Belated blog from the middle of the night.

Amy Kossow, Word for Word Performing Arts charter member, has been involved with the development of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven since the beginning. Now, as an actor in the forthcoming world-premiere production, she blogs from inside the rehearsal room. This blog was written in the wee hours of Saturday, May 22.

Hello out there: Up in the middle of the night here listening to the quiet, running lines in my head. Realized I forgot to memorize the coda! That’s what jolted me awake!

Rehearsals are already half over, with two weeks to go before opening. The play is already fully staged and we are in the weedy bit now when we are off book but not quite at speed—heading into stumble-throughs—and it is a time of maximum discovery and growing ownership. Nice. Anxiety always a part of the process, but can be useful, if frightening.

I am shocked that my major choreography (massive tantrums as psychotic child) is on the floor of a platform 12 feet in the air. Holy cow. I am pretty scared up there, but I figure use it or lose it, or both! I also have a good share of the combat—a fistfight with sweet Julie Eccles who then SHOOTS me—and I have my first-ever death fall onto three very bouncy mattresses which propel me hilariously all over, like a big bowl of jello; two wranglers (the amazing Katie and intern blogger Dallas) and Charlie Robinson are on call to stop me bouncing back up and ruining the moment!—spent yesterday morning getting cortisone shots in my 47-year-old crappy knees, of course. Yesterday was relatively low key for me, mostly feather choreography and BBQ mime, though deep backstories are developing into quite the soap opera among us BBQ attendees. We had to be reminded that, uhh, the scene was not about us “extras” per se … Jon (Moscone) doesn’t know what he’s missing. Well, he doesn’t want to know what he’s missing, probably…

My family is sorting itself out without much attention from me. Robin turned 14 this week and has his party today—first one I ever had to miss. boo. He requested physics kits and is building an eternity clock right now. Something innately poetic about him. I was personally more intrigued by the trebuchet. Give me a big machine for hurling rocks! I think every woman needs one!

May as well get up and make his cake. Going to make brownies while I am at it for the theater folk. They never eat sweets of course…

John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven runs June 3-27. Visit calshakes.org for all the details.

Photo by Kevin Berne.
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Proceeding neck or nothing

Amy Kossow, Word for Word Performing Arts charter member, has been involved with the development of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven since the beginning. Now, as an actor in the forthcoming world-premiere production, she blogs from inside the rehearsal room.

Week One:
Day One was a revelation, in many ways. First and foremost was the huge community presence. I expected a table session with cast and director and was blown away by the participation of the extended family of Cal Shakes: tech staff, box office, admin, teaching staff, creative team members, board members, former board members, avid supporters, actors, writer, dramaturg, music, such awesome support and a wonderful reminder of the community nature of theater. Day One was also a revelation for the first hearing of the script. I have been dreaming about this moment for two years, imagining the book opening and the characters standing up and walking about. Octavio Solis has magically seduced the play from the book, and we can now release the book from the process and live in the Pastures of Heaven.

Week Two:
Rehearsals continue apace. The three-story set set showed up on Day Two and blocking commenced immediately. We are proceeding neck or nothing, have choreographed the best part of Act One and now have tackled Act Two. Today is the story of Junius Maltby. There is a goat. Dan Hiatt, JoAnne Winter, and Charlie Robinson are dipping their feet into the water discussing horse-happiness while a chorus of old biddies (me and Richard [Thieriot] and Andy [Murray] and Catherine [Castellanos]) peck and squawk at them. Costume pieces are beginning to show up, which inform our choices immediately. Jon is miraculouly inventive. There is a moment with sheaves of wheat. Honestly, so gorgeous. And the sheer fun of it all as we add a hat and instantly become a new character: a neighbor, a hen, a child, a baby, a farmer, a teacher, a ghost… all accomplished simply. Agghh! There are donuts! Mad stampede!

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Visiting the Real Pastures of Heaven.

The following blog was written by Trish Tillman, Cal Shakes’ director of Artistic Learning.

Last weekend several of us from Cal Shakes and Word for Word Performing Arts Company went to Salinas to hold some events in anticipation of our upcoming world premiere, John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. In a moment of free time, JoAnne Winter and Stephanie Hunt of Word for Word and I stole a chance to drive down a road named Corral de Tierra, through the landscape where Steinbeck set his novel. (Pictured below as photographed by playwright Octavio Solis.)

It’s only about 15 minutes outside of the town of Salinas, away from the flat, linear, farm fields, where the land starts to roll and dip and create hundreds of little valleys and large hills. The hills were lush green due to recent rains, the wildflowers were out, there were cows and calves sitting peacefully in the sun and crooked sycamore trees like line drawings dotting the landscape. And (I’m not kidding) the very air seemed perfumed. We rolled down the windows and just breathed in, trying to identify the scent. It became more and more lovely as we slowly drove, gazing around wide-eyed. Phrases started to be uttered such as: “It would be so wonderful to live here.” “Let’s pool our money and buy a big house.” “If I lived here I’d get up very early, and drink coffee on my veranda.” “I’d be able to write all day.” Just like the characters of Pastures, we fell under its spell, and could easily build in our minds a future of comfort and success. The power of this particular part of the world had imposed itself upon us, quietly and thoroughly.

I’ve rarely had this kind of experience, of “being called” simply from a place. I’ve seen some beautiful landscapes and buildings and could imagine myself living there, but rarely has it felt like it could truly be a home. Combined with the promise of being almost within reach—I don’t live that far from this country, I talked with several people who do live in that area—and the whole thing became very seductive.

But there is always rationalization, and reality. I know the housing prices in those sweet valleys are still inflated, and that the kind of work I want and need to do in the arts might not be readily available there, and I would miss my community of friends and family in the Bay Area. I also remember the slightly-more-than-one-would-expect number of “For Sale” signs on houses that we passed on our drive.

So the dream continues. Still available, folks, the American dream embodied in the California landscape, from the time when Europeans set foot on the eastern shores and started wondering, “What’s out there? I bet it’s something good. Maybe.”

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2010 Season Artist Profile: Octavio Solis

In the months leading up to our 2010 Main Stage season, we’ll be profiling the creative minds behind the season’s productions—John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Macbeth, and Much Ado About Nothing—in our e-newsletters. For the inaugural installment, we are introducing newsletter subscribers to playwright Octavio Solis, a Cal Shakes Associate Artist and occasional contributor to this blog. Since 2007, Octavio has been working with us and Word for Word Performing Arts Company to adapt John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, the first new play to debut at Cal Shakes in 25 years. What follows is the full transcript of my email interview with Octavio. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.

Do you remember your very first piece of creative writing, or perhaps the piece that alerted you to the possibilities of the form?
Yes, a pair of poems I wrote in class when I was in the fifth grade. One was a tribute for my mother. The other was a poem called “Ode to a Prairie Dog” or something like that. I lived in Texas and we had these critters everywhere. I was very moved by a ballad I had read in class that practically sang to me: “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. It really made me want to be a poet. Then I discovered Edgar Allan Poe and I consumed everything he ever wrote. All his fiction, all his poetry, everything. I loved him.

Is there a work (literary, musical, or any other form) that would be your dream adaptation project?
I would love to attempt sometime an adaptation of the life of Eva Hesse. She was a beautiful German-born American artist who was one of the biggest influences on Abstract Expressionism. She led a troubled life, surrounded with tragedy and death, from the Nazis to the brain tumor, which eventually took her life. I think her life is compelling enough to warrant a play or film.

What inspires you right now? Any particular music, current events, people, et cetera?
Music is a chief inspiration. I listen to jazz from every epoch, particularly the bebop era, and the jazz-flavored world music coming from the ECM label: Anouar Brahem and Arve Henrikson and the Tomasz Stanko Quartet. Really dark moody stuff. The music takes me to other worlds.

If you could have written any play in history, what do you wish it could have been?
A Streetcar Named Desire. Maybe Our Town.

Who are your favorite writers (theatrical and nontheatrical, living or deceased)?
That changes from year to year and mood to mood. Right now I like the fiction of Roberto Bolaño and the poetry of Mark Strand. I am enamored of the works of Mary Oliver too. And Thomas Hardy. His poetry is as rich in story and nuance as his novels.

You’ve been so very busy these last few years. Do you have any plans to slow down in the next months or years? Or are you just building up momentum to keep going at a similar pace?
I have slowed down. My body has buckled under me and imposed a period of rest. So I am laying low at the moment. I like it. I have been working at a pace that was killing me, and now I don’t think I want to do that anymore.

Subscribe now to get the best seats at the best prices for John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, and the rest of our 2010 season. Photo by Anne Hamersky.

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Listen to interviews with Jon and JoAnne

A representative of the NEA’s New Play Development Program came out to observe the final development workshop for John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven last week, and conducted interviews with Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone and JoAnne Winter, Co-Artistic Director of our collaborative partner, Word for Word. Hear the interviews at http://bit.ly/51f6RQ.

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Heaven in Oakland—a Halfway Point

“In talking about the house on the Battle Farm, and how the townspeople in the Pastures of Heaven view it, I asked kids if they knew of places like this in their own lives. One student said there were ghost stories about a house he knew of where a person had died in the basement. Others said they knew of places that were really worn down. I said, ‘Yeah, they may be abandoned, like how the Mustrovics had to suddenly up and leave.’ Another student chimed in, ‘We call those bandos.’ I thought about our current economy and how it might be more timely than I thought to have empty, worn-down houses in their very midst due to foreclosures.”

That’s an excerpt of a blog by Emily Morrison, Cal Shakes Artistic Learning Programs Manager. She’s teaching John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven to eighth-graders as part of a residency at E.C. Reems, an Oakland charter school, and blogging about it at OER (Open Educational Resources) Commons. We’ll be excerpting the blog and linking to it in this space as the residency continues, building toward a community event featuring student readings and artwork in mid-December. Read the full blog entry for a window onto Morrison’s arts education experience.

Pictured above: Emily teaches at at a 2007 Cal Shakes Summer Shakespeare Conservatory; photo by Jay Yamada.

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Entering into The Pastures of Heaven

So folks, we just ended a full week of workshopping the first complete draft of Octavio Solis’ adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. We’re premiering it next year on our Main Stage, and it was quite a week.

Octavio’s play is, simply, beautiful. On the path to making a play, you look for its DNA: what it’s made of. Changes will be made—cuts, rearrangements of scenes, additions, etc.—but what needs to be there at one point is the play’s DNA. Its self. Octavio’s Pastures has real DNA. It has a genuine theatrical life, blending Word for Word’s sensibility of translating literature into theater with my love of the nakedness of storytelling in the hands of actors (as we explored in Nicholas Nickleby). But more importantly, it has heart. And poetry. It’s also very very funny. And that’s all Octavio. He pulls Steinbeck’s quiet words off the page and finds the juxtapositions between humor and pathos in a way that makes me happy to feel like I am in the hands of a Chekhovian writer.

We assembled a group of actors, some of whom had been with the process since it started two years ago, and some new actors. And all were splendid collaborators, able to make characters distinct and alive in an extremely short time; also able to ask smart questions of the text that will inevitably inform our next steps in the development of the piece; and most of all, united, in just six days, into an ensemble. Which is what this play celebrates: the storytelling of an ensemble of actors. It’s sheer theater—authentic and alive.

We invited some funders, board members, staff, and patrons to the “window on the work” yesterday, reading abou half of the play. The feeling in the room was palpable—there was something special going on here. I was, to be quite sentimental, extremely proud, moved, and almost speechless (and for those of you who know me, that is no small feat) by the presence of a wonderful new American play, inspired by one of our great American writers—a classic writer if you will—at a Theater that is taking a big leap forward in defining who it is.

The great folks at Arena Stage sent someone out to chronicle the process. They, along with the NEA, were partners in selecting John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven as one of five NEA Distinguished New American Plays. This, along with support from the Irvine Foundation and other amazing foundations, is making it possible for us to do this piece. And our subscribers delight in the surprises we make for them. So their spirit was in the room as we made steps in the creation of this piece. And our staff, led by the great Jessica Richards, producer of the project, was there every step of the way.

Hence the pride, the being moved, and the almost-speechlessness. I couldn’t do this anywhere else but at Cal Shakes, and in the Bay Area, which is by far the best place in this country to take chances in theatrical expression.

There’s a lot of work still be done with the play, but Octavio knows where to go with it and what to do. Trust the playwright. Especially when it’s Octavio Solis, who listens more than he talks, takes in and thinks hard about what the actors and I are doing, and is open to the collaboration of the ensemble and myself.

I am genuinely happy about what happened last week, which is just a marker in the path of the making of this new American play. And our community engagement—with folks in Salinas, especially the young artists of Alisal Center for the Arts (whose mural inspired by The Pastures of Heaven will be on display at our Theater during the play’s run) as well as students in the Bay Area who are learning about Steinbeck and how to make literature come alive (via our excellent teaching artists)—makes this more than just a play-making process. It’s a community-building process. It makes it all bigger. It makes more impact. And it will forever change this Theater and, I hope, some of the communities we are reaching out to.

More anon.

Jonathan

Pictured above, from top: Jonathan speaks to project artists at the last Pastures workshop; Danny Scheie; Maya Lawson; Craig Marker; photos by Jay Yamada. View more at the New Works/New Communities Flickr page.

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Steinbeck Blog Prompt #3 by Jonathan Moscone

The third and last in our series of three prompts, designed to help inform our upcoming Steinbeck Project workshop. The Cal Shakes New Works/New Communities program would love for you to leave your input in the “comments” section below, via prose, poetry, links to video, imagery, or audio, and whatever else you can think of. Posting your comments on an individual prompt blog during its first week gets you entered in a drawing to win a prize*, and all comments are eligible for publication in Cal Shakes newsletters, on our website, and/or in the program for John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven during our 2010 season.**

This week’s prompt comes from Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, who will be directing the Main Stage production of Pastures.In Steinbeck’s book of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven, lives are eternally changed by the smallest action, the merest word, the slightest touch. Life is not melodramatic, he seems to be saying. There are no good guys and bad guys; any of us can say something or do something that seems small and insignificant, and yet has the most epic, seismic effect on the life of someone else. Has this happened to you? What are those little moments that have had the biggest effect on your life? Or can you think of a small thing that you have done or said that inadvertently affected another person’s life in a surprisingly large way?

Photo of Jonathan Moscone by Jay Yamada.

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Steinbeck Project Blog Prompt #1, by Octavio Solis

Here it is, the first in our series of three prompts, designed to help inform our upcoming Steinbeck Project workshop. The Cal Shakes New Works/New Communities program would love for you to leave your input in the “comments” section below, via prose, poetry, links to video or audio, and whatever else you can think of. Posting your comments on an individual prompt blog during its first week gets you entered in a drawing to win a prize*, and all comments are eligible for publication in Cal Shakes newsletters, on our website, and/or in the program for John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven during our 2010 season.**

And so now, without further ado, here’s your first prompt, written by none other than Octavio Solis, the award-winning playwright of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven.

In The Pastures of Heaven, as in most of his other novels dealing with Salinas, Steinbeck depicts the hard lives of the rural working class. There are migrant workers, chicken farmers, cattle ranchers, orchard growers, construction workers, etc., peppered throughout his works. Can you think of other contemporary writers working today who focus on this labor force? Has anyone in your background ever worked the land like Steinbeck’s characters? What particular kind of work did they do?

Photo of Octavio Solis by Anne Hamersky.

*Prize still to be determined. Please leave your email address somewhere in your comment!!
**Don’t worry, we’ll ask your permission first.

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