The Value of Listening: Annette Bening

(Update) In our excitement to celebrate Cal Shakes alum and Oscar nominee Annette Bening, we misspoke regarding one of her Cal Shakes credits – the role of Julia in our 1992 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona was played by Bay Area luminary and longtime Cal Shakes performer Stacy Ross. Annette Bening performed the role of Julia in our 1983 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. We apologize for the error.


Annette Bening, nominated for best actress at the 2024 Academy Awards for her performance in Nyad, is an actress of awe-inspiring strength and complexity. As we watch her play a woman who, in her 60s, revives a 30 year-old dream to swim the 100+ miles from Havana to Key West through shark-infested waters, swimming in a cage, wearing a retainer to prevent poisonous jellyfish from stinging the inside of her mouth, emerging from the water red, wrinkled, covered with salt, and exhausted, Bening claims a place in the sun for women of all ages. Rebuffed are the air-brushed roles that have rendered actresses an endangered species (if not extinct) by the age of 40. Bening’s Nyad dares to uplift a woman who is weathered by time and climate, harsh, driven, and humorously narcissistic.

To make Nyad, Bening spent up to 8 hours a day in the water for months as her character, Nyad, swam in pursuit of her dream, infuriating her coach (Jodie Foster) along the way, and inspiring us with her journey.

Howard Swain and Annette Bening starred in the 1983 Berkeley Shakespeare Festival production of “All’s Well That Ends Well” in John Hinkel Park. Photo by Bob Hsiang

Bening began her stage career in 1977 as a belly dancer in a production of Timon of Athens at San Diego’s Old Globe. In the early 1980s she moved to the Bay Area to study acting at ACT while auditioning for professional productions. During this period she starred in several Cal Shakes shows, playing Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well (1982), Charmian in Antony and Cleopatra (1982), Hermione in The Winter’s Tale (1982), Blanche of Spain in King John (1983), Rowena in Ivanhoe (1983), Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1983), and, at the Bruns, Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1983).

The value of listening

“It is the disease of not listening… that I am troubled withal”  – (Falstaff, Henry IV Part II).

One of the most important things that an actor can do, according to Bening, is listen. Indeed, acting is crucially about listening: “A lot of acting is taking in. It’s being receptive.” (Quote from a lecture Bening gave at Chapman University, 2015.)

And the value of listening extends way beyond the stage. We may think that we’re most present for others when we’re talking – but according to Bening, we’re more authentically “there” when we listen. “As a parent,” she says, “one of the things I’m trying hardest to do is to listen. Our instinct as parents is to talk: ‘I’m worried about you, I have all this experience and wisdom, and I want to tell you about what you need to know.’” But to listen, suggests Bening, is to move over and truly make room for another person: understanding who they are and allowing this experience to help shape who we are in respect of them.

Please join all of us at Cal Shakes in celebrating the amazing career of one of our own!

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