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.



Heavy Stuff, Played Lightly

Earlier this week we had the first-day-of-rehearsals “meet and greet” for the third show of the season, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The production, starring four-time Best Actress Oscar nominee and renowned theater actress Marsha Mason (pictured at left) opposite Cal Shakes Associate Artist Dan Hiatt, is directed by our A.D., Jonathan Moscone, and boy is he excited about it. Apparently he’s had a crush on the Goodbye Girl since he was a lad—luckily for him, Ms. Mason’s former stepdaughter was one of his BFFs for a time. So now, he says, he’s realizing a longtime dream in directing her.

This is the first time Moscone has directed anything by the late, great, Nobel-prize winner, and the first time any of Beckett’s works will be presented at Cal Shakes. Talk about pressure! “When you take on Beckett,” the director said early on in this week’s meet and greet, “you imagine that you’re taking on every single intellectual being ever.”

Despite Moscone’s very public statements of nervousness over tackling Happy Days, his explanation of the title shows his sheer excitement at digging into the work. For those of you who don’t know, Happy Days features a middle-aged woman, Winnie, dressed in evening wear and buried “up to her diddies,” as she says, in earth. A blazing, never-setting sun is overhead; Winnie wakes to the sound of a bell each day, although the concept of a “day” seems somewhat unrealistic in this setting. But it is a “happy day,” says Moscone. “The title is not ironic. Winnie is finding joy in her day.” She goes through the items in her purse, tells ribald tales to her largely unresponsive husband, Willie, and, as the director puts it, “emanates the light and the heat and the experience of her life, continuing to move forward amidst stasis.” And her hourglass seems to be at its tipping point: Her bottle of tonic is almost empty, her tube of toothpaste is about to run dry, and her umbrella bursts into flames. Something, on this day of all days, is about to change.

Moscone and Mason do not see Winnie as matronly or prim; to that end, costumer Meg Neville is working on a dress that allows Winnie to “take advantage of what she has available,” says the director. “There are many ways a woman can play up their sexuality.”

“Shakespeare is bawdy; Beckett is dirty.”

To create the possibly post-apocalyptic environs of Happy Days amid the hilly splendor of Cal Shakes’ Siesta Valley home, scenic designer Todd Rosenthal—awarded with a Tony earlier this year for his August: Osage County sets—is working closely with Moscone and Mason to to create a sort of shoebox full of dirt and debris that has been tipped over and spilled (pictured at left). Among the spillage will be signs of life: perhaps a radio, a dresser, lamb, a Radio Flyer wagon that Willie may rest upon, lean against his own past. And inside the rusted metal diorama will be a bright, too-blue sky.

In opposition to productions of Happy Days that elicit a “oh, that sad woman” response, Moscone explains, he sees the play as “heavy stuff played lightly, allowing people to access their own story inside of it.”

“Winnie has no one to talk to, for the most part, except for us, the audience,” says the director. To this, Mason adds, “I want to reinforce the idea that the audience is part of this experience. I want to engage them. This is a very specific day; otherwise this play is not worth doing.”


Cal Shakes in the New York Times

Late last week, Cal Shakes was included as one of four California theaters mentioned in this Sunday’s “Summer Stages” feature in the print edition of the New York Times; the article shows Jay Yamada’s gorgeous photo of our 2008 production of Pericles, along with a brief summary of our season, focusing mostly on celebrated stage and screen actress Marsha Mason’s starring turn in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (Aug 12-Sep 6).The web version of the article is headlined by a big, beautiful version of the photo, taken by Cal Shakes board member, volunteer extraordinaire, and unofficial staff photographer Yamada. The web article contains the same text as the print edition, and includes more of the Bay Area theaters; you can view it online here.