Shall I Compare Thee to a Saxophone?

An abbreviated version of this article appears in the December issue of the Cal Shakes e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Back in August of this year, New Works/New Communities program director Jessica Richards sat down with Cal Shakes Associate Artist Andy Murray to chat about his Write 2 Read Community Residency, part of the Alameda County Youth Literacy program at the Juvenile Justice Center. The resulting article ran in our Uncle Vanya program, and since then, Murray has continued to visit the kids in the center’s classrooms.

When the actor and teacher began his latest visits in late November, he was about to open The Seafarer at Marin Theatre Company, a play wherein Murray’s character ends up playing a card game with the devil for his soul (and which has been extended through December 14). Though he says it’s really hard to find a parallel in your life for something like that, “in all great works of dramatic literature, you find parallels. Like in Macbeth, there’s very few people who are going to end up killing the King of Scotland. But there’s plenty of people who have been faced with a moral choice because they wanted something, whether it’s a candy bar in the store or their best friend’s girlfriend, they’ve said, ‘I know this is wrong, but I’m gonna do it anyway.’”

Getting the kids in the three Write 2 Read units to relate to literature is one of Murray’s primary challenges, along with the changeable nature of the classroom population—kids being late or absent, leaving or entering the center—and getting the students to just settle down. “But you do what you can, introducing them to a few famous speeches and getting them to speak the language out loud and talk a little bit about what it means and how it might relate in some way to their experience, everyone’s experience.” So he brings in speeches from the four major tragedies—Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Hamlet—and also some sonnets. Some units want him to read the text aloud before they take a crack at it, because it helps them understand. “I always say, ‘well, you read it. You read it.’ And I’ve always said ‘no.’ I know how to read it. But it actually really helps them to understand it if I read it first, and then we can go through it. I hadn’t figured that out. I’d always been about throwing the attention off me and putting it on them, but it’s actually really helpful to do it this way. So that’s something that I learned this time, and it’s always about learning what works better.”

In a coed unit, Murray brought in Sonnet 18, the one that famously begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Then, he asked them to rewrite the opening lines.

“I tell them that a summer’s day in England is no small thing, since it’s always raining. It’s like, ‘shall I compare you to one of the greatest days of the year?’ So I say to them, ‘what do you like, what do you find beautiful?’ And it’s a push to get them doing it, but one girl said, ‘Shall I compare you to a saxophone? You’re better because you can’t get any dents and I don’t need WD-40.’ I said to them, ‘I read a lot of poetry, and in the thousands, hundreds of thousands of poems written since Shakespeare first wrote a poem, that may be the first one with the reference to WD-40.’ So that’s a great thing. It’s hard to get them to push their imaginations a little further. Most of them want to talk about money, drugs, sex, you know? Some teachers are OK with that, but I always want to get them out of that place. They spend their whole lives talking about money, drugs, and sex, which is partially a function of being a teenager. But with these guys, it’s really hard to get them away from those stock references they have in their lives. But I want to get them to use their imaginations, and see alternative ways of expressing themselves. So that’s the challenge.”

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A little corn before your turkey, breaders?

First off, “breaders” is a term coined (we hope) by Cal Shakes Associate Artist Nancy Carlin when she was writing a production blog for the 2007 season production of Man and Superman; it’s shorthand for “blog readers.” And of course, it’s appropriate for today, the day before most of the nation stuffs themselves with starches of many stripes.

Stuffing’s my favorite.
But before I talk more about the succulent, slovenlicious joy of carbohydrates (and before I explain this entry’s opening photo) I’d like to ladle out some corn; I want to give thanks to the great actors who were onstage during my first season at Cal Shakes by showing you some stuff they’re doing right now.
Here’s Lorri Holt (Queen Elizabeth in our Richard III) and T. Edward “T. Headdy” Webster (Hastings in Richard III and Hector Malone in Man and Superman) in The Magic Theatre’s current production of The Crowd You’re in With. That photo to the left is from the SF Chronicle, whose Robert Hurwitt gave an enthusiastic review to the show earlier this week, calling Holt “invaluable” and opinig that Webster “slowly, cannily emerges as the emotional and intellectual focus of the fissures gaping ever wider beneath these characters.”
And to the left you’ll see, front and center and wielding a shield (and some serious gams), our very own Associate Artist Andy Murray in Berkeley Rep’s current prodocution of Argonautika. Andy’s a pretty old-fashioned guy, in his own way–when I was gathering updated cast and crew bios for the Man and Superman program some months ago, Andy never responded to my emails, instead calling my phone and leaving a delightfully succinct, two-sentence bio on my voicemail. So he’s especially suited for what a member of the Bullpen crew called his “star turn” in the Argonautika. I’m not sure yet what that means, but I’m going to see the play the first week of December, so I’ll let you know. I’m pretty psyched, though. The Contra Costa Times said that the “experience of seeing the show really is like going on an adventure into some uncharted theatrical territory, and returning with memories to treasure for a long time.”
Meanwhile, over at A.C.T., The Rainmaker–which, according to the San Francisco Examiner, “rocks”–is not only directed by Mark Rucker (who helmed Romeo and Juliet for us in 2001, Richard III in 2007, and will close out Cal Shakes’ 2008 season with Twelfth Night) but it features Cal Shakes Associate Artists Anthony Fusco (The Fool in King Lear) and Stephen Barker Turner (second from left in the picture to the left, and most recently seen at the Bruns in As You Like It and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby) plus, as understudies, Jud Williford (who portrayed Agis in 2007’s The Triumph of Love) and Marcia Pizzo (Berinthia in 2006’s smash hit Restoration Comedy).
OK, so we’ve got Cal Shakes actors delving into modern, character-driven new works, and other ones doing fantastic flights of fancy costumery or classic American romance … what’s left? How about a new take on a sentimental favorite? One starring a Cal Shakes MVP? (I’ll let you in on a little secret–the entire Bullpen squealed about this one earlier today, in unison. You can tell it’s finally the holidays.)
I present to you… Dan Hiatt in This Wonderful Life.
Yep, 2007 season MVP Dan Hiatt–who portrayed Buckingham in Richard III, Straker in Man and Superman, and Hermocrates in The Triumph of Love–will be starring in the one-man adaptation of It’s a Wonderful life at San Jose Rep, opening this very Saturday. Take note, mother of our resident dramaturg Laura Hope (who was famously outed as having a crush on Dan in her daughter’s Man and Superman blog): The Man with the Best Hair at Cal Shakes will be playing George Bailey, Mr. Potter, Clarence, and even, one would assume, even Mary and little Zuzu.
This, of course, prompted Paul and I to do a resounding rendition of the old Dudley Do-Right “I can’t pay the rent! You MUST pay the rent!” skit. I have a feeling Dan will embody the multiple characters far better.
Another holiday classic opens Dec. 5 at A.C.T., this time relatively straight-up (although there is some mention of “gang this” and “gang that” in the cast): A Christmas Carol as directed by Cal Shakes Associate Artist Domenique Lozano, last seen on our stage as Leontine in The Triumph of Love. The cast is studded with Cal Shakes lights, most notably fellow Associate Artist (and devoted, prolific blogger) James Carpenter as the old crankypants himself, Ebeneezer Scrooge.
I’m sure I could find more–Cal Shakes actors are as tireless as they are peerless. Thank you to all of you, for snoozing in the Green Room, reading my old magazines, making me laugh and gasp and think all summer long.
Oh, and about those carbs–thanks to our neighbors at Metropolis Baking, too, who gifted us with bags and bags and BAGS of bread earlier this afternoon. I snagged some sourdough for sandwiches and durum brushed with olive oil and sea salt for tomorrow’s feast. It wasn’t easy, as you can see that the competition (Jessica, Beth, and Liz in the picture at the top of this post) was tough.
Thanks everyone!! Have a great holiday.
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