Theater is full of traditions: turning on the ghost light before leaving the theater; no peacock feathers on stage or whistling backstage; mirrors are bad luck (obviously); never give a performer flowers before a show; tell actors to “break a leg” rather than wishing them “good luck.” One of the best known theater superstitions surrounds Macbeth. Naming the play in the theater can curse the production unless counter measures are taken! Perhaps we were not vigilant enough because Cal Shakes has certainly had a Macbeth year. We recently closed the play to end our season, so it now feels like an alright time to write about what has been a pretty crazy year.
About a year ago, shortly after we announced our season with Macbeth in it, our managing director of 10 years stepped down precipitating a reshuffling of staff that was disruptive in all the ways that term has come to connote. We made several hires through the winter which had many knock-on effects, such as our new director of marketing and development stepping into her role six weeks before our annual gala, and pulling off a great celebration.
Then the season started. Bay Area folks might remember the unusual weather event this spring that was being described as an “atmospheric river.” It settled in over our beautiful outdoor theater for three days, beginning on the day we loaded-in for the first show of the season. Hanging lights in the rain is something not done, what with the electricity and all, so our redoubtable crew was up at all hours waiting for gaps between deluges that were dry enough to hang lights safely and resume work on the set that was now also warping from the onslaught. Cast and crew similarly worked around the whims of Mother Nature, but despite these heroic efforts we lost three days of tech rehearsal, which lost us two of three preview performances before Opening Night. So for Opening Night of our first show of the season the actors had had one full run through of the play in costumes and on the set.
And it was a glorious show. Hilarious and original with director Tyne Rafaeli and the excellent cast finding humor in every nook and cranny of text, culminating in the most uproariously calamitous Pyramus and Thisbe ever. On to the next show, for which approximately two weeks before first rehearsal we lost our Shen Te. One thing about Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan to note here, the role of Shen Te (and her male alter ego Shui Ta) is a big one, in virtually every scene and requiring huge versatility. Our casting director sent out the call and the amazing Francesca Fernandez McKenzie stepped in to knock it out of the amphitheater.
Out third show of the season was a world premiere: Madhuri Shekar’s House of Joy. For a world premiere the playwright is in the rehearsal room making adjustments to the text, responding to actors’ work and the director’s notes. And this was certainly the intention, but Madhuri was suffering acute back pain that laid her out for the first two weeks of rehearsal, lying on her back in the corner of the rehearsal hall! If you saw House of Joy you’ll know it included some amazing fight scenes in it, but you probably were not aware that in tech rehearsal, our lead sustained an ankle injury that required re-choreographing scenes so that she would not be–among other things–jumping off walls.
And onto Macbeth. For the second time in the season, two weeks from start of rehearsal our lead was offered an opportunity he could not refuse (a lead role in a tv series) and backed out of the production. Another casting call for a role that, to say the least, no actor goes into lightly. New York-based Rey Lucas rose to the challenge, taking on the role a week before rehearsals to save the show. Meanwhile, director Victor Malana Maog’s wife was expecting and sure enough her water broke the night before the first tech rehearsal. Eric stepped in to support the moment in which all the elements of the show (actors, lights, costumes) come together for the first time. He texted from the Bruns: “I’m here at the Bruns. We’re doing Macbeth. There’s a full moon. The director’s wife is in labor. It’s Friday the 13th.”
Macbeth also went on and attracted many more students to our Student Discovery matinee program than anticipated so we added four additional matinees on top of the two originally scheduled, with three of those matinees in the extension week of our final show of the year. The same week that PG&E announced plans to shut down the electrical grid over a period of time estimated to begin with our 4th student matinee and end sometime after our last scheduled show of the season.
As we debated what to do (generators? cancellations? what to communicate to schools? and when?) managing director Sarah Williams reminded us, “This is theater, we are acting from the principle that the show must go on, am I right?” Which greatly simplified things. Instead of trying to address an endless branching decision tree of possible scenarios, the question became, “What do we need to do to 1) make sure everyone is safe and taken care of, and 2) ensure the show can go on?”
There is no human situation or emotion for which theater does not offer an apt metaphor, and ‘the show must go on’ is perhaps the best summation of human resilience there is to be found in the entirety of our philosophy. The show is not up to an individual to make happen or not. Actors play their part, as do stagehands, designers and producers. It is an inherently collective undertaking made possible by the collective will to achieve a moment of humanity.
No doubt climate change will continue to disrupt operations, but it can’t stop the show. Neither can changes in actors, atmospheric rivers, births, or the occasional mooing cow. As we face the certainty of our uncertain futures on a limited planet floating in a vast cold space, some put their faith in technological fixes. But we look to the theater-makers who know that the only way to make something happen is by putting your faith in someone else. In particular – look to a small but mighty assemblage of players at California Shakespeare Theater and their doughty audience who glory in theater with all the elements of the world thrown in.
It has been a Macbeth season. Thank you to the hundreds of artists who made it possible and the many thousands who supported us with your applause and ticket purchases. We can’t wait to see you at the Bruns next year!
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