Family, Lies, and Honesty: A Peek Behind the Curtain

Regina Victoria Fields is Cal Shakes’ 2016 Artistic Engagement Fellow, and the Assistant Director for Fences. Below, she shares her thoughts about the rehearsal process and Fences‘ place in the community.

This is a story about me and my family.

It’s the first day of Fences rehearsal and the high-ceilinged rehearsal room feels more like a reunion than a meeting. Laughter is all around as old friends and colleagues shake hands and rekindle friendships. Cal Shakes regulars like Margo Hall and my former professor Aldo Billingslea move through the space being greeted by board members and staff members alike. Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges charms everyone around her, shaking hands with everyone she doesn’t know and skipping through the space to hug those she does.

The Cal Shakes community has gathered to meet the artists and hear August Wilson’s play for the first time in our rehearsal space at 701 Heinz. In many ways, they are my family. I interned for the company through their Professional Immersion Program in 2014, and understudied both A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with five harrowing performances, see: http://calshakes.org/blog/2014/09/the-understudy-diaries/) and King Lear. Now, two years later I’m the Artistic Engagement Fellow and the Assistant Director for Fences.

As the Artistic Engagement Fellow, my supervisor Lisa Evans has tasked me with some unique projects related to the production. These included collecting the stories of women at the Allen Temple Senior Center Project and North County Women’s Shelter—whose voices you will hear in the show—and cultivating panelists for our Women’s Empowerment Panel. New Artistic Director Eric Ting is an invaluable addition to the company, in my humble opinion. He’s been establishing new processes such as an Artistic Circle comprised of the Education, Casting, Production, and Engagement departments, to ensure all have equal input on the artistic business of the company. The other Fellow LeeAnn Dowd and I are encouraged to participate as much as any full time staff. Eric speaks about engagement and performance as a circular feed—each should feed into the other, instead of the conventional formula of performance-first thinking. This type of engagement allows for a greater inclusion of community perspective in the art we create at the Bruns while we are still in rehearsal.

Assistant directing is often a complicated game, some directors don’t want you to speak or contribute in any way, and you’re often left trying to figure out how much space you’re allowed to take up or if you should just become invisible altogether. This is not how Raelle works. She believes in the emerging artist, even when you don’t believe in yourself. In her first e-mail to the company weeks before rehearsal she stated: “I started as an apprentice at a company and without being given the same duties and respect as every other artist on the team, I would not have learned as quickly and thoroughly as I did. So let me say it out loud: they are not interns to be dismissed, but emerging artists to work side by side with production and artistic teams to make sure we have an amazing show.”

The Power of Truth-telling

Storytelling is a constant search for the truth. A note Raelle continuously gives her actors is that she does not want to see them lie. It’s an honest trade: Raelle will never lie to you. She’s impressively direct, and personally, as a 23-year-old female-presenting person, being direct isn’t something you’re taught; it’s something that you have to learn later in life. In the first week of rehearsal she was already encouraging me and the other emerging artists to be louder, to take up more space, to be leaders.

In a search for the truth, you have to wade through a lot of lies. One of the lies Raelle refuses to subscribe to is the often-touted theory that August Wilson’s women are invisible. During the development of the concept of this piece, it was really exciting to me that this Fences would be more female-centric. As the Artistic Engagement Fellow, to bring women’s voices to the forefront, some of which is mentioned above. When asked about it, however, Raelle will be the first to tell you this piece is not “Rose-centric”. She’s simply acknowledging the female character that is the other half of her partnership has just as much—if not more—importance to the play than Troy. It then becomes the story of outside stresses on a partnership, instead of the tragedy of a fallen man.

Loving Honesty

Honesty is never easy. As we journey through the process of creating this play, there are some bumps and bruises as the creative team finds their way around the space and each other. Someone once told me that picking a creative team wasn’t necessarily about who is the most talented, but rather with whom you would be willing to spend 12 hours in a dark room. Raelle and I had a really honest dialogue during a meeting with sound designer and close friend Mikaal Sulaiman. When asked, Raelle said some of her best work happens when she has her friends and family in the room, because “we train people that they can’t be themselves in theatre and that’s why I love having friends and family in the room because you can be honest with them.” We’ve all seen art where the director was afraid to mention a strange performance quirk because they wanted to be kind, but that doesn’t come from a place of love or honesty, and can cause the art to suffer. “I’m a black girl with a low voice so when I’m not mad at you I sound like I’m yelling,” Raelle says, chunky headphones on sideways as we wait between sound samples. “But professionalism doesn’t mean antiseptic. Conflict is inevitable when you’re trying to make something great, and at the end of the day, no matter what, family is family.” She goes on to explain that at the end of the day whether you’re friends or not, it’s about being real with each other. An honest criticism should never be taken personally; we should trust that we are all just trying to create something great.

This is a concept worth remembering at the end of the rehearsal week. After spending anywhere from 36-48 hours together in the first week, just like a real family we have officially begun to get on each others’ nerves. The end of the first week is the rawest part of a process. We start the week in a high, happy place of connecting with the language and engaging with the story for the first time. By the end of the first week we’ve attempted to carve out most of the story and characters, and have a sketch of the whole show. Sunday’s rehearsal consists of “stumbling” through the show, which is exactly what happens. We stumble through and realize what we do and don’t know, and what is and isn’t working. This creates a vulnerable baring of the artistic nerve that leads to friction in the space. Actors begin to dart furtive looks around the room if their colleagues misstep, Raelle is pointing out notes or changes that have been neglected, and tension is high. We ended rehearsal early, and not without some agitation.

Over the next two days this agitation festers into contemplation. On Tuesday, everyone enters the room in aggressively high spirits, a glint in their eye, determined to get it right. Acting artists have had time to absorb their notes, and they attack the material with a new zeal. There is a universal agreement in the room at the start of week two that this work is difficult because it’s dangerous and fresh. Like a real family, we’ve reconciled after the fight, because the art is what’s important. As Raelle says, “It’s not even about being friends or family…and it’s not about brutality…it’s about the ability to be honest—lovingly honest—to make something real.”

This is a story about me and my family.

Fences is about the inner workings of a black family, and if you come from a family of color, it’s easy to relate on some level to the Maxsons. The design of the show allows us into the facade of the home, creating an artfully sharp transparency. In Raelle’s production, I can see the strength of my mother in Rose, and the noble responsibility of my father in Troy. This is not a museum piece. This Fences feels like it could happen in your neighborhood. This story is about my black and brown family and how their essence lives inside of August Wilson’s words. It’s about my Cal Shakes family, and how with every season they strive to grow both artistically and ethically. It’s about the ups and downs a creative family goes through to create something temporary and vital out of truth and love, and the opportunity to share it with you.

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The Understudy Diaries

If you attended a Cal Shakes show this past weekend, you may have seen my face—on our stage. I’m the understudy for Movement Director and actress Erika Chong Shuch, a powerhouse of a woman, and I wound up being called on to play Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Many people have asked me what this experience was like, and so I thought I would chronicle it into phases.

Phase I: Excitement

After interning all summer at Cal Shakes, I auditioned and was accepted to understudy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was all knock-knees and general excitement, highlighting away in my binder during the first rehearsal and gasping at all the set and costume designs. Understudying allows you to absorb so much information and as a young actress it’s pretty ideal. I get to try on a part without as much of the risk, and see the professionals do their work.

Phase 2: Technical Rehearsal

This was the most fun part of being an understudy for me, where I learned all my lines and wrote down all my blocking. Essentially the expectation is to know everything by Opening Night, and then to have your understudy rehearsal the following Tuesday. Simple enough. I had just finished my internship and so was content to hang around the Bruns all during tech, cracking jokes with cast and crew and being on book when needed. I was so impressed with all the actors, working twelve hour days and being incredibly patient and generous with each other.

Regina Fields and Danny Scheie (Puck) backstage before the show. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Phase 3: Understudy Rehearsal

Finally our time had come! My fellow understudies were chomping at the bit to do their scenes. They were really prepared and ready to finally DO something with all the knowledge they’d been collecting. On the way to rehearsal we all got an email that would change the whole course of our day. Brian, the understudy for James Carpenter (Egeus/Starveling) was going to go on! It was getting real. We spent most of the day doing Brian’s scenes, which meant I only got to walk through one Titania scene once.

Catherine Castellanos (Snout) and I kept joking about how it would be crazy if I had to go on after not getting to do any of my scenes. Good thing that was entirely unlikely. Little did I know…

Phase 4: The Call

Friday morning the unthinkable happened. I received a text message from Karen Szpaller, our stage manager/resident superwoman, saying I should be prepared to go on, and she would let me know as soon as she could. At which point I immediately began to do three things:

1) hyperventilate

2) read my script 500 times

3) cry (just a little).

In order to understand why I would react in such a fashion it’s important to note that I’m a senior in college, who has a few credits mostly accrued while at conservatory in Europe. Cal Shakes is a theater I respect and whose company of staff, crew, and actors I am constantly in awe of. Basically I felt like I was hitting fast forward on getting to do my ultimate dream job.

Karen confirmed that Operation Understudy was a go (she doesn’t call it that, I do, and I’m not sorry about it) and I hit the road around 3pm, reciting Shakespeare all the way.

Regina Fields' understudy debut in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Phase 5: The Trial By Fire

I got to the theater with enough time to warm up, walk the space, and get fitted into a costume before my two hour put-in rehearsal began. A put-in is essentially what it sounds like—putting me into the show. However, anyone who has seen this show with Erika knows: you can’t imitate greatness. So we (and by we I mean Craig, and the fairies; Travis, Parker and Mel), re-choreographed a whole lot, from the top of show fight, to my entrance out of the trap (under the stage) and more.

Everyone was incredibly supportive, including Jonathan Moscone who came to help direct me through some moments and get acquainted with the show. The fairies (Travis Parker and Mel) helped me focus on my job, which was to make everyone else not freak out by appearing calm, knowing my part and just doing the damn thing.

After asserting my warrior dominance as Hippolyta in the first scene, I had a second to look out and had only one thought: “oh my lanta, people”. I don’t even remember saying my first line. What I do remember is the outpouring of love from everyone around me. I felt like I was on an Olympic Rowing Team and we were all going for the gold in one final burst before the finish line: either we all won or we all didn’t make it, and failure was not an option. Coming through the green room door after that first show was the most electrifying feeling in the world. We had done it! We had pulled off this behemoth, beautiful, inspiring show and I quite frankly couldn’t believe I’d gotten to be a part of it.

Phase 6: The Aftermath

I cannot stress enough how much Cal Shakes’ culture of support, love of art, and community helped me to get through this moment. Without all of the words of encouragement from my fellow actors, and the amazing Cal Shakes audience, I never would have found the courage to step out on that stage. Now that Erika is back and more graceful than ever, it feels like even more of a family because we all helped each other through a tough spot. I have nothing but eternal gratuity and respect for everyone involved for helping a young actress to realize her dreams for just a few shows. The best way to articulate how I feel is with a quote from the play:

“Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream.”

Regina Fields and Daisuke Tsuji (Oberon, Theseus) in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Jay Yamada.

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About the author: Regina V. Fields is an Artistic Intern and local actress.

 

 

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RAW Talent – Young Artists Takeover the Bruns

Last week, Richmond Artists With Talent (RAW Talent)—in partnership with Cal Shakes’ Triangle Lab—performed The Adventure Of Grief: A Short Play on the Bruns Amphitheater stage. Six years ago, Richmond Artists with Talent was founded by a small group of teachers and students, in order to provide safe spaces and creative outlets for youth in Richmond, California.

The Adventure of Grief was written by the members of RAW Talent, ages 13-24, and directed by Triangle Lab Artist-Investigator Arielle Julia Brown. Much of Arielle’s work focuses on theater as witness and testimony, including the piece Love Balm For My Spirit Child which ran at Brava Theater and shared testimony from mothers who lost their children to violence.

This project was a further development of Phoenix Rysing, a workshop series co-sponsored by Cal Shakes in which the students used writing and performance to create pieces that explore how we experience and heal from grief. Phoenix Rysing was prompted by the loss of Dimarea Young–one of the founding members of RAW Talent to whom The Adventure of Grief was dedicated–to gun violence in 2013. The students participated in a week-long residency up at the Bruns Amphitheater along with RAW Talent staff Molly Raynor and Donte Clark, developing this piece. They performed it on stage before Pygmalion on August 8th.

The Adventure of Grief performance was truly inspiring, with about 70 invited audience members in attendance, half of whom had come from Richmond to see the show. The opening act “The House of Grief” was an ensemble piece about moving into grief when you have nowhere else to go, and no one to turn to. The format of the show allowed the audience to relate to the subject matter that the students were addressing. There were six scenes, some performed in small  groups, and in one case even a dance duet, creating multiple windows and perspectives into this House of Grief.

The most daring moment of the show arrived when the actors asked the audience to write down down their own stories and then to volunteer to come onstage and read them. In the community piece entitled “Write Myself Whole,” the students sang as attendees wrote two and three line poems about a grief or struggle that had made them who they were today. Here are some of the poems that were written by individuals in the audience:

“I come here by way of family struggles
Art healed me
The loss of my dad, young when he killed himself.”

“I come here by way of Nana Kika & Kim Pate + Raymen Justice. I come here by way of sadness, emptiness, rage & love. I sit in my sadness to reach for my gratitude & humility.”

“I come here by way of Salvador Joseph
I come here by way of separation and loss of love from loved ones.”

By the end of the play, much of the audience was moved to tears from the shared experience of acknowledging grief and sharing in the stories of these young people. Yet the most important takeaway was that we must all learn to move out of the House of Grief, by writing ourselves whole and empathizing with the experiences of others.

Triangle Lab was honored to work with such an inspiring and talented group and to help bring their stories to the Bruns. Richmond Artists with Talent has been a program for six years and has reached over  500 students in the Richmond Area, and will continue growing with support from the RYSE Center. For more information about RAW Talent visit their Facebook Page.

About the Author: Regina Fields is an Artistic Intern and local actress.

Photos by Jay Yamada.

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