Dispatch from Heaven, DC

Amy Kossow of Word for Word and the cast of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven sent this dispatch from the New Play Festival at Arena Stage in DC, where selected scenes from Pastures are being performed alongside fellow inaugural selections of the National Endowment for the Arts New Play Development Program.

Hello from snowy DC. Pastures of Heaven cast and crew finally all assembled after much airport drama. Costumes and props had an easier time getting here than we did!

Walking into the stunning new Mead Center took my breath away. Immediately ran into six people I know! Nice feeling. Plus, the mural is here in a place of honor.
We rehearsed today in the Kogod Cradle. Round theater with lovely, basket-weave wooden walls. The new cast members have blown us away with how quickly they have gained ownership of their many roles. Surprising how we hear the stories anew in their voices. I feel like I am seeing how a new director and cast would do things differently… gives me the sense that the show will move on out of our hands…

Intern Eden Meets the Muralists

The following blog was originally published over at our Profesisonal Immersion Program (PIP) blog, Inside the Interns Studio.

My name is Eden Neuendorf; I’m an artistic department intern at Cal Shakes. I attended the Meet the Muralists event on Saturday, June 26, after the 2pm matinee of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven.

It was a very hot day, but quite a few patrons stuck it out to listen to Salinas’ José Ortiz (pictured below right in a photograph by Jay Yamada) and six of young muralists of Hijos del Sol describe the Pastures mural in the plaza, titled Las Pasturas del Cielo. People were very attentive while José spoke about the mural and his process, even applauding after the answer to a question from the audience. Many patrons stayed after the talk had ended just to ask more questions and to personally thank José and the boys. Patrons seemed very grateful of and amazed by the work.

What most interested me was to hear about the strong connection José and his students felt after reading Pastures of Heaven, and about how they felt a mural was the best way to present that connection to the stories. José gave a brief description of each story depicted in the mural, and also gave the illustrators a chance to say what part of the mural they had worked on. José said they all fought over the painting of Tularecito, because as painters they all connected closely with that story. It was also one of their favorite parts of the play. It was so amazing to hear how much these young artists connected to the story.

During the talk I was struck by the depiction of the sunset at the very far right side of the mural (photographed below by Paul Doyle). I’ve seen the mural so many times, but for some reason this was the first time I really saw the sunset. But Saturday afternoon, the picture and José’s description of the artist’s intent really spoke to me. The sunset was painted with different shades of grays, which aren’t the colors you typically think of when you think about a sunset. They were trying to depict the Salinas sunset, ending the mural’s story with lots of grays and just a glimmer of color and hope. This is how they interpreted the end of Pastures of Heaven. It’s beautiful; I’m thankful I was finally able to see it and to fully appreciate it.


Amy blogs the last week of PASTURES.

Nearly three years. That’s how long I have been involved in the collaboration which ends its first life this coming week. I have been immersed in Pastures for these last weeks, doing my work while performing, but also letting it have free reign through all my quiet time, my half-awake time, what I call my dream-time, when so many ideas come to me, things to try during the next performance. My body changed over these weeks. I am stronger now than I was on May 1. I know, because I can get up off that platform during the tantrums so much faster that I have time now to see Julie, to focus my rages at her, to send her scurrying out of my line of sight (whereas before…I was just working on getting the heck up off the floor!) Also, I know, because the pillows I fling seem to go so far sometimes if I am not careful…backstage crew says they are taking bets about whether or not I’ll heave the mattress off the platform after the pillows one night…well, maybe closing? Wouldn’t that be fun?!

My experience at the Bruns has been intimate, and expansive, and has stretched me in ways that feel so good, like oiling a creaky joint. And now comes the last week of sharing these stories with an audience. Here lies the rub. How to gently let it go. I always feel as though doing theater is like filling up the gas tank of my soul. I suppose because of my home circumstances, which only allow me to do theater work every so often, I may never feel that professional detachment I see in other actors, which I imagine they use most when the time comes to let the experience go. I will miss Cal Shakes in a personal way, all you in Admin, and Box Office, and backstage, and the interns, and the artists. Jon and Octavio. I will miss my castmates…all the love and chicanery…and most of all I will miss my characters. They have been my constant companions and now will have to be folded away and put in the memory box with the script, the book, the reviews, and some hairpins from Miss Martin’s wig. Phillipa Kelly asked if I would come back to work again at Cal Shakes; yes, I would. It is a truly special family, and I am grateful to have shared this experience with you all.


Pictured above: Julie Eccles and Amy Kossow as Helen and Hilda van Deventer, respectively, in John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven; photo by Jay Yamada.

You never know how much kissing is really going on in a show until you play it for adolescents.

The first Student Discovery Matinee of the year was yesterday morning, for John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. We had about 420 people in the house, the majority of whom were from under-served Oakland middle and high schools. Two of those schools had also had a Pastures residency this spring in which they studied and dramatized stories from the book. The students were an excellent audience, and proved themselves respectful and interested for the entire show—and, as usual, there was a lot of vocal response! I tell you, you never know how much kissing is really going on in a show until you play it for adolescents! The Tularecito story seemed particularly interesting and affecting to this audience—their reaction was to laugh at first, and then were drawn in to his real sweetness, and were very quiet when he was sent to the asylum. The Tortilla Sisters won applause, and the flash-paper fire was also a hit, of course.

In the Question and Answer session afterward, some usual questions came up such as “How long did you rehearse?”, “Have any of you been on TV?,” as well as “What was your favorite character to play?” and “How do you practice for hard roles like Tularecito?” This last one gave Tobie (Windham, pictured at right as Tularecito, with Emily Kitchens as Miss Morgan; photo by Jay Yamada) a chance to elaborate on how stepping into someone else’ shoes really helped him understand someone with development difficulties, since it’s so easy from the outside to think they are just really strange. The other very interesting thing that came up was that the character of Raymond Banks says about going to see an execution, “I think it’s a Mexican this time.” When that line was said, there was an audible gasp in the audience, which was of mostly Latino origin. One boy asked, “Why was that a joke?” Actor Catherine Castellanos said that she didn’t think it was a joke, but that the character said it in a way that might have seemed disrespectful because of the time period in which these stories are set, and that people were viewed very much by whatever easily perceived characteristic they had, be it race, or anything else and hopefully we are a lot better at being respectful of everyone now.

Ava Jackson and Clive Worsley were the stars of the hour, making everything run great and be fun at the same time; the PIPs were all enthusiastic and did great with their groups, and being in the new space was pretty amazing backstage and front. (Sorry, I know we go on and on about the bathrooms, etc., but Artistic Learning really got the advantage of all this today!)

Thanks to everyone who makes this kind of thing happen; we are so proud that we can provide this incredible opportunity to get young people in to see great actors, in a great play, in a great space. Wow.

Click here for more information on our Student Discovery Matinees. John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven runs through June 27.


Photos from the Steinbeck Project workshop-in-progress

Jay Yamada took some great pictures yesterday of our fourth Pastures of Heaven workshop, taking place this week at the Ashby Stage. Here are a few:

Cat Walleck as Miss Morgan.

The supernaturally strong frog-child Turalecito (Alex Morf) gets ready to bring the pain to  Bert Munroe (Dan Hiatt).

Arwen Lawrence and Jorge Liceaga of Cascada de Flores work with Word for Word Co-Artistic Director JoAnne Winters on the corrido that Octavio Solis has created from the story of the Lopez (or Tortilla) sisters.

Want to see the rest? They’re the latest (so, last in chronological order) in our Steinbeck Project Flickr set.

Or you can start here and page forward


Hard fun, or, the multifarious voice of a single character’s consciousness

This is the second blog this week from playwright Octavio Solis, live from our fourth workshop for The Pastures of Heaven.

“Take your attitude and turn it into an action.”

Jon Moscone gave this note to Amy Kossow during our workshop. This suggests a curious shift in the way we are defining character and action in this Pastures of Heaven process. In our process of storytelling—which must merge the novelistic approach with the dramatic imperatives of staging a play—we are constantly redefining how character functions in this project.

There are numerous complicated shifts from the first person to the third, wherein the actor describes what her character is thinking, even naming herself in the third person in that classic Brechtian way. But it is not alienating at all. It enables us to layer in strata of being through spoken text. The third-person self-address presents a veneer of the character regarding her world and herself in it; then when she is spoken about by someone else, a new layer establishes itself. But when the shift turns to first and second person, when “I” and “you” inhabit the moment, we shift into the starkly, freshly dramatic. The moment becomes immediate and present and active.

“Active” is a word that Jon is constantly repeating when staging this story of Tularecito. Because he must activate the narrative mode of John Steinbeck’s stories in any way he can. Even through the presentation of “attitude.” In this work, all the players enact their individual character but also function as a unified chorus. A chorus whose identity shifts with the demands of the story. Sometimes, they are the single narrative voice (that is, Steinbeck’s) sometimes they are the vox populi of the community, and sometimes they are schoolchildren. But what is really fascinating is how we are discovering how they can operate as the multifarious voice of a single character’s consciousness. I see the group assembled behind an isolated character like Tularecito and feel that they are different aspects of his mind and soul. Even if they all have the same attitude, they can never have the same attitude.

It’s fun working with a group of this size and experience on a project like this. Hard fun. The actors are bringing so much to the process and I feel I can respond at my leisure to their chancy stuff. This is what a workshop is supposed to do. It’s supposed to give the director and the company a chance to activate what I’ve written, to define our working vocabulary and the physics of the play, to renegotiate assumed notions of character and action and narrative every time we speak text.


New play? No problem!

This year, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) began its New Play Development Program. And we’re beyond proud to announce that Cal Shakes has been chosen as one (of just five!) of the inaugural selections. As a recipient of Arts Endowment support for a NEA Distinguished New Play Development Project, Cal Shakes will receive $20,000 toward early development activities, such as read-throughs, public readings, and workshop productions, for Pastures of Heaven. Followers of this blog and of Cal Shakes probably already know about Pastures–it’s our latest New Works/New Communities project, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven to be written by Octavio Solis and developed in partnership with San Francisco’s Word for Word Performing Arts Company.

Administered by Arena Stage, the New Play Development Program is intended to help the nation’s nonprofit theaters bring more new plays to full production. For us that means more workshops, more research trips, and more than two years of communication between our two very different theater companies, and urban and rural Northern Californians. Our artists will continue to talk to their artists, our playwright will continue to talk to the communities, and, in 2010, these stories of fragile farm life in Salinas Valley will premiere on the California Shakespeare Theater Main Stage, directed by Jonathan Moscone.

Read our news story about the grant here, or, for national news outlets’ coverage of this story, check out Playbill and Variety.