Ask Philippa: Fences Edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

Fences is the third in a cycle of ten plays through which African American playwright August Wilson sought to document the way in which his community experienced different forms of systematic oppression over different decades during the twentieth century. All of the plays in this series (the Pittsburgh Cycle – named after the city where Wilson grew up and spent over half of his life) are set inside, in the yard of, or involve the purchase of, a house, with families that struggle to forge, re-make and retain their identities in the shadow of oppression. Wilson’s characters are famous for their capacity, as he put it, to “embody universal experience in the black experience,” and we see this in Troy’s metaphysical struggles to understand his life in the face of death. We see it also in Rose, who realizes, only too late, that the confines of her marriage were the product of her own limited expectations for herself as well as her husband’s domination.

I can’t wait for you to see Fences, the first of Wilson’s plays to win the Pulitzer Prize, and the first of his plays ever to be staged at Cal Shakes.

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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Family, Lies, and Honesty: A Peek Behind the Curtain

Regina Victoria Fields is Cal Shakes’ 2016 Artistic Engagement Fellow, and the Assistant Director for Fences. Below, she shares her thoughts about the rehearsal process and Fences‘ place in the community.

This is a story about me and my family.

It’s the first day of Fences rehearsal and the high-ceilinged rehearsal room feels more like a reunion than a meeting. Laughter is all around as old friends and colleagues shake hands and rekindle friendships. Cal Shakes regulars like Margo Hall and my former professor Aldo Billingslea move through the space being greeted by board members and staff members alike. Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges charms everyone around her, shaking hands with everyone she doesn’t know and skipping through the space to hug those she does.

The Cal Shakes community has gathered to meet the artists and hear August Wilson’s play for the first time in our rehearsal space at 701 Heinz. In many ways, they are my family. I interned for the company through their Professional Immersion Program in 2014, and understudied both A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with five harrowing performances, see: http://calshakes.org/blog/2014/09/the-understudy-diaries/) and King Lear. Now, two years later I’m the Artistic Engagement Fellow and the Assistant Director for Fences.

As the Artistic Engagement Fellow, my supervisor Lisa Evans has tasked me with some unique projects related to the production. These included collecting the stories of women at the Allen Temple Senior Center Project and North County Women’s Shelter—whose voices you will hear in the show—and cultivating panelists for our Women’s Empowerment Panel. New Artistic Director Eric Ting is an invaluable addition to the company, in my humble opinion. He’s been establishing new processes such as an Artistic Circle comprised of the Education, Casting, Production, and Engagement departments, to ensure all have equal input on the artistic business of the company. The other Fellow LeeAnn Dowd and I are encouraged to participate as much as any full time staff. Eric speaks about engagement and performance as a circular feed—each should feed into the other, instead of the conventional formula of performance-first thinking. This type of engagement allows for a greater inclusion of community perspective in the art we create at the Bruns while we are still in rehearsal.

Assistant directing is often a complicated game, some directors don’t want you to speak or contribute in any way, and you’re often left trying to figure out how much space you’re allowed to take up or if you should just become invisible altogether. This is not how Raelle works. She believes in the emerging artist, even when you don’t believe in yourself. In her first e-mail to the company weeks before rehearsal she stated: “I started as an apprentice at a company and without being given the same duties and respect as every other artist on the team, I would not have learned as quickly and thoroughly as I did. So let me say it out loud: they are not interns to be dismissed, but emerging artists to work side by side with production and artistic teams to make sure we have an amazing show.”

The Power of Truth-telling

Storytelling is a constant search for the truth. A note Raelle continuously gives her actors is that she does not want to see them lie. It’s an honest trade: Raelle will never lie to you. She’s impressively direct, and personally, as a 23-year-old female-presenting person, being direct isn’t something you’re taught; it’s something that you have to learn later in life. In the first week of rehearsal she was already encouraging me and the other emerging artists to be louder, to take up more space, to be leaders.

In a search for the truth, you have to wade through a lot of lies. One of the lies Raelle refuses to subscribe to is the often-touted theory that August Wilson’s women are invisible. During the development of the concept of this piece, it was really exciting to me that this Fences would be more female-centric. As the Artistic Engagement Fellow, to bring women’s voices to the forefront, some of which is mentioned above. When asked about it, however, Raelle will be the first to tell you this piece is not “Rose-centric”. She’s simply acknowledging the female character that is the other half of her partnership has just as much—if not more—importance to the play than Troy. It then becomes the story of outside stresses on a partnership, instead of the tragedy of a fallen man.

Loving Honesty

Honesty is never easy. As we journey through the process of creating this play, there are some bumps and bruises as the creative team finds their way around the space and each other. Someone once told me that picking a creative team wasn’t necessarily about who is the most talented, but rather with whom you would be willing to spend 12 hours in a dark room. Raelle and I had a really honest dialogue during a meeting with sound designer and close friend Mikaal Sulaiman. When asked, Raelle said some of her best work happens when she has her friends and family in the room, because “we train people that they can’t be themselves in theatre and that’s why I love having friends and family in the room because you can be honest with them.” We’ve all seen art where the director was afraid to mention a strange performance quirk because they wanted to be kind, but that doesn’t come from a place of love or honesty, and can cause the art to suffer. “I’m a black girl with a low voice so when I’m not mad at you I sound like I’m yelling,” Raelle says, chunky headphones on sideways as we wait between sound samples. “But professionalism doesn’t mean antiseptic. Conflict is inevitable when you’re trying to make something great, and at the end of the day, no matter what, family is family.” She goes on to explain that at the end of the day whether you’re friends or not, it’s about being real with each other. An honest criticism should never be taken personally; we should trust that we are all just trying to create something great.

This is a concept worth remembering at the end of the rehearsal week. After spending anywhere from 36-48 hours together in the first week, just like a real family we have officially begun to get on each others’ nerves. The end of the first week is the rawest part of a process. We start the week in a high, happy place of connecting with the language and engaging with the story for the first time. By the end of the first week we’ve attempted to carve out most of the story and characters, and have a sketch of the whole show. Sunday’s rehearsal consists of “stumbling” through the show, which is exactly what happens. We stumble through and realize what we do and don’t know, and what is and isn’t working. This creates a vulnerable baring of the artistic nerve that leads to friction in the space. Actors begin to dart furtive looks around the room if their colleagues misstep, Raelle is pointing out notes or changes that have been neglected, and tension is high. We ended rehearsal early, and not without some agitation.

Over the next two days this agitation festers into contemplation. On Tuesday, everyone enters the room in aggressively high spirits, a glint in their eye, determined to get it right. Acting artists have had time to absorb their notes, and they attack the material with a new zeal. There is a universal agreement in the room at the start of week two that this work is difficult because it’s dangerous and fresh. Like a real family, we’ve reconciled after the fight, because the art is what’s important. As Raelle says, “It’s not even about being friends or family…and it’s not about brutality…it’s about the ability to be honest—lovingly honest—to make something real.”

This is a story about me and my family.

Fences is about the inner workings of a black family, and if you come from a family of color, it’s easy to relate on some level to the Maxsons. The design of the show allows us into the facade of the home, creating an artfully sharp transparency. In Raelle’s production, I can see the strength of my mother in Rose, and the noble responsibility of my father in Troy. This is not a museum piece. This Fences feels like it could happen in your neighborhood. This story is about my black and brown family and how their essence lives inside of August Wilson’s words. It’s about my Cal Shakes family, and how with every season they strive to grow both artistically and ethically. It’s about the ups and downs a creative family goes through to create something temporary and vital out of truth and love, and the opportunity to share it with you.

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Read All About It: California Shakespeare Theater in the News

Above artistic director Eric Ting, Tanachie Rodriguez staples part of a set in the theater. The Cal Shakes season opens this weekend with performances of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Photo: Brian Feulner, Special To The Chronicle

Artistic Director Eric Ting and California Shakespeare Theater were on the front page (A1) of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, May 29. Eric discussed Shakespeare’s role as a political writer, our initiatives to bring the voices of the community onto our stage, and some ideas for future work at the Bruns and beyond.

“People come to the Bruns for the picnic and the wine,” he said, “but they also come to be exposed to the human condition. Cal Shakes recognizes that there’s a lot of different voices and perspectives that make up the human experience.”

Read the whole piece here.

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Ask Philippa: Much Ado About Nothing Edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

Much Ado About Nothing, written at the end of the 16th century adjacent to Hamlet and Twelfth Night, is a fascinating concoction of merriment and betrayal, sorrow and surprise. Under the leadership of our new Artistic Director, Eric Ting, classical works become new works, seen on our stage as if for the first time. In her evocation of Shakespeare’s busy port town of Messina, where the classes jostle, everyone eavesdrops, and nothing is as it seems, Director Jackson Gay has created a special frame for our Cal Shakes production. Much Ado, in her hands, provokes intriguing questions about the roles that are assigned to us, the roles that others think we should play, the roles that are taken away from us, and those that we might hold as dreams deep inside. Come join us – and when you get home, write and tell me what you think!

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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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Retrospective slideshow: 25 years at the Bruns

Bay Area favorite Jim Carpenter narrates this retrospective in celebration of Cal Shakes’ 25th year at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Click above to see!

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Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

‘We want to take these great classical plays and feel their resonance in the work we make today. To draw on their deep humanity in understanding our own; and to look forward and backward, bringing our contemporary understandings and situations to reinvent our relationships with them.’ Thus speaks Eric Ting, Obie-award winning Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater.  This year we celebrate the 452nd birthday (and the 400th death day) of this remarkable playwright, poet and bit-part actor, William Shakespeare.

William was born in 1564 to John Shakespeare (leather merchant turned prominent alderman and town bailiff – equivalent to town mayor) and Mary Arden (local woman of means). No birth records exist for William in 1564, 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,  Shakespeare’s three older siblings died in early childhood), which meant that children were not baptized until a few days after their birth.

William was the third of eight children. The very sketchy records of his early life have generated endless speculation as to how he obtained the immense breadth of erudition demonstrated in his plays. Historians surmise that William’s status as a public official’s child entitled him to attend the King’s New School in Stratford, which afforded a classical education. His father’s fortunes declined when young William was about 14, however, and he never got any formal education after that point.

In 1582, when William was 18 and dating two women called Anne, one of them, Anne Hathaway, a 26 year-old woman of some family means, became pregnant with his child. He ditched the other Anne and married Anne Hathaway 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 art, 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 distances were so great then (and the contagion of the plague so great – it was very like Ebola today) that by the time Shakespeare received news of his death, his son had already been buried.  He did not return for the funeral. Hamnet’s twin Judith and her father were not close, and Susannah remained William’s favored child until the end of his life. It seems that William’s relationship with his wife was distant, even cold. It is fascinating to me that, again and again, Shakespeare wrote about the mysteries and perils of familial relationships, and that many of his plots are based on fathers and husbands perilously mis-hearing what they ought to understand.

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) as well as 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 presumably 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 gotten 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.

To this I will presume to add a far more fitting epigraph written by Shakespeare many years before his death: ‘Thanks, and thanks; and ever thanks.’ William Shakespeare, graves at your command have indeed oped and let their sleepers out, giving them life and human ambiguity on stages all over the world today.

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Introducing Margaret of Anjou

 

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly discusses her latest endeavor – working with Elizabeth Schafer to bring Margaret of Anjou, “a new play by Shakespeare, to life. Margaret of Anjou will be produced at SF Shakes this year.

anjouImagine Shakespeare as a young playwright in the early 1590s, trying to capture the attention and imagination of Queen Elizabeth I. How would he begin? It’s no secret that women were seen as physically and intellectually incapable of doing what men did – Elizabeth herself was aware of this when she gave her famous speech at the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588: ‘I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman. But I have the heart of a king, and a king of England, too…I myself will take up arms.” Astride her horse, flanked by lieutenants, Elizabeth was the new woman of England, the new woman of history.

Enter Margaret of Anjou, daughter of Rene, Duke of Anjou, and, we believe, Shakespeare’s special envoy to the imagination of Queen Elizabeth. Margaret was born on his stage in the wake of Elizabeth’s Armada speech. Women could be more than chattel – England had before its very eyes a queen who was multi-lingual, a beautiful writer, and an expert diplomat. A queen who’d most likely chosen not to marry because marriage would have compromised her power (and because her father provided a terrible marital role-model!) Now think of Margaret, Elizabeth’s real-life predecessor. Elizabeth hadn’t needed to be a wife in order to have access to power; and, had she been a mother, she might have suffered the heartache that befell Margaret as she lost both her husband and her only son to the forces ranged against her.

Elizabeth Schafer, author of Ms-Directing Shakespeare, theater historian, and Professor at Royal Holloway, London, has collaborated with Cal Shakes’ Philippa Kelly to pirate from Shakespeare’s four plays to give Margaret a singular textual life of her own. Professor R.S. White gave Margaret her world premiere when he invited Elizabeth and Philippa to launch a staged reading with Robert Conke’s Melbourne Acting Troupe, Nothing But the Roaring, in February 2016, sponsored by the Centre for the History of Emotions. Now we are partnering with SF Shakes’ Rebecca Ennals. Our mission: to bring Margaret across the Atlantic for a staged reading at SF Shakes in this important anniversary year. Our play, drawn from Shakespeare’s Henry VI tetralogy and Richard III, uses only Shakespeare’s words to shape Margaret’s journey. It’s being billed at the Caryl Churchill Theater in London this year as a ‘new’ play by Shakespeare and does something we think is important: it proves that Shakespeare wrote a female role that is an ‘Everest’ on par with King Lear.

Historically, Margaret, brought over to England dowryless to secure a relationship between the Duke of Anjou and England, was alluring and (initially) obedient, and it seems that her marriage to England’s Henry VI suited both herself and her husband. However, it took 10 years for her to conceive a child, and, once she did, Henry VI fell into one of what would be frequent bouts of insanity, with Margaret ruling in his place. It was Margaret who led the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses, and her feats, in part, inspired the character of Cersei Lannister in today’s Game of Thrones.

Shakespeare adheres to the beginning of the historical Margaret’s story, but changes its course considerably. Shakespeare’s young Margaret is, like her original, an ingenue, bought and sold; but the playwright makes King Henry VI weak instead of mad. In real life, Margaret became intimate with the Duke of Suffolk (possibly as a retreat from her husband’s madness?) But in Shakespeare’s play Suffolk woos her on behalf of Henry VI at Tours, and the young, impressionable woman falls for Suffolk instead of her intended husband, while Suffolk encourages this love-interest so that he can use her as a puppet to rule the feeble Henry. What we see in our play, Margaret of Anjou, is the young Margaret, complying with her father’s cold sale of her as goods; the new Queen Margaret, intimate lover/conspirator with Suffolk behind her weak husband’s back; the mourning Margaret, grieving for the execution of her lover as traitor; the Amazonian Margaret leading her troops into battle; the monster taunting her defeated opponent, Richard, duke of York; and the raging crone, whose husband and son, prince regent, have been murdered.

Margaret, unlike her theatrical contemporary Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, is never tamed. She looks forward to later formidable female parts like Lady Macbeth, Volumnia, and Paulina.

Please share this post and celebrate with us this year as, with Rebecca Ennals of SF Shakes, we make Margaret America’s Queen.

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O Brave New World! See Photos from Gala 2016

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We are inspired by the enthusiasm and generosity of those who attended O Brave New Word, and we’re thrilled by how much their support will fuel the power of creativity for students and communities throughout the Bay Area. Our tally shows a total of at least $473,000 in winning bids for spectacular auction items, in ticket sales, and from generous contributions.

From the dining room to the dance floor, we’re grateful to have had the chance to celebrate with many of you at the event and online.  Click here to see the fun in action.

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A Brief Timeline from Shakespeare’s Life #Shx400

This April 23 marks the 400th year of Shakespeare’s death, and theater lovers worldwide are celebrating four centuries of his legacy. Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly takes us through a very brief timeline and “fun facts” of Shakespeare’s life and works.

Visit http://www.stahome.org/2016/ or follow the #Legacy400 and #Shx400 hashtags to learn more!

1564: William Shakespeare, his parents’ third-born and first living child, is baptized. The date of William’s actual birth remains unknown due to the high infant mortality rates in England at the time – no child was registered as born until baptized. The date has been designated April 23 to create an attractive correlation with his death, known to be April 23, 52 years later.

Fun Fact: William’s father, John, was a whittawer (a maker, worker and seller of leather goods such as purses, belts and gloves) and a dealer in agricultural commodities. He was a solid, middle class citizen at the time of William’s birth, and a man on the rise.  He served in Stratford’s local government successively as a member of the Council (1557), constable (1558), chamberlain (1561), alderman (1565) and finally high bailiff (1568)–the equivalent of town mayor.  This allowed him to send his children to Stratford’s Grammar School. In about 1577 John Shakespeare’s fortunes began to decline for unknown reasons, and Shakespeare had to leave school at the age of 13.

Fun Fact: most households in Shakespeare’s time made their own beer and ale, and it was quite common to drink them with breakfast.

1582: Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway, 8 years his senior. Shakespeare has been dating  (and some say betrothed to) another Anne: but the pregnancy gives Anne Hathaway precedence in the marriage stakes. Anne’s father, owner of a large, sprawling farm, is affluent enough to provide Anne with a dowry. Many believe that Anne is illiterate, as are most girls of her station: but it is unknown for sure. After their marriage, as is common at this time, Anne moves in with her new husband and his parents in their family home.

1583: Daughter Susannah is born.

1585: Twins, Hamnet and Judith, are born – named after William and Anne’s close friends, Hamnet and Judith Sadler.

Between 1587 and 1592 Shakespeare disappears from all known surviving records. This period is often referred to as the ‘lost years’. Did he leave his wife and three small children during this time? He may have worked as a schoolmaster. But if so, where? The answer is unknown. By 1592, he was living in London as an actor and a dramatist. His family remained in Stratford, living with his parents in John Shakespeare’s family home.

1596: Hamnet dies of the plague. Shakespeare does not return for the funeral. Why not? He may have been informed after the burial, since plague victims have to be buried as soon as possible for the sake of sanitation. We know that at the time it takes three days to get by horse and carriage from Stratford to London – stopping overnight in Oxford and going on to Uxbridge. But a letter (which cost 2 pence to send – a third of an actor’s daily wages) could even take only 2 days.

1597: Shakespeare, now wealthy because of the popularity of his plays in addition to royal patronage (his company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, is Queen Elizabeth’s favorite), buys the second largest house in Stratford, and settles his wife and two remaining children there before returning to London.

1598: Shakespeare writes Much Ado About Nothing, the first play of our 2016 season. “Nothing” is a play on “noting”, a word which in Shakespeare’s day means “to pay attention” (or notice) someone romantically. A woman’s genitals are at this time also referred to as “nothing” because, unlike a man’s, they are not evident (i.e. they are “nothing”) on the outside. So Shakespeare is basically punning on the idea of “Much Ado About Sex.”

1603: Shakespeare writes Othello, fourth up in our 2016 season. The term, “Moor” in Shakespeare’s London refers to everyone of a dark skin tone, and refers to most Africans. The first staging of Othello is performed before  King James 1 in the Banqueting House at Whitehall on the 1st of November 1604. Queen Anne, James’ wife, has a fascination with performing blackface. We might wonder how much of an influence her taste had on Shakespeare’s choice of material.

Fun Fact: Shakespeare offers wisdom for the ages. From cautionary examples of the wisdom of not promoting someone whose talents are superior to yours (Macbeth) to examples of how greatness is not enough (Coriolanus, Othello), to the terrible example offered by King Lear (don’t give your worldly goods to your children if you can’t trust them to take care of you as you see fit, not as they do), to the lessons of love in Romeo and Juliet (love doesn’t cure everything) and in Twelfth Night (don’t judge a book by its cover), Shakespeare offers remarkable insight into many of our life situations.

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