Life as an Artistic Intern

By Alison Ruth, Artistic Intern

I’m Alison, one of two artistic interns at Cal Shakes!  Every day is different in the artistic office, which is really fun. My favorite project has been helping Jessica Richards, the casting director, with the understudy casts. It’s been interesting to see what the process of casting is like. My background in theater is in acting and I had always heard that if you don’t get a part, it’s not personal, maybe they were just looking for a different type, and I am here to report that it is definitely true. When finding understudies I’ve been told to look for very specific types. I’ll look through tons of headshots to find people with the right physical appearance – before even considering their acting. So it’s very reassuring, from an actor’s perspective, to know that sometimes you really just cannot help it, you are simply not what the casting director is looking for.

Another big (and wonderful!) part of my intern experience has been living in one of the intern houses. Each day when I come home I get to hear about everyone else’s days and it’s really cool to listen to my housemates’ experiences at the Summer Shakespeare Conservatory and street team. Even though I don’t go to conservatory every day (though I will be doing the lights for a few conservatory performances next week) I feel like I know what’s going on there and like I’m a little bit a part of it. Listening to them talk about lesson plans and theater games to teach the kids over the dinner table (during our family dinners, which are the best) is really entertaining and fascinating.

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How 12 pages of text can take four hours…

We’re posting blogs this week live from our fourth workshop for The Pastures of Heaven. This latest one is by Associate Artistic Director Jessica Richards.

We met at 10 yesterday morning for our first workshop day for The Pastures of Heaven, and somehow the day flew by as we dug into one of the three stories Octavio Solis has drafted. Our first piece is “Tularecito,” the story of a man-sized frog-child, possibly of mythical origin, definitely an outcast in his town. This was one of the first stories that captured the group’s imagination when we were reading John Steinbeck’s novel last year. We’ve researched the history, played with how Steinbeck’s language could be physicalized, and discussed this character dozens of times since fall of 2007.

And finally, here he is, standing onstage telling his story, as are the characters in his world.

But what to do with the descriptive passages Steinbeck is known for? Inspired by the Word for Word style and the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company on Nicholas Nickleby, Octavio has given the Chorus much of this story to tell. We’re working out now how that translates to dramatic action, down to the basics of who has the line and in what context he or she says it (as a named character or as a townsperson or as a narrator?). This is how 12 pages of text can take four hours to read through!

It’s fascinating to me to watch these lines get parsed and divided—which words are layered with multiple voices, and when, exactly, an actor fades from a named character into a member of the ensemble. All the while, Octavio types away on revisions and rewrites, continually being called upon to answer the “first-person vs. third-person” questions and weigh in on who a character is addressing.

Today we’re on to staging, finding more places where we need to question the function of the ensemble as the action comes together. Cascada de Flores, our wonderful musicians, join us again this afternoon to bring in the story of the Lopez (“Tortilla”) sisters. And on we go.

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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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The Great COWdecott Tunnel Incident of 2008

Cal Shakes Associate Artist Jessica Richards makes her blog debut with this tale of the news story chronicled here.

Never a dull moment at the Bruns Amphitheater! Early yesterday morning, a visitor took up residence at the bottom of our hill, working hard to clear some overgrowth from the parking lot. We at Cal Shakes always appreciate volunteers. He or she (though I prefer to think she) displaying a definite penchant for the dramatic, spotted a stage with much wider audience exposure, and mooooved on to Highway 24.

With the CA Highway Patrol and Animal Control Officers out in force, there was only one thing to do: drive her back to her pasture above the Bruns. I can’t imagine how they got that cow off the highway with no fatalities (of the bovine variety) but she definitely takes direction well. We in the Bruns lobby had heard that a shuttle was on the way up the hill from BART, so we readied ourselves to welcome a school group from Claremont Middle School in Oakland to this morning’s performance of Pericles.

No shuttle.

We waited.

No shuttle. Emily Morrison, intrepid Artistic Learning Programs and Outreach Manager, was radioing to the bottom to find out what happened to the school kids when our visiting cow appeared at the top of the shuttle road, leading a parade of two highway patrol vehicles, one animal control truck, and a Ford F350 (belonging to her owner perhaps?).

The shuttle was waiting patiently at the bottom of the hill for the cow and company to pass.

She didn’t make it to the stage (highway patrol cars herded her back to the pasture) but this cow had a nice tour of the Bruns, and will hopefully remember the brief time she was a star in the eyes of Cal Shakes staff, Claremont Middle School students, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of unfortunate commuters.

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The Return of Jessica … and T. Headdy Webster

Tomorrow, Jessica comes back. Jessica used to work in our Artistic Learning Department, but she left a few months ago to pursue other opportunities. Well, the lure of Cal Shakes is strong, children, and so, shortly after the announcement of impending departure by the now-dearly departed-for-Chicago Joy Meads (whew!), Jonathan Moscone announced his own self that her replacement would be none other than Jessica Richards.

So today we set up the welcome wagon. Well, OK–the welcome desk.
Remember this guy?

Yep, T. Headdy Webster is currently sleeping soundly in Jessica’s Future File Drawer, nestling his gentle Coca-Cola-colored noggin against Joy’s Files From the Past.
But that’s not all.
This is the My Little Pony that the Artistic Learning staff stashed in the other desk drawer.
And this is the real Welcome Wagon.
Bottle of beer? (Probably from Bison, the official beer of Cal Shakes?) Check.
Bottle of Excedrin? Check.
Candy? Check.
Bottle of vodka? (NOT Stockholm Kristal, the official vodka of Cal Shakes?) Check.
To-do list with completely outrageous list of tasks? Check.

Oh, but wait!! She might have some help with at least one of those outrageous tasks:

“Cast all four shows by Friday.”

These are the casting interns!!! Yay, casting interns!

Jessica, hide the vodka–or at least check the ID of that kid on the left.

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