Hotel, discovering, on our pillows, the little sachet of lavender and, on our bedside tables, the bar of chocolate especially wrapped with a picture of the hotel.  We’ll meet for drinks and dinner, joined (and for the whole weekend) by Director of Development Megan Barton, whose grace and charm help make the weekend perfect.

Our first play is Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s tempestuous romance as reimagined by director Lileana Blain-Cruz. Much Ado, written between 1588 and 1599 in the middle of Shakespeare’s career, features a plot that’s moved along largely by eavesdropping, mishearing and gossip. Shot through with the acerbic puns and jokes hurled back and forth by Beatrice and Benedick (a wittier, much more sophisticated version of the relationship between Kate and Petruchio written almost ten years before), the play is at once hilarious, unnerving in its twists and turns, and deeply moving. It’s intriguing to think that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet at the same time as Much Ado. In the notes I prepare for our group, I’ll speculate on the melange of themes that Shakespeare was able to calibrate in both comic and tragic contexts at the pinnacle of his career.

Saturday lunchtime we’ll see Sweat, the world premiere by Pulitzer Prize winner and Macarthur ‘genius’ grant winner Lynn Nottage. Sweat is part of the American Revolutions cycle, which sees 37 new works performed at OSF over a ten-year period, each of which addresses some pivotal moment in American history. Says Portland Theater Scene, ‘Dodging the artistic dead ends of whimsy, wackiness, “magical realism”, and manic profanity that entrance so many of her contemporaries in the American theatre, Nottage is the real deal and writes plays that matter. As good playwrights must be, she is an activist deeply engaged with the world. A new work by this talented Brooklynite is national news…’ Sweat follows a group of friends who work in a steel plant in 2000 Pennsylvania, when a horrific crime shocks two generations. After the play we’ll have legendary OSF actress K.T. Voght  join us for a talkback.

On Saturday evening we’ll have a delicious dinner, accompanied by an interview with dramaturg Lue Douthit (she is so good that she threatens to steal whatever show follows!) That evening we’ll see Antony and Cleopatra, part of a momentous trilogy of plays (the other two being Macbeth and King Lear) that were written in just over a year, circa 1604-5. Interestingly, all three of these plays stage a conflict between desire and duty in very different forms. We’ll see the struggle for Mark Antony, Roman warrior, as he falls under the spell of Cleopatra, queen of the Nile. Written when Shakespeare was in his forties, about 12 years after that other drama about doomed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, this play shows a Shakespeare in his middle years examining the passion between characters of his own age (not the children whose naïve, desperate love makes us gasp). Antony and Cleopatra risk more than the fates of two families  – they risk the fates of entire empires in their love. Afterwards I’ll go to the Mezzanine, where there’ll be cookies and tea and hot chocolate, awaiting anyone who wants to chat about the play. And those who want to carouse can go actor-spotting at Martinos, Ashland’s most famous bar.

Sunday morning we will have a post-breakfast chat with two of the actors from Antony and Cleopatra.

I can’t wait to join you all – it is such an honor for me to guide you through this trip.

If you’d like to experience this incredible theater adventure, email Zoe Westbrook (zwestbrook@calshakes.org) or call 510.809.3297.


Additional Details on the Ashland OSF Tour with Cal Shakes Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly:

WHEN: Friday, October 2 through Sunday, October 4, 2015

LODGING: The elegant Ashland Springs Hotel in the heart of downtown, just steps away from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

DINING: Your package includes Friday night cocktail reception and dinner, and Saturday night dinner at a restaurant in town; breakfasts included with your stay at the Ashland Springs Hotel.


FRIDAY EVENING: Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s tempestuous romance reimagined by director Lileana Blain-Cruz, is a cunning comedy of love, language, and wit, one of Shakespeare’s few comedies that manages to be both moving and frivolous at once-featuring an ensemble cast of scheming characters and a twist-ridden wedding plot.

SATURDAY MATINEE: Sweat, a powerful world permiere by acclaimed playwright Lynn Nottage (Ruined, Intimate Apparel) and directed by Kate Whoriskey, explores America’s Industrial decline at the turn of the millennium with a look inside a Pennsylvania town whose people struggle to reclaim what they’ve lost, find redemption, and redefine themselves in the new century.

SATURDAY EVENING: In Antony and Cleopatra, directed by OSF’s Artistic Director Bill Rauch, Shakespeare’s tragedy presents history as a breathtaking pageant full of passion, intrigue, exotic locales and the larger-than-life character that brought about the death of an Egyptian dynasty and the birth of the Roman Empire.

SUNDAY MORNING: We’ll come together to reflect on our experience of all three productions this weekend, facilitated by Philippa’s illuminating insights.

TRANSPORTATION: Transportation to and from Ashland is not provided. Short distances in Ashland (from hotel to restaurant, hotel to theater) are readily walkable by people in moderate health.

COST: $1,250 per person double occupancy, or $1,400 single occupancy (includes a $500 tax-deductible contribution to Cal Shakes). A deposit of $300/per person is required to confirm your reservation.

RSVP: Please call or email Interim Special Events Manager Zoe Westbrook at 510.809.3297 or ashlandtour@calshakes.org no later than Friday, May 15th.

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Cal Shakes in Ashland with Philippa Kelly

Please join us for Cal Shakes in Ashland with Philippa Kelly, a three-day, Ashland 2014_4two-night theater adventure in Ashland, Oregon, from October 2–4, 2015. Immerse yourself in theater during a weekend at the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the company of Cal Shakes Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly.

We’ll stay at the elegant Ashland Springs Hotel; see three Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions (Much Ado About Nothing, Antony and Cleopatra, and Sweat); dine together at a top-flight local restaurant; and enjoy surprise guest appearances by Oregon Shakespeare Festival company members.

Philippa—an accomplished scholar and beloved Cal Shakes Grove Talk Speaker—will give us unparalleled entrée into the fascinating world of these productions. You’ll gain indelible memories in the good company of an intimate group of your fellow Cal Shakes supporters while simultaneously benefiting California Shakespeare Theater’s work on stage, in classrooms, and throughout communities.

Reservations are filling fast for this exceptional experience so please reply soon to secure your space. Contact Special Events Manager Zoe Westbrook at 510.809.3297 or ashlandtour@calshakes.org no later than Monday, May 15.

2014 Ashland guests; photo by Cal Shakes.
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Grove Speakers 2015

As the gateway to our theater, the Grove is a place we’re very proud of. This year Philippa Kellywe are mixing the familiar with the new—and yet the thing that everyone has in common is dramaturgy! Almost all of our speakers have served as dramaturgs in various theaters. A love of dramaturgy is what makes us all so interested in speaking in the Grove—the desire to share knowledge and to nurture conversations about the stage.

Returning this year are Philippa, Joanie, Cathleen, Robin, Ciara, Keith and Molly. New faces include Amelia Furlong, fresh from a degree in theater at Middlebury College, where she wrote her senior thesis on The Two Noble Kinsmen. This summer she is interning with Cal Shakes as well as speaking in our grove. Sonia Fernandez, dramaturg for Life is a Dream, recently completed her doctoral thesis on race and humor at UC San Diego. She has dramaturged at many theaters, including the Magic, Crowded Fire and Cutting Ball. Patrick Kenney, associate dramaturg for The Mystery of Irma Vep, is a student at UC Santa Cruz and has experience in acting, directing and dramaturgy. Laura Brueckner is a recent PhD graduate and a long-time expert in dramaturging new works. She is a writer for Theater Bay Area and works intensively with Crowded Fire Theater. Rebecca Ennals is Artistic Director for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. Julian Talamantez Brolaski is a poet, teacher, musician, and Medieval and Renaissance scholar, holding a PhD in English from UC Berkeley.

Pictured: Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly giving a Grove talk; photo by Jay Yamada

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Artists Dish at Inside Scoops

Our popular Inside Scoops are back at the Orinda Library!Inside Scoop

Our Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly facilitates these lively discussions between directors, artists, and other key artisans from our main stage productions. As always, we’ll begin at 7pm, with complimentary sweet treats and Peet’s Coffee & Tea available beginning at 6:30pm. Did you know that seats will be reserved for our Support Cast Champion Donors ($250 and up)? To learn more about becoming a Champion, call Ian Larue Annual Fund Manager at 510.548.3422 ext. 107.Inside Scoops Dates and Production Discussion:

Monday, May 11—Twelfth Night, directed by Christopher Liam Moore
Monday, June 22—Life is a Dream, directed by Loretta Greco
Monday, July 27—The Mystery of Irma Vep, directed by Jonathan Moscone
Monday, August 31—King Lear, directed by Amanda Dehnert

(Artists to be announced.)

Pictured: Jonathan Moscone and Shana Cooper at an Inside Scoop, 2012. Photo by Jay Yamada.

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One Night Only! Robin Goodrin Nordli’s “Virgins to Villains”, July 20, 2015

Esteemed Oregon Shakespeare Festival actress RobinRobin NordliGoodrin Nordli, who has performed over 70 roles in 25 different Shakespeare plays, storms the stage of the Bruns Amphitheater for her one-woman show about her personal journey through the females of Shakespeare’s canon. “As a Shakespearean actress, I started my career playing virgins and ended up playing villains,” she says.Tickets for this funny and moving show will go on sale this spring, with priority ticketing for subscribers.

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Lab Report: My Experience as an Artist-Investigator

By Ayodele Nzinga

It’s hard to know where to start. I always like the beginning. I like big pictures and story/stories. So I think that’s where I will start.

Pictured: Ayodele Nzinga

As an artist it’s hard to find funding for work. The places that offer funding often offer direction as well as funding—thus they become collaborators in the project.

If the funders want you to collaborate with another entity, they too come to the table as collaborator.

When the work comes with a deadline and a set of collaborators, each invested from a different perspective and potentially representing different populations with divergent goals for a commonly derived project, a type of crucible is formed.

To imagine art coming from this crucible can be challenging.

Challenges include:

  • How to hold on to and serve the inspiration that brought you into the room
  • How to be open to not serving that inspiration as you envisioned or imagined it (can your Bird of Paradise seed grow a Meyer Lemon Tree?)
  • Reimagining how to find your inspiration (something of what brought you in the room), inside the things that brought the other collaborators into the room
  • Practicing leaderless/leaderful interaction that results in the production of knowledge that in turns supports action/doing
  • Investing fully and engaging soulfully with the Meyer Lemon Tree
  • Finding the way in which the Meyer Lemon Tree serves the Bird of Paradise seed
  • How to facilitate equal collaboration when collaborators are invested differently, and the acknowledgement that funders are unacknowledged collaborators as well, who influence the trajectory and the boundaries of projects, further complexifies the collaborative art making process

To imagine not making art when given a chance is inconceivable.   Especially if support is offered that facilitates your exploration of what might come of your interaction with Meyer Lemon Trees and you can negotiate the challenges above while engaging the process of making art.

As an artist, I find collaboration an interesting animal. I am not sure I like it, but I understand its importance. The things collaboration gifts are and are not art-making related. That is, the bigger lessons and blessing that come from collaboration transcend the art making process to live in how one addresses the world and builds community.

It is a space in which one must advance ideas as a part of showing up fully, at the same time one must hold space for the ideas of others and view them with as much value as ones own, while helping to facilitate the advancement of a project that in some way reflects our mutually derived vision.

In closing, the process of making art is always as interesting as the art that is the product of the process. The fusion of artist with the practice of research/investigation adds a layer on top of the complexity inherent in collaboration. I am looking forward to the soul of this endeavor which for me lies somewhere beyond the negotiation of the things I have written about here.

So far the experience has been very cerebral and that’s satisfying to my scholar soul – but the artist in me looks forward to painting with my fingers and getting clay beneath my fingernails.

Maybe next time I will blog about how collaboration invites you to be bigger than your dreams of Birds of Paradise.

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Twelfth Night: Love, Death, Contagion

Great Plague of London

Historical image of the Great Plague of London (1665).

In Shakespeare’s time, with its high mortality rates, most twins were split apart by death—as were the Bard’s own 11 year-old twins Judith and Hamnet in 1595, with Judith living on to be her father’s un-favorite child. Unlike Twelfth Night’s Viola and Sebastian, Shakespeare’s twins were not identical, but their fate, and its residual presence in the playwright’s imagination, very likely had a connection to the play’s central miracle – that the sea, long seen as a metaphor for death or the great unknown, delivers its dead safely back again. (By the way, here Shakespeare made one of his few famous factual mistakes – boy and girl twins cannot be identical as they are in his play.)

Despite the joyous restoration of the twins to each other and their eventual celebration of a different kind of pairing (the rites of marriage), Twelfth Night was to prove Shakespeare’s farewell to comedy. Indeed, the play itself has many dark notes: not least all the references to the plague that had killed young Hamnet and, in Shakespeare’s own childhood, had also killed one of his sisters. Duke Orsino refers to Olivia, for example, as having “purged the air of pestilence”; Sir Toby objects to “contagious breath”; and Olivia says of love, “Even so quickly may one catch the plague?” How did people protect themselves from catching the plague in those days when people rarely bathed, and, on the occasions where they did, shared the same bathwater with up to ten members of the family? On a daily basis people washed their hands as often as they could with water, vinegar or urine. They avoided crowded indoor places—meetings, including church sermons, would be held in the open air during onslaughts of the plague, and the theaters were shut down altogether (this is how Shakespeare got his sonnets written). The wealthy would often evacuate their homes when the illness came uncomfortably close, prevailing on great estates elsewhere to take them in. But many people died (one third of Europe’s population had been wiped out in the 1300s, and many thousands died in London during the repeated waves in the 1500s).

Questions about Twelfth Night, or other Shakespeare plays? Click over to Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly’s Question of the Fortnight. 

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Lab Report: Artist-Investigator Program Gets Rolling

By Rebecca Novick

Last month we launched a new round of our Artist-Investigator program, in which four distinguished artists partnered with four non-profit organizations to see how theater artists can help meet community needs.  (Read more about the artists and their partners here.)  We’ll be sharing regular “lab reports” on the progress of these experiments, as we find out what happens when the powerful skills of artists are deployed outside the rehearsal room.

Our early meetings have unearthed some exciting possibilities, like the conversation we had with the chaplain at Berkeley Food and Housing Project about creating theater-based rituals to help homeless vets struggling with “moral injury.” Or the proposal from Causa Justa::Just Cause—that their artist Paul Flores work with their clients to help them tell their compelling stories to decision-makers like government officials and funders.

Earlier this week, all of the artists and their partners came together for a day-long training with the dynamic Michael Rohd, whose Center for Performance and Civic Practice has pioneered a lot of the methodology we’re using.  He asked everyone to name assets that artists bring to the partnerships—not just in the “product” we might create, but in how artistic skills influences the process of the collaboration. Here is a portion of the inspiring list the artists generated:

What we bring to the table as artists:

  • my writer self
  • ability to collaborate
  • understanding when communication has not occurred
  • basing work in the body
  • making things happen, moving a process from A to B
  • seeing when things are stuck
  • seeing from multiple points of view
  • listening
  • getting people to tell their story
  • imaginative problem-solving
  • spirit-based work
  • using humor as a tool
  • articulating something for collective interrogation
  • fearlessly naming the elephant in the room
  • asking good questions at the right time
  • witnessing
  • surfacing emotional undercurrents
  • inspiring risks
  • making space for transgression

As exciting as artistic collaboration is, we’ve had to remind ourselves to hold off and be mindful of moving too fast. Our process asks artists and organizations to work off each other; but, speedy implementation is not always fruitful. As Dr. Ayodele Nzinga shared, “I always have a map, but I’m learning to make space for the emergent.”

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