Inside the Séance: Blithe Spirit Rehearsal Blog July 31

The following was written by Blithe Spirit Assistant Director Megan Sada. Stay tuned for more dispatches from inside the rehearsal room.

seance

A traditional séance.

The production and artistic teams and cast are back from their break early in anticipation of today’s visitor to the rehearsal room. Much like the Bradmans and Condomines in Blithe Spirit, we are half skeptical, half wanting to believe. Unsure of what we should be doing, we stare quietly as the medium, Medusa, and her friend as they circle a table with 12 chairs around it, breathing heavily, almost running. Medusa swooshes the air in front of her every few steps, as if pushing something unseen forward and out of her way. The rest of us are in awe or just standing awkwardly, wondering what will come next.

We are in our third week of rehearsals for Blithe Spirit. Since a great deal of the play deals with the materialization of a ghost after a séance, we are all curious about what a real one looks and feels like.

Medusa introduces herself and asks us to all sit in the chairs. She tells us that we cannot get up or leave during the séance. She tells us that she doesn’t fake it, so that if the table is shaking, chances are it’s an earthquake. We take a deep breath and she begins to open a door to the “other side.” As most of us are unfamiliar, we do a great deal of wide-eyed looking at one another. Medusa is saying words I don’t recognize but which seems to be a call to the dead; when she does start speaking in English, she quite clearly says that those who only wish to do good or send a message for good are welcome in this space. She asks the volunteers—us—to say the names of their dead out loud. She then says that the group should repeat the name when she calls to them, as our energy will help them come forward.

“Robert…Robert…Robert…Robert…”

Robert makes Medusa nauseous. He apparently doesn’t approve of this séance and leaves.

“Margaret…Margaret…Margaret…Margaret…”

Margaret is full of love. She is happy. She sends her love and leaves…

“Yondel…Yondel…Yondel…Yondel…”

Yondel needs something. He needs to be lead. Ah…he needs forgiveness to pass. Forgive him? Yes.

“Harvey…Harvey…Harvey…Harvey…”

Harvey is laughing. Have a beer with Harvey? Yes. Harvey says firm love will help those who miss him.

“Anyone else? You sure? OK…you?”

“Billy…Billy…Billy…Billy…”

Billy loves you and is proud of you. You’re fulfilling your dream.

“No one else?”

“Thank you to the dead, and please leave now.”

We all dispersed in an odd way—those who spoke to their dead mostly leaving without saying much of anything, the rest of us exchanging whispers as we departed.

The next day, we recounted our individual experiences, each admitting to moments of both questioning and believing. I think our experiences will inform the performance. It definitely helped Domenique Lozano (Madame Arcati) come up with some new ideas for the séance in Blithe Spirit. And, it gave her confidence in that some of her instincts were already spot on.

One fascinating thing that Medusa told us was that “after all, the dead aren’t necessarily enlightened.” That statement gave us all a good laugh. In one way or another, the séance did affect us all. I’m not sure if anyone has gone from being skeptical to being a believer, but we were certainly all moved by the experience.

Blithe Spirit begins previews next Wednesday, August 8; stay tuned for a blog from the designer run later this week. Tickets are available at calshakes.org/tickets or by calling 510.548.9666.

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From Romance to Revenge

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly on Prospero’s and other’s journeys in The Tempest

The Tempest is a “Romance” play, best illustrated in relationship to King Lear, written six years before in 1605. Lear is a tragedy that leaves its audiences in a diminished Britain amidst the wasteland of loss, with only Lear’s brief reunion with his beloved Cordelia to comfort us—and even that reunion is made bittersweet, since both are dead by the time the curtain falls. The Tempest affords a more elegant wrap-up. Its fairytale structure—the power of Prospero’s magic; the mysterious setting somewhere in the Mediterranean; and the satisfaction of final redemption and of a wedding to close things—allows Shakespeare to tie up the play’s loose ends and to make what many have seen as his farewell to London and the stage (although he did write The Two Noble Kinsmen after this, as well as contributing to a few other plays).

Michael Winters is Prospero

Michael Winters plays Prospero in our 2012 production of THE TEMPEST; photo by Kevin Berne.

The Tempest highlights several prominent themes and conventions. It is one of Shakespeare’s most spectacular plays, with its apparitions (Ariel/Harpy); its storm and shipwreck to begin the play; and the dance, the vanishing banquet, the songs, as elements of scenic display. The Tempest is also underscored by journeying: There is the interrupted journey made by Milan’s Duke Antonio and Naples’ King Alonso, which brings them to the island; the journey that Prospero has made from Milan to the island; the journey that Shakespeare the dramatist has often been said to be making as he gives us an artist (playmaking as a form of magic?) who, by the play’s end, says goodbye to his art; and the journey from activity to age, signaled by Prospero’s transformation from an artificer at the height of his powers to one wearied by his art.

What is the relationship between art and nature? We experience nature through our bodies, but perhaps it is through art that nature is more truly understood. Nowhere is this juxtaposition between art and nature more intensely felt—and perhaps more challenging—than in the relationship between Prospero, master of the island via his mind and magical practice, and Caliban, who claims ownership of the island via his birth and breeding. “This island’s mine, by Sycorax, my mother,/Which thou take’st from me,” Caliban tells Prospero, “For I am all the subjects that you have,/Which first was mine own king.” Yet while Caliban declares ownership via his birth, Prospero sees this self-appointed “king” as a perverse wretch, an “abhorred slave” whose proclivities have abused the laws of “nature.” Who has more claim to authenticity? Caliban with his unchecked appetites, or Prospero with his history of Dukedom, his rage, and the sophisticated arts that he uses to check and arouse Nature’s tides? “This rough magic I here abjure,” Prospero says near the close of the play. “I’ll break my staff,/Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,/And deeper than did ever plummet sound,/I’ll drown my book.” Why does he ultimately disclaim ownership and authority on the island? The Tempest teases us with this question.

The Tempest begins previews at our stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA, on Thursday, May 31, opens Saturday, June  2, and continues until Sunday, June 24.

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Where Are the Mothers in Shakespeare?

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly muses on maternal absences in The Tempest and other Shakespeare plays.

Pericles photo by Kevin Berne

A rare Shakespeare mother and child reunion: L-R, Sarah Nealis (Marina), Delia MacDougall (Thaisa), Ron Campbell (Cleon), and Christopher Kelly (Pericles) in PERICLES (2008); photo by Kevin Berne.

In Renaissance times the mother was the family member principally involved with her children’s education and upbringing. Yet in Renaissance drama older women were rarely represented onstage in what would obviously be one of their more sympathetic roles: that of the loving and nurturing mother. This lack is partly explained by the fact that women were not allowed to perform on the English stage: All of the female roles were played by young boys before their voices broke, so that a younger character part was obviously a better physical and vocal match. The lack of mothers in Shakespeare is notorious:  We have the noticeably absent Mrs. Prospero (of whom Prospero says merely that “thy mother was a piece of virtue”); the apparently nonexistent Queen Alonso; and the devilish witch Sycorax, Caliban’s dead mother.  Consider this lack of mother-nurturers in context with the three sisters in King Lear, Imogen in Cymbeline, Marina in Pericles, Portia and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Ophelia in Hamlet, Desdemona in Othello, Isabella in Measure for Measure, and Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, characters who are all deprived of mothers. Moreover, almost all of the older women Shakespeare does represent onstage offer negative images of motherhood: Volumnia in Coriolanus; Gertrude in Hamlet; and Lady Macbeth, who says that she would have been a terrible mother if she had had the chance to be one. And as for Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, we can infer that, having herself been married at age 13, she depicts a former girl-bride who learned principally to please her husband.

Why does Shakespeare exploit this idea of the older woman as largely absent figure, or an unsympathetic one if she must be present, except for those few rare mothers who, like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and Thaisa in Pericles, are effectively buried alive, losing their children either forever or for most of the play? (Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, for example, is forced into a 16-year banishment so that her husband can undergo a process of personal moral regeneration.) We might hypothesize about the playwright’s own life, married, as he was, to a woman eight years older than himself who reached middle age well before he did. We know that William Shakespeare spent most of his married life living in London, while his wife Anne Hathaway lived in Stratford with their children. We also know that Shakespeare’s plays were written in an extremely patriarchal period. But we can also see how useful a mother might be to a girl as, at a very young age, she comes face-to-face with the complexities of love and life.

And this is where there emerges a structural and thematic reason for the absence of mothers in Shakespeare. Aside from helping to solve the difficulty of finding boys who could plausibly play the parts of mature women, this lack allowed Shakespeare to create an important dramatic pretext: By taking away the mother (either, as in Romeo and Juliet, as a figure of real guidance or, as in many of his plays, like The Tempest, as a presence onstage at all), Shakespeare creates a gap in the young female characters’ lives, compelling them to develop that extraordinary independence and character that makes them so attractive. It is the completely sheltered and yet wise Miranda, after all, who first sees inherent nobility in the King’s son, of whom she knows nothing at all except that “nothing natural/I ever saw so noble.” Prospero might shape events in the world through his magic: But it is this young girl, Miranda, who shapes her own destiny through her heart.

The Tempest begins previews at our stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA, on Thursday, May 31, opens Saturday, June  2, and continues until Sunday, June 24.

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SHREW Grove Talk Podcast

Philippa KellyDr. Kelly explains it all! Our resident dramaturg provides historical and theatrical perspective on Shana Cooper’s production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Music by production Sound Designer Jake Rodriguez. Podcast produced by Will McCandless.

 

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Belated blog from the middle of the night.

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. This blog was written in the wee hours of Saturday, May 22.

Hello out there: Up in the middle of the night here listening to the quiet, running lines in my head. Realized I forgot to memorize the coda! That’s what jolted me awake!

Rehearsals are already half over, with two weeks to go before opening. The play is already fully staged and we are in the weedy bit now when we are off book but not quite at speed—heading into stumble-throughs—and it is a time of maximum discovery and growing ownership. Nice. Anxiety always a part of the process, but can be useful, if frightening.

I am shocked that my major choreography (massive tantrums as psychotic child) is on the floor of a platform 12 feet in the air. Holy cow. I am pretty scared up there, but I figure use it or lose it, or both! I also have a good share of the combat—a fistfight with sweet Julie Eccles who then SHOOTS me—and I have my first-ever death fall onto three very bouncy mattresses which propel me hilariously all over, like a big bowl of jello; two wranglers (the amazing Katie and intern blogger Dallas) and Charlie Robinson are on call to stop me bouncing back up and ruining the moment!—spent yesterday morning getting cortisone shots in my 47-year-old crappy knees, of course. Yesterday was relatively low key for me, mostly feather choreography and BBQ mime, though deep backstories are developing into quite the soap opera among us BBQ attendees. We had to be reminded that, uhh, the scene was not about us “extras” per se … Jon (Moscone) doesn’t know what he’s missing. Well, he doesn’t want to know what he’s missing, probably…

My family is sorting itself out without much attention from me. Robin turned 14 this week and has his party today—first one I ever had to miss. boo. He requested physics kits and is building an eternity clock right now. Something innately poetic about him. I was personally more intrigued by the trebuchet. Give me a big machine for hurling rocks! I think every woman needs one!

May as well get up and make his cake. Going to make brownies while I am at it for the theater folk. They never eat sweets of course…

John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven runs June 3-27. Visit calshakes.org for all the details.

Photo by Kevin Berne.
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Proceeding neck or nothing

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.

Week One:
Day One was a revelation, in many ways. First and foremost was the huge community presence. I expected a table session with cast and director and was blown away by the participation of the extended family of Cal Shakes: tech staff, box office, admin, teaching staff, creative team members, board members, former board members, avid supporters, actors, writer, dramaturg, music, such awesome support and a wonderful reminder of the community nature of theater. Day One was also a revelation for the first hearing of the script. I have been dreaming about this moment for two years, imagining the book opening and the characters standing up and walking about. Octavio Solis has magically seduced the play from the book, and we can now release the book from the process and live in the Pastures of Heaven.

Week Two:
Rehearsals continue apace. The three-story set set showed up on Day Two and blocking commenced immediately. We are proceeding neck or nothing, have choreographed the best part of Act One and now have tackled Act Two. Today is the story of Junius Maltby. There is a goat. Dan Hiatt, JoAnne Winter, and Charlie Robinson are dipping their feet into the water discussing horse-happiness while a chorus of old biddies (me and Richard [Thieriot] and Andy [Murray] and Catherine [Castellanos]) peck and squawk at them. Costume pieces are beginning to show up, which inform our choices immediately. Jon is miraculouly inventive. There is a moment with sheaves of wheat. Honestly, so gorgeous. And the sheer fun of it all as we add a hat and instantly become a new character: a neighbor, a hen, a child, a baby, a farmer, a teacher, a ghost… all accomplished simply. Agghh! There are donuts! Mad stampede!

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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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Listen to interviews with Jon and JoAnne

A representative of the NEA’s New Play Development Program came out to observe the final development workshop for John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven last week, and conducted interviews with Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone and JoAnne Winter, Co-Artistic Director of our collaborative partner, Word for Word. Hear the interviews at http://bit.ly/51f6RQ.

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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.

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Coming Soon: Your Participation.

Beginning two weeks from today, 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.

This play—which we’ve been developing in collaboration with award-winning playwright Octavio Solis and San Francisco’s renowned Word for Word Performing Arts Company over the past two years as part of our Steinbeck Project—is now slotted to have its debut on the Cal Shakes Main Stage, kicking off our 2010 season.

But the script is not quite finished yet, and we have one more development workshop coming up in November. To further inform the development process, we’ll be posting a series of three prompts on this blog, one every Monday starting October 19. The prompts will be crafted by playwright Solis, Pastures director (and Cal Shakes Artistic Director) Jonathan Moscone, Cal Shakes Director of Artistic Learning Trish Tillman, and Word for Word Co-Artistic Director JoAnne Winter. With each prompt, we’ll be asking for your input, via prose, poetry, video, audio, and whatever else you’d like to leave in the “comments” section.

Curious? Check back in with us next Monday for a sneak preview of themes and topics. We can’t wait to see what you’ll bring to The Pastures of Heaven.

Pictured above: A rock formation in the Corral de Tierra area of Salinas; photo by Derek Smith.

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