Listen to Trish Tillman Talk About 32-Second Shakespeare

Trish Tillman

Trish Tillman

Here’s our own Director of Artistic Learning Trish Tillman on the air at FOX 101.1 FM in Salinas yesterday, talking with Mark Carbanaro about her 32-second Shakespeare at the Carmel Authors & Ideas Fest and our production of Hamlet.


High School Drama… Naughty or Nice?


In-School Residency student scene

Students reading scenes from Macbeth at our in-school residency at Dougherty Valley High

Marketing Intern Jessica Reinhardt sits in on her first in-school residency at Dougherty Valley High School’s drama class in San Roman, CA.

 As my second week at Cal Shakes began, I was antsy with anticipation for my first classroom residency visit. Thursday was finally here and, as I gathered my camera and notepad (feeling very official) I tried to imagine the atmosphere of a high school drama class. I automatically thought back to the ever so fond memories of my theater classes and the journey one takes from first warm-up to final performance. Everyone always seems a bit intimidated at first. (Hey, you try to articulate “If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers…” ten times fast without any mistakes!) But as soon as I got to meet these wonderful students at Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon, I knew I was right where I should be.

 Talk about being “in the moment”: They embraced what Artistic Director Trish Tillman had to teach them as soon as we walked in. Trish started with a simple exercise and encouraged students who don’t usually step out of their comfort zones to get in there and “not be afraid of the ball.” It got the whole room to loosen up and begin to get out of our shells—the ones we all sometimes find ourselves hiding in. Being open to new experiences and letting it all go in a positive, healthy way is what makes performing special, and is something that, specifically, can benefit young adults. The class asked a lot of great questions and really embraced the exercises, even as they became more complicated. Trish chose a scene from Macbeth, leading the class through an exercise demonstrating how movement and proximity changed the way the actors felt. Someone yelled out “this feels intense!,” clearly showing the differences in dynamic as one actor moved physically closer to another.

 As these realizations and connections happened before my eyes, I stumbled around trying to get good photos of it all (let’s just say my picture taking skills aren’t exactly … professional). Out of all these moments I attempted to capture, the one that really sticks out were two students in the background looking really involved in the text. It just showed me how much Shakespeare can relate to us regardless of age, education, or status in our society. The kids really got a feel for the text and as Trish said making conceptual connections through the text improves students skills.

There were a lot of amazing, genuine surprises that I was fortunate enough to experience today. And isn’t that what theater is all about?

 To support student achievement and teacher professional development, Cal Shakes Classroom Residencies bring teaching artists into the schools with the aim of developing students’ minds, imaginations, and voices.




Getting Back to Basics

Part Two in a new series by Marketing Intern Katie McGee as she participates in a Cal Shakes classroom residency.

I went to bed Monday night eagerly awaiting my return to Northern Light for another dose of middle school Hamlet adventuring. I woke up Tuesday morning to a gloomy sky and the wrong side of the bed.  Never fear, however; I threw on my most brightly-colored shirt in a pathetic attempt to lighten my spirits and dashed to my car with lukewarm coffee spilling in hand.

My mood began brightening as I pulled into the parking lot and scurried to meet up with the Director of Artistic Learning, Trish Tillman, for the day’s rundown: Start identifying action and clarifying textual meaning within each group’s assigned scene.

As class began, we warmed up our actor’s toolkit and made sure the group was functioning as a solid team.  Hallway, lunchroom, recess conflicts checked at the door, then ready, set, go, Hamlet.

We began digging through the textual trenches Shakespeare dug for his performers long ago.  As students tried on their lines for the first time, young voices began to grow louder and braver around the room.  The entirety of Hamlet was being voiced in a matter of minutes.  Questions were raised: What is my character doing in this moment? What motivated my character to do this? What the heck is a fishmonger?

By the end of the period students were feeling a smidge overwhelmed, but a dash relieved as they realized they were beginning to grasp each line’s meaning.

* * * *

Now let’s step back and get real here.  Artists and scholars have taken Hamlet and forced it under that lens, interpreted it this direction, argued it from the east to the west and reread it a kabillion times.  Now all of these efforts may have uncovered some revealing truths or spicy fresh takes, but are some of the story’s fundamentals lost in the process?  Watching the students at Northern Light find meaning in their lines for the very first time reminded me that Hamlet is often overcomplicated and the story’s bare bones alone dish up some titillating entertainment—keep it simple stupid.

Sometimes in life we just need to step back and stop ourselves from getting caught up in the dreary skies of Denmark (or the Bay), the coffee spilling over our hand as we hustle off for the day, and look at the greatness of our overall stories.


S is for Shakespeare … and for Sharing

A Northern Lights student stepping into character before the show.

The final installment by Marketing Intern Katie McGee, documenting her participation in a Cal Shakes classroom residency.

“Ummm…where’s my costume?” “What if I forget my lines?” Ahhh. The sounds of final performance day have arrived. Eager jitters spreading around the performance space. Despite the exclamations of nervous dismay, these students are ready.

Why do I like the idea of youth performing Shakespeare? All the subliminal lessons that come with the experience, like a parent disguising servings of vegetables in delicious fruit juices. Some of these hidden lessons include: teamwork, stage presence, public speaking, and storytelling as a form of expression.

OK, but why Shakespeare? All of these lessons could be learned in a musical production of The Hobbit. Shakespeare, however, presents a seemingly greater challenge, thanks to the text’s richness and density. Shakespeare is often misperceived as literature for stuffy academics. This ridiculous notion, however, intensifies the empowerment a young student experiences once they have mastered the language and discovered the script’s meaning. Shakespeare is for everyone, not just your local, literary members-only club.  Shakespeare wrote for the masses—jokes and tragedies for all to relate to.  Shakespeare is for sharing.

Of all the lessons these students gained, sharing seemed the most evident. They shared costumes, props, space, stage, responsibility, characters, and, perhaps most importantly, they fearlessly shared what they had learned throughout the program. It was deeply apparent that the knowledge Cal Shakes’ Trish Tillman had shared had lit a fire under their desire for Shakespeare and storytelling. I enjoyed watching this flame grow steadily throughout my observation. One young performer, Avi’tal Wilson-Perteete, was especially frank about her new found hunger for the Bard, “I am 100 percent sure I will do Shakespeare again in the near future!”

A Northern Lights student portraying Ophelia shares flowers with the audience.

I am so tickled to have been given even a fragment of this experience with these young and passionate actors and academics.  I am hopeful and my fingers are quadruple-crossed that these students remember Shakespeare is for sharing, and continue to share and develop their love for his work. Maybe at the Bruns this summer? Heck yes to that.



A blog from Cal Shakes Director of Artistic Learning on the first day of class.

Trish Tilllman teaches at Northern Lights by Jay Yamada

Trish Tillman with students from Oakland's Northern Lights Academy; photo by Jay Yamada.

I love the first day of class. I relish it. Kids are fresh to the work, unencumbered with expectations, hopeful, fearful, usually eager for something new. At the very least, their antennae are raised for something different.

I am lucky enough to teach Shakespeare to children in the Bay Area. Today I have two classes back-to-back, a mix of fifth and sixth grade for the first hour, followed by an hour with seventh and eighth grades.

The classroom teacher is usually excited on the first day, too—glad for both a chance to learn new material and to experience what we mean by “arts-integration,” and also grateful for a bit of a break from the incredibly hard work of leading, disciplining, helping—all the giving that he or she must do every day.

So everyone files into the “multipurpose room” or, as many teachers I know call it, “the cafegymatorium.” The kids are looking around, looking at me, looking at their shoes. They are out of a routine. And that is exactly what art wants—it wants us slightly off-center, slightly unfamiliar, more aware, more in a state of wondering. We’ve already taken a step into possibility.

As we start, I try to hold the energy like a seal balancing on a ball—delicately, purposefully, playfully. Here are the rules of our space, I say, easily, simply. Here’s the way we work together. They listen. They tacitly agree. OK for now; their antennae still waving. I start to play warm-up games, like the “Keep the Ball in the Air” game. These games are innocuous and tons of fun, but they are also subversive. They strengthen trust and build specific skills of social interaction, all the while allowing me to size up the group’s personality, its ability to listen and respond, and any potential behavioral red flags.

My lesson plan might change instantly in these moments—from substituting entire sections to little tweaks of timing, or just changing how I will present an upcoming exercise. This is really the fun part. I ask myself: What’s the best and most interesting way for us to meet, teacher and student, student and student, student and self. I ask myself this over and over again in the space of one 45-minute class.

It doesn’t matter that it’s a theater class on Shakespeare. It’s what any class should bring to us. I took a cooking class that put me up against myself in a million little ways (hello, therapist, my childhood is calling) and I gained an understanding of myself and that world that I would never have had if my teacher hadn’t had patience, ease, charm, and an understanding that it’s not necessarily the subject—it’s the You that you might find there.

We end with a small ritual. A clap together. An unplanned group jump. Perhaps everyone says one sentence about something they learned today. We acknowledge the time that we have been in this space was well used together.

So go out and take a class. Or teach one, with heart and fire and fun. Allow the antennae to wave around. Keep having beginnings.

 Click here to learn about Cal Shakes teaching artists in Bay Area classrooms.


A Teen Night to Remember

A group at THE VERONA PROJECT Teen Night enjoys pizza and soda.

By Marketing Intern Anna Kritikos

It was The Verona Project Teen Night last night in the beautiful Upper Grove at the Bruns Amphitheater. And good times were indeed had by all.

On the agenda for the evening: a dinner—a feast, shall we say—of  pizza and soda, a fun and engaging pre-show activity to introduce the students to The Verona Project, and a raffle drawing— the prize being a Verona Project T-shirt (which are quite comfortable, by the by).  The pizza arrived piping hot, courtesy of Classic Catering, and soon thereafter the students arrived. There were upward of 35 guests that attended the event, so it made for a lively crowd. They dug into the cheese pizza like nobody’s business, and they carried on and conversed with one another until Trish Tillman, the director of Cal Shakes’ Artistic Learning programs, hopped up on a picnic table and gave everyone the basic plot of The Verona Project. It was no dull summary—Trish had the kids cracking up.

Trish Tillman leading the group through a synopsis of THE VERONA PROJECT

Trish then led the kids through an activity that had them connecting to the more emotional concepts in the play. She posited questions such as: Have you ever been in love? Have you ever liked someone who didn’t like you back? (To which one cheeky kid yelled out, “Oh yeah! All the time!”) If they wished to answer “yes,” they would walk to a different picnic table. It was a good activity and the kids were definitely into it, laughing and running from picnic table to picnic table. ‘Twas a good, old-fashioned ,rowdy time.

Showtime was nearly upon us when Trish announced the next activity—the raffle drawing. As the crowd collectively held its breath, Marilyn Langbehn (Cal Shakes Marketing and PR Manager) announced the winner, and this lucky young man (pictured at right) emerged victorious. So, look out for this guy and his spankin’ new Verona Project T-Shirt.

In all, Teen Night was a top-quality event that was followed by an excellent performance of The Verona Project.

There will be another Teen Night on September 29 during The Taming of the Shrew. Buy tickets here


Behind the Scenes at a Student Discovery Matinee

The following is an account of our Student Discovery Matinee Series from the perspective of Trish Tillman, director of Artistic Learning. the first half of this piece ran in Cal Shakes’ May 2010 newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.

When I was growing up, I was lucky to be able to see many kinds of performances in my city: Some of them I liked, and some I didn’t; either way, just going into the theater itself gave me a thrill. I always felt a powerful combination of anticipation, ceremony, and specialness, which made me feel alive. Part of our mission at Cal Shakes is to provide that kind of experience to as many students as we can, which takes a lot of inspiration, organization, and good humor.
To give you a sense of what I mean, here’s a little backstage look at how the staff experience our Student Discovery Matinees9:50am – Each group is led to a designated grove on the theater grounds to await their time to be seated. Each group gets an entrance time so that not all 550 students are trying to get into the theater at once!

10:05am – As they wait, students usually decide to picnic. Even though it is barely past breakfast, we notice that they seem to be devouring their lunches.

10:25am – Students line up to enter the amphitheater. Their faces light up as they enter the space and see the set. No curtains, no dim lights. The set for John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven is like a giant three-story dollhouse featuring different rooms on many levels; a real, rusted 1920s-era Ford pickup truck sits on the stage, one wheel off. Then students start to talk about what this play might be like—the sense of anticipation grows.

10:45am – Teaching Artist Clive Worsley takes the stage to do his fabulous pre-show welcome. He goes over some key points from the play in plain, student-ready language; has the students do a call-and-response; and generally primes the energy of the house.

11:00am – Music starts. An actor enters. The audience is suspended in the moment before everything begins, breathing lightly. Then the other actors come onstage, and … ACTION!

11:30am – As the play progresses, we sit among the groups, always amazed at how real and potent theater is for young people: T

hey laugh loudly, gasp outwardly

at the surprise moments, and snicker at any hint of romance. They’re told not to talk, but inevitably they want to check in with their friends with a glance or a poke as they share the experience. We feel that as long as it’s about the show and it’s respectful, reactions are good. 

12:20pm – Intermission. Kids rush to the café for goodies. We watch to make sure no one strays off into the woods and we overhear them chatter about Act One

which characters they like, which parts stick in their mind, and which girls have already picked an actor to have a crush on. 

12:31pm – Sweater comes off. Sunscreen goes on. The fog is long gone. Act Two begins!

Sarah-and-students1:30pm – The crowd rises, applauding loudly. The actors look happy and the students start to chatter. Clive jumps up on stage to give instructions for the Question and Answer session.

1:40pm – The post-show Q&A is a treat rarely enjoyed by our evening audiences. The actors, once out of their costume bonnets and aprons, reappear onstage to answer questions ranging from, “How do you become a professional actor?” and, “How did you do that stage effect?” to, “Have you been in movies?” and, “Is anyone in the cast boyfriend and girlfriend?” 

2:07pm – Back down the hill they go. If the students are lucky, they run into one of the actors leaving the theater to get some rest before the evening show, and can pepper them with additonal questions.

2:10pm – We prepare the grounds for the evening performance, repeat to each other the amazing things we heard from the students that day, and begin looking forward to the next Student Discovery Matinee.

Seats are still available for the June 8 and 10 Student Discovery Matinees of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven!

In addition, our Student Discovery Matinees for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About NothingSeptember 30, Oct 6, 8, 12, and 14are booking up fast. Please forward this to a teacher you know or, to bring your own school group, please call Ava Jackson, Artistic Learning Coordinator at 510.809.3292 or email You can also learn more by visiting our website at

7am – Wake up and realize that we are going to be receiving over 500 students, age 8 to 17, in a matter of hours! Mentally check the paperwork prep we’ve done for the last two months, and get moving.

7:30am – Down an essential cup of coffee and head to the theater.

8:30am – Arrive at the theater parking lot. The chill from the night before still has a hold on the air, so we pull on extra sweatshirts and jackets. We set up orange cones for traffic patterns in the parking area and then trek up the hill to the amphitheater. Then all of us, a group of about 12-15 staff and volunteers, gather to familiarize ourselves with today’s schools and seating chart. Each person is assigned to lead one or two groups, given a reminder of the rules to tell the students.

8:45am – Wipe dew from chairs. Let them have dry seats! We put out programs on the seats for the show, pick up any remaining trash from the previous evening’s performance.

8:58am – The shuttle driver departs to pick up groups coming by BART. Other staff and volunteers duck backstage to set up breakfast for the actors who will be arriving soon to work hard in the sun for the next two hours. Grab more coffee.

9:25am – Groups begin arriving; buses and cars fill the lot. The Cal Shakes staff is on hand to greet them, share the rules of attending outdoor theater, and do a head-count. Our walkie-talkies crackle as we communicate from the top of the hill to the bottom parking lot about who’s arriving.


9:45am – As groups arrive, they line up and begin the ascent. We always hear students wondering aloud about where the heck the theater is out here in the woods. 

Steinbeck Blog Prompt #2: Identity and Community

This is the second 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 second prompt, written by Trish Tillman, Cal Shakes’ Director of Artistic Learning and one of the developers of this fall’s Pastures of Heaven residency at Oakland’s Reems Academy.

As we develop our residency work in schools, one of the most important things that our students are trying to understand is the idea of identity in their own lives, and how one’s personality is shaped in relationship with others. If you can think back to middle or high school—or if you are that age now—you know how important social interactions can be to how you are perceived, and how you think about yourself.

One of the main themes of Steinbeck’s work is how complicated social interactions can be between disparate groups of people living in the same place. Much like a neighborhood or a school, his characters come together with certain expectations or desires about how they will live in the community in which they find themselves. When you enter a new group for the first time, what do you expect? How do you begin to understand those around you?

*Prize still to be determined. Please leave your email address somewhere in your comment!!
**Don’t worry, we’ll ask your permission first.
Art courtesy of an anonymous commenter on last week’s blog.


Topics (and prizes!) for Steinbeck blog series

As we mentioned a week ago, the Cal Shakes New Works/New Communities program will be asking for your help in our development of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, starting next Monday. On Oct 19 and 26 and Nov 2, we’ll be posting thoughts from Pastures playwright Octavio Solis, Pastures director (and Cal Shakes Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone, Cal Shakes Director of Artistic Learning Trish Tillman, and Word for Word Performing Arts Company Co-Artistic Director JoAnne Winter (the latter two are collaborating on school curriculum based on Pastures). Each of these blog entries will contain a prompt, and we’d like you to leave your input in the “comments” section, via prose, poetry, video, 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 fabulous 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.**

Some things that have been discussed as possible topics include: the hard lives of the rural working class in literature and in real life; utopias; place names and what they mean; how one’s landscape defines their possibilities; and fitting into a community. Most if not all of these topics will be covered in the ensuing weeks’ prompts. Stay tuned!

*Fabulous prize still to be determined.
**Don’t worry, we’ll ask your permission first.


A Midsummer’s Afternoon Student Matinee

Hello everyone!

Today’s Student Discovery Matinee was—yes, you guessed it—awesome. The sun was warm but not unbearable; the chaperones were on their game with their groups; the students (a mix of kids who had been in plays, including Midsummer, and some who had never been to a Shakespeare play) reacted heartily but not out of hand; the actors were in fine form; and the Q&A afterward (with nearly all the actors participating) was full of really good questions. Puck transfixed everyone into complete raptness a couple of times, the audience related to the lovers a lot, the Mechanicals started getting laughs just by walking onstage, and the Pyramus and Thisbe play went over brilliantly. You know that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you know everyone in the room is having a great time together? That was there.

Quotes of the day:
Student #1: (enthusiastically) Man, playing Puck would be the coolest thing ever.
Student #2: (authoritatively) Dude, I played him in 7th grade.

Thanks to everyone who helped today!

Pictured above, L to R: Erin Weaver as Hermia, Doug Hara as Puck (on ladder), Richard Thieriot as Demetrius, and Lindsey Gates as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; photo by Kevin Berne.