Actorly thoughts on The Pastures of Heaven

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.

I am playing such an interesting variety of characters in this show: a ghost, a psychotic child, an old biddy, and what I called The Mean Teacher. But Miss Martin has been speaking to me…. Her story is interesting because I am the mother of a child with autism in real life. I think she feels the way a lot of my child’s teachers have felt, that he won’t learn a thing, and then feels shocked by how special a child can be. She hangs her hopes on him and then is unprepared for his rages. She wants to teach him a lesson and has him beaten. Well, she expects that he will learn to behave from the painful punishment, but then he just smiles and that convinces her that he cannot learn. And that she cannot teach. And she resigns. She leaves this Eden. All that in one and half pages of the play! Her whole life captured in a sweep of action.

Charlie Robinson and Rod Gnapp were saying that acting in this play is like film acting—it’s quick. You’ve got to start at a really revved up place and go up from there. There isn’t a slow burn to be had. It’s like the camera is capturing the moment just before each character’s life-changing experience, so the arc we actors like to explore and develop happens lickety-split: you’re-here-now-you’re there. So move it! Now it’s the next guy’s turn! It feels like a kaleidoscope from the inside—we shift and shift and shift, and Moscone, Solis, and Steinbeck make beautiful things happen. In a Forrest Gump-ish sense, this play is like a box of chocolates—we characters may be smooth, or nutty, or sweet, or rotten, or plain or fancy—and the audience gets to eat the whole box.

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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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