#ThrowbackThursday: May Liang on Place and Displacement in As You Like It

Left: Assistant Dramaturg and Social Impact Consultant May Liang answering questions about As You Like It at the show’s Community Night. Right photo credit: Jay Yamada.

Contemporary approaches to a 400 year-old text can reveal new resonances — and deep tensions. May Liang, assistant dramaturg and social impact consultant for last season’s As You Like It, reflects on the questions that surfaced in the rehearsal room as actors explored relationships to place and character within the design of the play.

Interested in learning more about gentrification and displacement in the Bay Area? Check out Causa Justa::Just Cause, Cal Shakes’ community partner from our 2015 Artist-Investigator round.

“Are we gentrifiers?”

A question that one may hear being asked at a new SF Mission coffee shop or on the sidewalks around Lake Merritt. It can be spoken in a self-conscious way – an uncomfortable thought in question of where one should belong. Or, for those who question the concept, it can be heard as an incredulous exasperation.

This question also came up in the rehearsal room for Cal Shake’s 2017 As You Like It, directed by Desdemona Chiang. As the lushness of the Court transforms into the skeletal warehouse-like space of the play’s Arden, we see the exiled Duke Senior and his followers huddled in the cold and barren landscape.

But what comes out of Duke Senior is not how forlorn he is for having lost his place. He extols the virtues of their newfound space:

Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Sweet are the uses of adversity…
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in everything.

A translation of this into our modern context can be problematic: it reflects a way of thinking that can be equated to what newcomers may have said about the Mission District in San Francisco just a few years ago, when it was “discovered.” And many of us have heard and seen the results of the changes that followed.

But Duke Senior goes on:

Come, shall we go and kill us venison?
And yet it irks me the poor dappled fools,
Being native burghers of this desert city,
Should in their own confines with arrowheads
Have their round haunches gored.

Let’s first acknowledge the historical problem of comparing communities of people (of color) to animals – Shakespeare’s language can be tricky when making leaps in comparing our modern society using his words. But Duke Senior seems to have an inkling that something is not right in their position within their “newly discovered” space. And he’s not the only one – as reported by one of Duke Senior’s followers:

The melancholy Jaques grieves at that,
And, in that kind, swears you do more usurp
Than doth your brother that hath banish’d you….
Swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign’d and native dwelling-place.

And so the question came up – “are we gentrifiers?”

Shakespeare could not have predicted that his words could so pointedly describe a notion that is very present in the forefront of our community consciousness with our current housing crisis and widening wealth gap. But it’s impossible to miss it in Jaques’ lament.

As the play’s Arden continues to transform throughout the play, that question begins to unravel – it becomes complicated with other questions that arise:

Where can exiles belong? How does class influence exile? How does a space create confinement vs. freedom of expression and exploration? Who can own a space? Who can welcome others into it? Is this even possible?

In our Arden, the exiles discover their hidden selves, explore other options that were not permitted breath by the confined codes of the Court. They could proudly present themselves as however they like, from a joker turned lover to a lead character exploring and claiming their true gender identity.

The natives of Arden are also not victims – they are more than capable in their way of life and only through their welcoming spirit can the new exiles start to understand themselves and thrive together.

So, are they gentrifiers? I can’t say that this question was answered within the rehearsal process or even within our version of the play. But the context in which we put the exiles and natives of Arden shed some light on how we can critically think about our modern understanding in regards to place and space.

May Liang is an emerging director/theater artist establishing a career in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a Directing Mentee/Resident Artist at Crowded Fire Theater and has worked with TheatreFIRST, PlayGround Center for New Plays (Directing Fellow 2017), Bay Area Playwrights Foundation, Ferocious Lotus Theater Company (Literary Manager), Bindlestiff Studios, Ubuntu Theater Project, Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Ground Floor Lab, and Impact Theater. She was a participant in the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab 2017 and you can see her work next at the Bay Area Children’s Theater.

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Don’t miss Stephen Barker Turner performing with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra!

Thursday, February 5 through Sunday, February 8, Cal Shakes Associate Artist Stephen Barker Turner—who has portrayed, among others, Orsino in 2008’s Twelfth Night, Nicholas in Nicholas Nickleby, Orlando in As You Like It, and Posthumous in Cymbeline on the Bruns stage—narrates A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra as part of their “Midwinter Magic” concert. Music Director Nicholas McGegan will direct the period-instrument orchestra in celebration of the 200th birthday of Mendelssohn. The orchestra will be joined by the San Francisco Girls Chorus and other speical guests.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra presents “Midwinter Magic” on:

Thursday, February 5, 8pm at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco

Friday, February 6, 8pm at First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto

Saturday, February 7, 8pm at First Congregational Church in Berkeley

Sunday, February 8, 7:30pm at First Congregational Church in Berkeley

Buy your tickets today! Visit www.philharmonia.org or call City Box Office at 415.392.4400.

Photos, top to bottom: Stephen Barker Turner in Twelfth Night by Kevin Berne; The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra by Randi Beach.
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Just Like Riding A Bike

When we announced our 2009 season you may have noticed that our very own Jon Moscone will be directing Romeo & Juliet. What you may not have realized is that the last time he took on Shakespeare for our stage was back in 2006 when he directed As You Like It.

That’s right folks. 2006. How does he feel about his return to the world of iambic pentameter? He’s excited. Here at the office we’re hearing him float around ideas like looking for young actors to play the title roles. And by young, I really mean age appropriate since Romeo & Juliet were teenagers after all.

Every production goes through a period of transformation while the director and designers research and explore the work. Then you cast the show and when rehearsals begin another series of transformations occur as the actors bring each character to life. So there’s no telling what the final outcome will be.

But the man isn’t artistic director of a Shakespeare theater for nothing. This should be a fun ride.

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