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.
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.