Midsummer’s Happy Days

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but right now—as the cast and creative team of A Midsummer Night’s Dream works overtime during tech rehearsals, in preparation for this Wednesday’s first preview—seems like the perfect opportunity.

Here they are: Some of the great minds and hearts behind Midsummer, attending a performance of Happy Days during less stressful times.

Left to right: Richard Thieriot (“Demetrius”), Avery Monsen (“Lysander”), Joan Mankin (“Snug/Philostrate”), Christina Hogan (Production Assistant), Aaron Posner (Director), Keith Randolph Smith (“Oberon/Theseus”), and Kate Jopson (Assistant Director); photo by Jay Yamada.

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Ask Philippa!

Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes and production dramaturg for Happy Days, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. Happy Days runs through Sep 6, 2009.

Samuel Beckett’s Winnie, protagonist of Happy Days, is locked in a mound of earth. “And I thought, who would cope with that and go down singing,” said Beckett. “Only a woman.” Repeatedly Winnie exclaims, “That is what I find so wonderful.”

But what’s so wonderful about her situation? And what’s it supposed to mean?

There are so many ways to see Winnie: as a victim, a heroine, a battler, a hilarious purveyor of humor in the face of life’s most depressing truths. No matter how you see her, however, there is one thing you can’t contest: Winnie is a talker. It is words through which she seeks to understand her life, and words through which she pries open the mysteries of eternity.

Have a question about the play, the playwright, or the production? Leave it in the comments section below, and I’ll do my best to answer it there!Pictured above: Philippa at the 2008 Pericles Inside Scoop.

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Brutal beauty and genuine, pure theater. (Or, hey, look, it’s a picture of the set!!)

 

The latest and in a series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, written by the show’s director (and Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Friday, August 8, 2009

 

Well, what do you know.

 

We put the show together at the Bruns today. I have to say that Todd Rosenthal is kind of a genius of a set designer. The mound is epic and intimate, authentic (thanks to our great scenery team led by Dave Nowakowski), and, when lit by York Kennedy, it is a thing of beauty. Brutal beauty.

And Patty takes to it like moths to a flame. She fills the mound with energy and life that makes it compelling, utterly compelling to watch. Then Dan appeared with a bloody head (she throws a medicine bottle carelessly in his direction), and it looks like a painting. A surreal painting. It’s quite amazing. This play is genuine, pure theater. Beckett is a genius.

Here’s a pic. Come see.

Jon

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First day of tech

Another in a series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, written by the show’s director (and Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Friday August 7, 2009

Today we start technical rehearsals, going up to the Theater to fit Winnie and Willie into their mound and figure out the play in space. Always a nervous-making, excitement-inducing transition. Saying goodbye to the rehearsal hall is always a mixed bag for me. It means I am now bringing the show to its next level, scaling it to the size of the Bruns, worrying if the subtle moves of emotion will read.

But all in all it’s great to be there, to be making theater in the outdoors. It’s invigorating. I love our space. It’s epic AND intimate. Actors can really connect to an audience while the scope of the external imagery—those burnt hills of the Siesta Valley—recalls early Greek theater-going. The muscles I have developed directing at the Bruns. Physically and imaginatively.

Our Resident Dramaturg has not been with us this week, the inimitable Phillipa Kelly. Many of you know her from when she delivers our Grove Talks. Seemingly a proper Australian academic, she is a fierce thinker of theater, a great supporter and colleague, and loves connecting our work to audiences. I think we do a pretty good job of that, through our Audience Enrichment activities, on our website, which I think is pretty innovative, and in our entire energy—even our house management staff, who make you feel at home when you come to our Theater. It’s genuine community up there. To me the Theater is artists, audiences, and staff—all of them together. We’re all in this together. Making theater requires all of us, experience it, all of us. That’s why I do it. I’m kind of a “it takes a village” kind of guy—I rely on the collaboration, the relationships, to make the work happen, and to make it matter.

I think the politics of my father instilled that in me.

If I am not too pooped after tech, which goes to 12:30 followed by a production meeting, I’ll post tonight/early next morning.

See ya.

Jon

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We do this a lot in the theater—calm ourselves down.

The latest in an exciting series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, written by the show’s director (and Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Wednesday August 5, 2009

Today we braved a stumble-through. For those of you not familiar with the term, the “stumble-through” is the first time you run through the show from beginning to end without stopping. Since it’s the first time, everyone is given the relief of knowing it’s a stumble through—that a perfect run is not expected, so the pressure can go down.

We do this a lot in the theater—calm ourselves down.

But they did it. Act One, that is. The bear act. Winnie’s mind goes so many places and there is always a logic to it, even if it is subconscious, often in fact it is subconscious. She runs that way. She diverts from feelings and thoughts that allow the sadness to break in—so much of it for her. Stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground, as Beckett puts it. But beyond that, she has lost her past. Her physical connection to her beloved husband, Willie, who is now on the other side of the mound (physically and emotionally) is lost. Her youth, her beauty (in her opinion) is lost. But she remains optimistic. It could be worse, she says. “Ah yes many mercies, MANY mercies.” Even when it gets too tough for her to handle, she finds a way to make it funny—life, that is. And enjoyable. In fact, she makes it endlessly fascinating. Taking great interest and comfort in the tiniest of things (“things have their life!” she exclaims in Act Two when she can no longer reach for them, being as she is now up to her neck in the mound) Winnie finds hope.

Beckett is not about death. It’s about enduring. And in Winnie he finds his most enduring and heroic creature. Only a woman could play this part. In fact Beckett said that the only creature who could make life work in a mound was a woman. Resilient, rebounding, poetic, humorous, witty, and smart as heck, Winnie endures like no other woman I’ve ever encountered in theatrical literature. I love this character.

Patty was quite heroic today. It’s not easy for someone to be putting it out there, a lot of it alone. Talking to us, her unseen husband, to herself, to an ant, anything and anyone who will listen (for Winnie cannot bear to speak alone in such wilderness) Patty can feel pretty exposed. Dan even feels this, especially since he comes in only here and there, finding his timing and his actions only through sound since he does not look directly at Patty. And yet we are building to the best of our abilities a deep, connected relationship between the two. And Dan is really making that happen. It’s rare to see a Willie who is connected to his Winnie. Most of the time when he is gone from our sight, he is gone from our minds. But Dan is in rehearsal every single day, in his hole, listening and responding through breath and energy to Patty, who calls out for him almost every minute of the play. You can palpably feel his presence. It’s an amazing feat. I hope it does not go unsung because it is something to behold, and without it, Patty’s work would be far less dimensional, as would the production.

Dan Hiatt is seriously, THE MAN. He has always been one of my most favorite artists to work with, but he is out of this world in this. Many mercies. Many, many mercies.

Jon

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Gathering strong forces to blow the wind in our direction.

The very latest in an ongoing series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, written by the show’s director (and Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Thursday July 30, 2009

Sorry I’ve not been blogging the last couple of days, but we’ve had some real change of currents over here. Due to personal reasons, Marsha Mason left our show, which is both sad and disappointing. But I respect her decision. It threw us into a bit of whirlwind, as I’m sure you can imagine, everyone at the Theater. First thing, find a replacement. Two weeks into rehearsal (out of four weeks total—yikes, oh my frikkin’ yikes).

But we were blessed with an actress who has stepped into the role, starting yesterday. Her name is Patty Gallagher (pictured at right), and many or most of you don’t know who she is, but she is heaven-sent. Having performed the role of Winnie already (which she will again next year in India), Patty knows the bulk of the lines, which believe me, are brutal to learn (see previous blogs). But even more of a blessing is her spirit—she is ready to go, jumping into that mound with the entirety of her energy, her talent, her mind, her heart, everything. She is simply astounding, and I am not saying this to put a positive spin on all this. We’ve lost serious time, to be sure, and just because Patty knows a lot of the script does not mean we are just putting her in. We are creating a Winnie around her, one that comes from her unique spirit and perspective as an actor and as a woman. And with half the time. But she is open to everything we explore. She makes bold choices and has discovered so much already, and on top of all that, has inspired my connection to the piece. She’s done the same for dear Dan Hiatt, the great Willie, who has changed relationships to his Winnie with serious aplomb. And grace.

Another blessing: The fabulous Joan Mankin (pictured at right), one of our Associate Artists and a treasure, is understudying the role of Winnie and will be performing the role at certain performances later in the run. (Check our website for more details on that.) So we have two great actresses assaying this role, shoring each other up, and proving that not only does the show go on, but that crisis can actually mean opportunity. I am not rosy about this—that is, I am not seeing this through rose-colored glasses. Marsha will be missed. And we are behind. But we’ve gathered strong forces to blow the wind in our direction. With the full staff at my side, we made it through this, and I might venture to say that we’re stronger because of it.

Change is inevitable. Things will happen. Stuff out of our control. It’s how we handle it that makes us who we are. And my belief in the spirit that guides the theater, and ours in particular, is fortified, if not restored.

Tomorrow I will talk more about how the process is unearthing new truths about this play—how funny it really is, and how heartbreaking it is. Patty is teaching me that. Marsha did, too. We are going to work every day, every night, through opening, to make this piece come alive. I am daunted—a little—but I am ready to go. We all are.

Ruby Keeler would be proud.

Jon

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Finding how to play the darkness lightly.

Another in the ongoing series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, written by the show’s director (and Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Saturday July 25, 2009

So I was on my way to our rehearsal hall to work on the play with Marsha and Dan, and my left front tire blows on Highway 24. Luckily, no one was hurt. I was towed to Big O Tires in Lafayette and was picked up by one of our assistant directors, the great Nara, and I made it back only 10 minutes late.

The piece made some great strides today. Marsha is finding so much. And the first five minutes, which we all like to call “cement” (due to all these fragmented little thoughts, so many of them nearly repetitive, matched with all this business for Winnie) is coming loose and finding its way. Phew. We delved back into the rest of Act One and so much was found, again, and again, and again. Beckett is endless in his meanings and so tricky in his tonal shifts, and it’s all on Dan and Marsha to make it happen. And it’s fascinating, funny, moving stuff. We ended a little early—Marsha was ready to call it a day after so much had been achieved and she wanted to get home to keep working on the script, putting it all together in her amazing head. I remain astounded by her talent and wits, her instinct and her sheer talent. And Dan, with seemingly little to do, adds so significantly to the room, to the experience, to this whole piece, that I cannot imagine doing it with another pair of actors.

This is tough stuff, but we are trying to find how to play the darkness lightly, funny through the sadness, light over the dark, ultimately life affirming even as it makes your eyes well up.

Tough stuff. Amazing stuff. More anon.

Jon

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The heart onstage.

The latest in a series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, written by the show’s director (and Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.July 24, 2009it’s so beautiful, so sad, so oddly heartening. The theater so rarely gets to the heart, the real heart of the matter, and the distilled image of these two at the end on the mound is just that: the heart onstage.she even cracked herself up. Amazing how that happens. Something so painful being so funny. It’s like Chekhov taking to the extreme.

Today we assayed Act Two. Marsha made so many profound discoveries and is really finding out what it means to be buried up to her neck. I mean, can you imagine that? Well, Beckett did. Which is why he is so amazing. And so difficult. But oddly, without activity other than eye movement, her heart beating, and her words, Marsha drives Winnie amazingly, assuredly through this portion of the play.

Then Dan came in to rehearse Willie’s first time coming over to “this side of the mound.” I won’t give away the plot, but it had us in tears

I know I know. Beckett is a brain. A mind among minds. And we know that in rehearsal. We are sometimes a bit daunted by the Everest like nature of scaling this piece. But the heart, it’s all about the heart at the end of the day. Like Shakespeare, you may not got every word, but if there is palpable connection between actor and words, where thoughts are the results of feelings, and in turn, feelings the result of words, the brain gives way and one can feel it.

We all go home from rehearsal haunted, daunted, heartened, and nervous. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But if not here at Cal Shakes, then where? I am lucky to go through this massively difficult piece. I couldn’t do it anywhere else. I don’t know how it will all play out (a theme of these blogs) but I am reminded that this is a journey, and we’re carving out a path to somewhere that I hope is rich with feeling and smart with thought.

Marsha was pretty damned funny today

Sometimes when I am directing, I wish I were doing something else. Like selling shoes. I love shoes. And I’d probably get a discount. But then again, who needs more shoes? I think I need theater.

Jon

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Full of disappointed wishes and dreams, but enduring nonetheless.

The latest in a series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, written by the show’s director (and Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Wednesday July 22, 2009

Yesterday we had an unexpected day off cause Marsha was sick, so she needed to stay home and recover. Today we dove back in and much to our surprise, made a lot of really interesting headway.

Marsha is a deeply intuitive actress. She is a kind of wonder. She travels in such interesting, authentic directions that reveal humor and sadness, alternately and simultaneously. But then she stops and says “I just don’t get why I’m saying this.” In attempt to try to answer, she forces me to help her as an actor of the piece, not a studier of the piece. It’s one thing to understand what a moment is about, in Beckett, or Shakespeare, or in any poetic universe, but it is another thing to find the “hook” into how to play it, that is, from the character’s perspective.

We have a small but astounding room of minds working on this play, all coming at it from different places, but all working on the same thing: how to bring this play home, to make it connect to us, and therefore (we hope!) to the audiences. And Dan Hiatt—what can I say, what an actor, what a person. He really feeds Marsha even when his character is curled up in a hole, outside of view of the audience. But Marsha can see him, and that means everything to her—it allows her to connect to another human in this seemingly “one-woman” show.

But it’s nothing of the sort. The marriage is so palpable in the script and we keep striving to unearth it, Dan, Marsha and I, to find the connection between husband and wife, Willie and Winnie, even as they don’t seem to connect. They are married all these years, and despite Winnie’s constant fears, Willie is not leaving her. It’s beautiful. Full of disappointed wishes and dreams, but enduring nonetheless.

Beckett is so brave in facing the difficult questions of relationships and memory and being a living, thinking, feeling person, and finding a way to endure with humor, wit, and a whole bevy of mechanisms that are part of all of us. Such big stuff.

We ended the day with the “cement” part of the rehearsal—that is, routing in the beginning of the play which is chock full of business and lines all playing off each other. It’s brutal and will be so till we conquer it. Learning how to do this play is about doing this play, if that makes any sense. It’s a mindblower to be sure, but so rich, so challenging, and if today is any indication, pretty delightful to experience and shape.

Meanwhile, Caela, Seren, and Edgar in props are experimenting with the umbrella catching fire. Love it.

See you again soon.

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Learning How to Learn the Play, or”It’s pretty funny, watching a woman brush her teeth in a pile of earth.”

What follows is the second in a series of dispatches from inside the rehearsal process for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, written by the show’s director (and Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

So, as planned, Marsha and Dan braved the mound and we began staging this play. After about an hour, Marsha remarked about a conversation she had with Fiona Shaw, who played Winnie at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a year or so ago, how the first days of staging were like “cement.” Brutal. So much business tied to so many words. You’d think that’d be easy, like a naturalistic play where people take their coats off and make coffee while speaking. But no. Oh, no. This is quite different. Daunted by the specificity of what line goes with what activity (brushing teeth, checking gums, reading the lettering on the toothpaste) Marsha just went nuts. As one can well imagine.

So I decided to reformat the script with the hopes of making “business meets words” easier to recall and do and, lo and behold, it worked. Things followed things naturally and she recalled all the memorization she had been attempting over the last months. Phew. Taking Beckett apart and bringing him down to a place where we can rehearse it—that was what today was about. As Dan Hiatt remarked, “we are learning how to learn the play.”

It’s pretty funny, watching a woman brush her teeth in a pile of earth. And Marsha is so real, so unaffected that I couldn’t stop laughing. We found this a relief. The play starts with humor, lots of it. A woman starting her day as if like any other day (forget she is under the “blazing hellish light” buried in her waist) and a man joining her for a morning read of the newspaper (forget that he is barely dressed and makes some very bawdy off-handed remarks). It’s funny stuff. Makes us understand the arc of the play—what starts her “day” and what ends it.

I feel a lot more confident now that I can see the piece up on its feet, even in its infantile stage. Marsha is taking her purse with all her daily routine items home to her hotel to routine the activity on her day off and we start again on Tuesday, carving more and more out.

I am so enthralled by this experience that I cannot get it out of my mind. I went after rehearsal to a cocktail party at a board member’s house and reveled in the joyful, family feeling of people gathering together to support a theater dedicated to taking on such monumental pieces like Shakespeare, and now, Beckett.

More to come. Tomorrow is day off. I’ll see you all on Tuesday.

Jon

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