SF Shakes: I know that you worked with SF Shakes some time ago as an actor and now you’re back as a director. Can you talk a bit about that first SF Shakes experience and how you made the transition from actor to director?
Elizabeth Carter: I had done many shows in my mid-twenties, including Cal Shakes and Utah Shakes And then I did MerryWives of Windsor, which was kind of a big deal actually. Merry Wives was directed by the late Joan Mankin. Joan was just the most wonderful artist: she was a clown, she was a dynamic actor, she was the smartest woman ever. When she cast me as Mistress Ford, I felt like it was the first time someone allowed me to be a lead– really, especially in Shakespeare, because I had been a lot of country wenches and a lot of secondary comedic characters, and I had played the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Joan just had a bigger range for what she thought was a leading woman and who she thought was beautiful. This was 2000 when your leading ladies were usually white women who were thin—I am not—and I felt so grateful that somebody had seen me and let me be one of the people who carried the show. So that was a turning point for me. It was a big deal for me. Someone trusted me.
(Kay Kostopoulos as Mistress Page (l) and Elizabeth Carter as Mistress Ford (r) in SF Shakes’ Free Shakespeare in the Park, The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2001)
I kept working and working. I had been directing young people in the Cal Shakes summer program for many years. I had directed a lot of 10-year olds in Shakespeare, challenging them with things like The Winter’s Tale and Richard III. And I also taught at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts where I had taught for 15 years, and where I am now the Director of the Theatre Department. My professional career was going really well as an actor and then Jeanette Harrison from AlterTheater contacted me. She was interested in me directing a workshop of a new play by Star Finch, Bondage. It was a test for me. I did the workshop. I loved the play and found it super challenging. I felt so alive creatively during that process. That was my first real professional experience directing an adult production. And from then, I just felt like oh my gosh, this is what I do. This is something that makes me feel so alive and challenges me. Getting to be responsible for the vision of a play just woke up so many things in me that I hadn’t totally realized I was pretty good at, even though I had been doing it with kids for so long. I was able to give the gift I developed from teaching students to actors, that is being able to communicate really well and to draw out their best qualities, and to push them and to shape something that is not only from the inside out, but from the outside in. Since then, I’ve gone on to direct for TheatreFirst, African American Shakespeare Co., and A.C.T.
I am still actively acting. I just went to New York in the fall and did another production of Eureka Day! by Jonathan Spector Off Broadway and that was really exciting because I had never done New York. I find myself now not only thinking as an actor about my part, but really thinking about how my part fits in with the show. I’ve started thinking on both sides: how do I serve the director’s needs and how do I serve my needs as an actor? I can put myself on both sides at the same time and that’s really interesting to me. Right now, I feel pretty evenly weighted.
(Elizabeth Carter in The Black Rider, Shotgun Players)
SF Shakes: How do you feel about returning to SF Shakes?
Elizabeth Carter: I will tell you something I am excited about: I am only the second person of color since the 90’s to direct for SF Shakes and the first woman of color to direct in its history. I am both surprised and not surprised by this. It’s Shakespeare, after all. One of things I love about working with SF Shakes is that the company is really walking the walk in terms of inclusivity and diversity, and asking themselves hard questions– and I love that.
On creating inclusivity and a wider appreciation of Shakespeare.
I remember teaching one of my students. She was Chinese-American. I asked he to look closely at a monologue by Hermione. She was hesitant at first, so I asked her, do you think there were no Chinese queens? No powerful Chinese women? And so she started working on it and she ended up going to the English-Speaking Union to compete in New York. She was so dynamic and she’s fallen in love with Shakespeare and she is now changing the face of what Shakespeare looks like. That’s the thing we have to ask: Why would you think that you don’t belong here? There are many ways that Shakespeare translates across cultures. We have to give people the opportunity to access these things. I’m passionate about creating theatre that people of color and underrepresented folx can see themselves in. So often we don’t feel like Shakespeare is for us, made to include us. People of color need to push for people of color. And now that I am in a position of power, I need to ask: How do I create access?
Follow this blog for more from this conversation with Elizabeth Carter, including information about Carter’s vision for The Tragedy of King Lear, Summer 2020. You can learn more about Elizabeth Carter on her website: www.elizabethcarterarts.com
We still preform Shakespeare’s plays becasue they contiunue to offer incredibnly insight into human behavior. This has allowed artists and directors to adapt his plays to meet their historical needs. Indeed, since it was first written King Lear has undergone numerous adaptations each unique, special and impactful in their own ways while still retaining the heart of Shakespeare. And yet, rarely do these adaptations take the form of casting a woman in the titular role. This summer, SF Shakes is adressing our unique historical moment by casting Jessica Powell as King Lear—not Queen Lear. The question is how will a female Lear address the play’s concerns of age, power, and familial relationships from a female perspective?
Interview by Arin Roberson, SF Shakes Literary Intern, 2020. Arin recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in English and a Minor in Celtic Studies. She loves nothing more than reading anything she can get her hands on, and playing outdoors with her Australian Shepherd, Tilly.
SF Shakes: What made you feel ready to take on King Lear?
Jessica Powell: Nothing makes me feel ready to take on King Lear. I don’t know if anybody ever feels ready to take on King Lear. It’s just a massive, gorgeous, role and the character changes so much over the course of the play. Part of me also says it is time. I don’t know how much more time I have on this earth or when the roles run out. So yes, there is this kind of surge of energy in saying yes, now. Do this now.
SF Shakes: What are the things you feel you bring to this role as a woman that a male Lear does not possess?
Jessica: Well the stakes are so much higher for both Lear as a woman and for Jessica. Everything is heightened—the emotion, the challenges, the expectations. I think having achieved power and keeping it are more challenging for a woman. Then there is the relationship with the daughters, who after all did come out of her body. Lear says “but yet thou art my flesh.” It’s a whole different thing for a man to say that versus a woman saying that. When she says, but you are my child, how…you are my own flesh, you came out of my own body, I carried you for nine months and I am cursing you, I hope you never have a child or if you do that you experience what I am experiencing from you right now it’s just so much stronger.
I was thinking also [laughs] about the whole interruption from Kent in the beginning. He tries to stop Lear from doing what she’s doing and how angrily she blows up at him. The phrase that came to me today was “Do not mansplain!” It’s bad enough this man calls me “thou,” which you know, to use that pronoun is disrespectful, but that he tried to do it to a woman is like that’s just…you don’t do that.
SF Shakes: Has your history as an actor prepared you for this role?
Jessica: No. [laughs] No, no. I played Goneril a long time ago. And that gave me quite a lot of insight into the whole Lear world, the whole Lear family.
SF Shakes: Do you think having played Goneril adds some new illumination to Lear?
Jessica: Oh yes! Because fortunately in the production that I did, Goneril had good reason to be just totally fed up with Lear. The King and the soldiers were jerks. So, it was really pretty easy to say, “Not only sir, this your all-licensed fool, but other of your insolent retinue, Do hourly carp and quarrel; breaking forth In rank and not-to-be-endured riots. Sir” [sighs heavily in frustration and then breaks character and laughs] It’s just this whole I can’t bear it. But then, of course, you have to deal with the moment where she says oh absolutely, take his eyes out. You go woah, woah, because she definitely gets far harder and more evil as the play goes on, and you have to deal with that. I remember standing next to my pastor at the time and saying, “What makes a person do that.” And we simultaneously said, “abuse.” So that was kind of an interesting insight. Now clearly that’s not going to be the case here, but there is emotional abuse; it doesn’t just have to be sexual abuse, it can be physical, it can be emotional and I do think that Lear does not know her daughters and has not been a good parent. You could look at the relationship with her daughters. She really has no concept of their character and experiences. And how could she? How could she have a concept of who they are and still be surprised when Cordelia says no, I can’t say what you expect me to say.
SF Shakes: You’ve touched I think upon this already, but what are some of the challenges of playing Lear?
Jessica: Well just physically. Physically, vocally, and mentally trying to memorize the lines. Sometimes it’s easy; it seems like when you have the extended speeches that sort of makes sense, but in the small parts where it’s like in the trial scene where just small exchanges, [laughs] You know it’s all these little kind of repetitive things that are hard. Emotionally of course it’s really challenging because on the one hand, you’ve got Lear saying [with authority] “Call my people together get the horses ready.” [whispered] “I’m going mad. I’m going mad” There’s that, well where does the madness start? How does it progress? You don’t want to peak too early. So that’s a challenge and yet you have this scene right in the beginning where she’s furious with Cordelia and then Kent. So, there is that in finding not just the emotional progression of the character, but what exactly is going on in her mind as she’s saying these different things. How much does she reveal and to whom?
SF Shakes: Do you find Lear to be a character who redeems herself?
Jessica: There certainly is redemption at the end of Lear, where there is this forgiveness. Lear asks for forgiveness and Cordelia forgives Lear. There’s the acknowledgment of suffering and the apology. Some people think that in the last scene Lear is still very selfish when she goes off to prison with Cordelia and says oh now I’ve got you all to myself. I don’t know if that’s an interpretation that I want to play with. I do think there is definitely growth in the acknowledgment when she wakes up in Cordelia’s camp and she says “I am a very foolish, fond, old woman”; I don’t really know how I got here, I think I know you, I’m not sure. I am just really broken. Strangely enough, I do think this play ends on a hopeful note. Things have been resolved, the bad guys are gone, and a lot of people are dead, but most of them are the bad people. And Lear, depending on the interpretation you want to give, Lear dies in hope that Cordelia actually is still alive, and I love that line where she says, thinking that she sees a breath, “if it’s true it makes every fault, every sin, every bad thing in my life, it redeems it.” It’s like the end of Pericles. At the end, Pericles is a broken man in rags, won’t cut his hair, won’t speak, won’t eat, thinks that not only his wife but his daughter are dead. And then it turns out that his daughter is actually there on the ship and she’s speaking with him. And little by little he gets to understand who she is and he keeps saying tell me more, stop, stop, tell me more, stop, stop because the joy is so overwhelming that it is unbearable. And maybe something like that happens to Lear at the end “Oh look, look.” And then she dies. Not everybody interprets it that way, but I think she dies in hope.
SF Shakes: Do you have any personal thoughts on how you interpret Lear’s character?
Jessica: I have been thinking about the concept of nature and natural. Those words are used so much. And I think the very concept of it is challenged and then changes so that Lear has a changing definition of what is natural. I mean at the beginning I think Lear thinks well, it’s natural that I am king and therefore can command and you should all obey me and I get to have a hundred people following me around and then she starts to see different things. She sees Tom and thinks, no this is actually the natural person and I’ve got too much on. She wonders what makes her daughters so evil. About Regan, she says, “Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?” I think Lear has a different idea from the beginning to the end of what is natural.
SF Shakes: Are there any particular actors or interpretations of Lear that you find inspiring?
Jessica: I saw just a little snippet of a Lear from the Stratford Festival. I don’t think the entire thing is available, but it looked really enticing. I think what struck me in just the little bit that I saw was how far you can go, how invested you can be in each phrase. The wonderful Patsy Rodenburg, in Speaking Shakespeare, says, “Shakespeare characters speak to survive.” So there’s nothing wasted– everything you say, you’ve got to find what’s behind it. And I was really moved by Harriet Walter as Prospero in an all-women Tempest that takes place in a prison. The investment that she put into that character is really inspiring.
SF Shakes: Do you have a favorite line and why?
Jessica: [laughs] Oh there’s so many, so many. These days I love “Get thee glass eyes and, like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.” Or I love the line “O, I have ta’en too little care of this” and especially this past week which has just been so bruising. You know I think for any white person the responsibility, the privilege that we did not earn, that has to weigh on us. And so there’s all that. Those really are two of my favorite lines, that and “A dog’s obeyed in office,” because it’s just so [laughs] correct right now.
Jessica Powell is a Bay Area actor, most recently seen as Momo in The Humans for TheStage (San Jose). She played Helicanus, The Bawd, et al. in SF Shakes’ Pericles (2008). Other roles include Volumnia (Coriolanus), Georgia O’Keeffe (A Conversation with GeorgiaO’Keeffe); Sister Aloysius (Doubt), and Elizabeth I (Mary Stuart), all for Pacific Rep.; Claire (Uncanny Valley), Polly (Other Desert Cities), Hannah, et al. (Angels in America), Aunt Eller(Oklahoma!), Mrs. Roswell (Ice Glen), Kate (All My Sons), Countess of Roussillon (All’s Well That End’s Well), Aemilia (A Comedy of Errors), Mame (Mame), Lee Green (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife), The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz – twice!), Mrs. Higgins (My Fair Lady), Joanne (Company) Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Margrethe (Copenhagen), and Ethel Thayer (On Golden Pond). Jessica co-founded Symmetry Theatre Company and has been an Actors’ Equity member since 1989.
In the prologue to Henry V, the chorus invokes a “muse of fire” by asking the audience to use their “imaginary forces” to see kings, armies, horses, and the battlefields of France, all within the bounds of Shakespeare’s wooden O, the Globe Theatre.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confined two mighty monarchies, Whose high uprearèd and abutting fronts The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder. Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts. Into a thousand parts divide one man, And make imaginary puissance. Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth, For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times, Turning th’ accomplishment of many years Into an hourglass…
One wonders what the Bard would have thought of cramming those armies, horses and all, not onto a simple wooden stage, but into a small virtual box on Zoom. Three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, some theatre companies, closed for a twenty-first-century plague, are asking audiences to reimagine the in-person nature of theatre itself. A new type of theatrical production is emerging – in the digital realm.
When shelter-in-place orders abruptly hobbled the performing arts sector, leading to almost universal cancellations and closures, SF Shakes’ staff immediately began to wonder what the 38-year-old tradition of Free Shakespeare in the Park might have to look like. The mission of the company is all about access and community; the performances are free and presented in familiar local parks. Families and pets are welcome, everyone brings their own blankets, chairs, and picnics, and the relaxed environment encourages community members to share a collective experience. The most important thing, we felt, was to continue to pursue the mission above all– to bring people together to watch a compelling and relevant story, especially in a time when humanity is already having a collective, once-in-a-lifetime experience. If it couldn’t be in person, it would need to be done in the way everything was being done: with livestreaming technology. Distance-bridging technologies such as Zoom and YouTube would need to be our techno-muses and the stage upon which we lay our scene. These tools both mediate our art and give shape to our imaginative capacities. At the same time, however, they pose some obvious limitations. Livestreaming a play in which all the actors, production staff, and audience members are sheltered in place in their respective homes presents an enormous set of challenges and opportunities that ask us to re-think our ideas of what theatre can be.
We hope to present here some of the ideas that SF Shakes and its extended family have been exploring since the onset of shelter in place. They have been voiced by our Artistic Director, Rebecca Ennals, who has been committed to the notion that the show must go online from the very beginning of this crisis (read a TBA interview with Ennals here: “All The World’s A Virtual Stage for SF Shakes’ King Lear”), and also by the artists and friends of SF Shakes on two special occasions.
The first was the script workshop of King Lear that began on March 11, three days before California’s shelter-in-place directive. Under the direction of Elizabeth Carter and with Ennals as script adaptor, the actors gathered to read the script aloud and suggest and incorporate cuts and minor alterations such as pronoun adjustments (our Lear is female). Recognizing that this work could be completed online, after the first in-person meeting, workshops transitioned to Zoom. On the last day of the workshop, some friends and board members of the Festival were invited to Zoom in, watch and listen to the whole play, and offer their thoughts on their experience as spectators. The lessons learned during this process continue to shape our approach to a livestreamed online production.
The second occasion was the Festival’s annual April gala. Normally held at Marines’ Memorial Hotel in downtown San Francisco, the gala was hosted online with resounding success, as guests met together in a massive Zoom room dressed in their best party attire. A highlight of the celebration was the revelation of the cast of King Lear by director Elizabeth Carter. Once all of the artists were introduced, they engaged in a vigorous discussion about the challenges and possibilities involved in moving from a literal wooden platform in a park to a virtual platform.
Any stage production is subject to technical difficulties, and a livestreamed production is no different. In the age of Zoom, who hasn’t experienced an interruption caused by an unstable internet connection—or worse, the boot of a failed connection? And at least once a day, we probably all forget to turn our mics on… or off. Fumbling to unmute herself, Melissa Ortiz, the actor who plays Regan in this year’s King Lear, noted that on Zoom, as an actor, “you’re in charge of your own tech. That’s very different and very fun, I think.” In our Zoom reading, actors—not technicians—had to mute/unmute themselves, and turn on/off their cameras. Even now, as our expanding tech capabilities put those basic tasks into the hands of the stage manager and technical director, actors must still light themselves and be their own makeup artists, property masters, and costumers. To address these challenges, Lighting Designer John Bernard has created an instructional video to train actors about the basics of lighting, and he’ll also travel virtually to their homes to check their set-ups. Meanwhile, instead of budgeting for lumber and steel, the company will provide green screens, cameras, mics, and even update actors’ internet access so that each actor has a fully functioning performances studio. “One of the things I am concerned with,” says Director Carter, “is just making sure people are seen and heard and have a strong internet connection.” To be sure, our audiences will have additional demands. Helene Kocher, a friend of SF Shakes who watched the script workshop observed afterwards, “I think with a bit more work it could feel more like a play than individual actors in separate distant places. Each actor needs to have a background that is not their office/kitchen/living room.” Bringing distanced actors together seamlessly is the responsibility of Neal Ormond, Technical Director for SF Shakes and the Scenic and Graphic Designer for King Lear.
At this time of year, Ormond would normally be working around the clock designing and crafting a sturdy set that can be transported and re-assembled at park sites. He’d also be scheduling transport and assembly crews, dressing room trailers, security fencing, portable toilets, and all of the other things required to stage a play at multiple outdoor venues. Instead, he has dedicated himself to mastering the streaming technology. He is part of a larger community on the cutting edge of virtual performing arts pushing the limits of the Zoom box, using Open Broadcasting Software to make sure a performance on Zoom doesn’t look like a teleconferenced staff meeting. Ormond’s work is cut out for him as Carter and her actors begin to explore adapting basic stage directions: how do you exchange a kiss on a virtual stage? Fight? Eavesdrop? Pass a letter from one actor to another? Or get your eyes gouged out, as happens in one of Lear’s most disturbing scenes? As Ennals enthusiastically explains: “We are pioneers. We are making this up as we go, people!”
The Feedback Loop
On gala night, Cassidy Brown, the actor who plays the Earl of Kent in Lear, addressed a hurdle all actors in virtual space will face: “I find the challenge I am looking forward to and terrified of is the challenge of not literally being able to get direct feedback from your fellow actor. We’re going to have to find out how to affect each other in a way that is different. We can’t really look at each other. We can’t make eye contact because we don’t know the angles [on Zoom]. So, just figuring out how to contact each other is a challenge I look forward to solving.” Actor Ortiz distilled this issue into a pithy fact: “to look into someone’s eye is to look into the camera. We have to pretend we can see someone that we can’t actually face head on, which is fun!” As Brown noted, the connection is not only between actors, but between the actors and the audience. David Everett Moore, who plays the Duke of Albany and Oswald, examined this dilemma: “We won’t be able to have interaction with the audience. This is a symbiotic relationship. [The audience’s] energy feeds us and we take that and give it back to you. There’s a great loop, so trying to figure out what that loop looks like is going to be really interesting.”
Technology can address some of these concerns. Live electronic chat, a feature native to online conferencing and broadcasting platforms such as YouTube, provides one possible answer. Actual chatting during a live performance in the park could be an annoyance, but in the context of a livestreamed performance, it could be a great tool that allows the audience to express their reactions to the performance as well as engage with their fellow audience members. Indeed, before Carter announced the cast of Lear on gala night, she focused our attention on this need: “We don’t hear applause, so if you would like to put some comments or excitement in chat or whoops and hollers or fabulous emojis, please do that because we love to see that. Anything you can do to let us know how thrilled you are is really wonderful.”
The desire for human connection, whether it be between actors, between actors and audience, or between community members raises the larger question of engagement. As mentioned before, SF Shakes is a community-serving organization with the mission of connecting and engaging people through live theatre. Our livestream of Lear will be free – as all of our park production have always been. Even as live-streaming removes geographic barriers, we hope to localize performances in much the same way we usually tour the various communities of the Bay Area. That means promoting local restaurants and other businesses, inviting local musicians to provide pre-show entertainment, and using our platform to draw attention to and support for the most vulnerable in each city and county, for Pleasanton, Cupertino, Redwood City, and San Francisco. And while anyone regardless of location is welcome at any of our free livestreams, involving our civic partners in the promotion and production of localized livestreams is part of our dedication to community-based art. Ennals adds, “Even as we return to in-person performances in the future, I hope we’ll keep streaming – this crisis has really highlighted access inequities for folks who, under normal circumstances, are unable to attend a park performance. We hope that we’ll hear from many folks who are able to join us for the very first time.”
A Play by Any Other Name
On gala night, SF Shakes Board Chair Cynthia Francis asked the actors a million-dollar question: “Does it feel like stage theatre via new technology or like you are now TV and movie actors?” The director’s response: “It’s a combination of theatre and radio play—so much has to be in the text, and so much has to be in the words.” This sentiment was echoed by some of the guests invited to the script workshop in March, where the Zoom platform provided a close-up view of each actor. Director Carter acknowledges this advantage: “one of the things I noticed during the reading is that there were scenes that were extremely moving. One of the things this format gives us, which is different from being on stage, is that we are so close. You can see everybody’s eyes moving and the expressions on their face. So, there is something really intimate with this format.” “Close-ups are a gift with Zoom and performance,” declares Stage Manager Karen Schleifer who attended the script workshops. Board Member Craig Moody agrees: “I watched the whole thing from my easy chair and thought it was terrific in every respect. The pictures of the actors were for the most part sharp and clear and the option of having the person speaking occupying the whole screen was very satisfactory. I could see the value of doing readings of many full plays this way, even in ‘normal’ times, especially Shakespeare where words are such a huge part of the experience.” Shakespeare’s words uttered in this format still retain the power to move us as evinced by Board Member Michael Wong’s response to watching the script workshop:
This reading — and this experience — are extraordinary. And in light of contemporary circumstances, many of the lines take on a new resonance. Some that come to mind are Lear’s comments about human needs, and what distinguishes humans from animals. It makes us think: when our health and our way of life is under threat, what is necessary merely to survive, and what do we need to be “human,” much less enjoy the “king”-like life we once enjoyed only days prior?
We have no doubts that a livestreamed King Lear will move you. It feels like no accident that SF Shakes will be performing a play composed in 1606 while plague ravished London. In the face of pestilence and isolation, the artist’s job is to tell the stories that unite us and remind us of our resilient humanity. Whether our stage is a wooden O or a virtual box, your imaginary forces will still be the essential ingredient we need to create this story – together.
Robyn Grahn is a Resident Artist and Teaching Artist for SF Shakes. She was in the middle of teaching Upstart Crows—a Bay Area Shakespeare Camp for teens that meets on Saturdays—when public health measures turned her in-person performance camp into a distance learning experiment.
SF Shakes: Your Saturday Upstart Crows Camp began meeting in January. Your camp was working towards a performance of Much Ado for family and friends at a culminating performance on April 11. But, then, social distancing measures forced you to stop meeting in person on March 21. Instead of canceling the camp, you opted to migrate online using the Zoom platform. Can you talk a little about that transition?
Robin Grahn: At first, I thought we’d just have to go online for just one session before everything returned to normal. [laughs] It was a little nerve-wracking to try to figure out a class that would keep the students’ attention. Also, we had been doing a lot of ensemble work. And it was a focus of this course.
SF Shakes: Can you explain what ensemble work is?
Robyn Grahn: That means doing a lot of watching one another, getting close to one another, reading each other’s body language and not using text, but rather using the interaction with each other on stage to build acting skills. I’ve had to suddenly switch that up so that the focus is now more one-on-one, and more text based.
SF Shakes:You mentioned that you were worried about whether the students would stay with you. What are you finding?
So, the students are definitely with me. This is an extraordinary group that is willing to be “in it.” Most of my students have been in Upstart Crows Camp before, so they know what they are working towards, and that dedication has been really beneficial. They’ve really come through, especially when it comes to migrating ensemble exercises to Zoom. They’ve been really good about experimenting with games. They surprised me with the one-word story game, for example.
SF Shakes: Can you explain what the on-word story game is?
Robyn Grahn: With the one-word story game, we sit in a circle– or, in this case, we decide the sequence of campers on Zoom and then we come up with a story by each person adding one single word as we go through. It’s difficult because, obviously I may have a story in my head that doesn’t match the story in anyone else’s head, much less the collaborative story unfolding in the course of the exercise.
SF Shakes: It sounds like one-word story can be a metaphor for all of the uncertainty in the world right now. You can’t anticipate how the story evolves. You have a vision for the story, but the story has a life of its own.
Robyn Grahn: [Laughs] Oh yeah.
SF Shakes: Can you tell me what has come to replace your ensemble work?
Robyn Grahn: Experiment. It’s become about seeing what works and what doesn’t, and what we present on a screen. It’s still about story, but now that story is located on the screen; each square of the Zoom grid takes on importance as it contributes to story. There’s less emphasis on costumes and scenery and props. It’s about getting the most out of that Zoom box on screen.
SF Shakes: Do campers contribute to the experimenting?
Robyn Grahn: Oh, definitely! During our second Zoom meeting we brainstormed the possibilities under the new circumstances. For example, they came up with the idea of doing a podcast complete with Foley sound effects and things like that. But, for the time being, we are really trying to push the limits of Zoom. For example, one student tried his hand at scene blocking by walking away from his computer camera to simulate hiding. So, certainly one of things we are experimenting with is creating depth, you know foreground and background. Another thing that is wonderful is that the campers are making great use of their individual spaces: one of our campers Zooms from his bedroom, so he’s imagining ways of using the bed as part of his toolset. A bed can be a hiding place, or a thinking place, for example.
SF Shakes: That brings me to the next question: by now we are familiar with seeing screenshots of Zoom meetings that look like heads in squares—that famous Brady Bunch grid. How do you address that? Are you working with heads mostly, or is the body involved too?
Robyn Grahn: We’ll be getting into that a lot more. Frame manipulation will be key in telling our story and showing the relationships between characters. You know, a soliloquy scene might demand an extreme closeup. Other scenes might call for distance. We are constantly playing with this. There are no rules. The students are willing to play and that has been a great resource.
SF Shakes: Have you discovered any surprising tips or tricks you can apply on Zoom that might be helpful for anyone using it for teaching art and performance?
Robyn Grahn: Games work surprisingly well. They’re mostly a carry-over from what we’ve been doing in in-person meetings, but with adaptation. For example, we play a “who’s the chief?” game in which one person starts a clapping rhythm and everyone else has to follow them as they change rhythms. The game is great for developing awareness skills that are essential on stage—you know, understanding who is animating a scene at any one time. Under normal circumstances, students who have left the room have to come back and determine who’s the chief based on what they are hearing. Obviously, we had to change that a little. So, it’s now become a game of mirror, where one person leads with gestures instead of sound. Zoom lets me place campers in a “waiting room” and when they return to the main conversation, they have to guess who the leader is based on vision.
SF Shakes: So, you create multiple virtual spaces using Zoom functions?
Robyn Grahn: Exactly.
SF Shakes: Is there an offline component?
Robyn Grahn: Yes, for example, there’s a masquerade in Much Ado, so I sent a link on how to make papier-mâché masks for the campers to craft on their own, but I also hosted a special mask-making session for any students who needed help or who just wanted to create masks together.
SF Shakes Upstart Crows is really about building up to a final performance. How do you manage expectations or disappointments knowing that social distancing rules mean there can be no in-person final performance?
Robyn Grahn: The biggest disappointments probably already happened during our first Zoom when it became clear that we probably would not meet again in person. But now the campers seem to be managing their own expectations in amazing ways. They seem very aware that what we ultimately create won’t be a fleeting one-time performance, but rather something more permanent given the Zoom recording function. It’ll be something more akin to film-making and they are adapting as actors.
If anything, they are—and I am—getting a good education in how to do this kind of thing for ourselves. And I mentioned this to them in the beginning: this will be a chance to learn how to present and produce yourself for something like social media or auditions. This is an education in finding good lighting, in presenting yourself for a camera and in constructing effective personas.
SF Shakes: I know you are teaching teens, but what if you were teaching much younger campers?
Robyn Grahn: What we’ve learned—especially recently—is that the internet is a valid way of expressing your creativity and values. There’s a hungry audience out there. Also, when it comes to younger campers, what I’ve learned is that our tried-and-true theater games translate really well to the online environment: they help with listening, with confidence, with creation.
SF Shakes: Zoom has a text chat function. Does that play a role in your teaching?
Robyn Grahn: Not so much. Text chat is a different skill set. Chat is about writing while acting is about using your heart and body. It’s not that one skill set is better than the other, but I really want to transport my campers to a different learning place and theater is that place—it keeps the experience special and distinct from say doing their schoolwork on line, if you know what I mean. There’s a use for text chat, but mainly to give a few examples of say, iambic pentameter, but my sessions don’t live in text chat, they really live in the realm of voice and in the immediacy of performance.
SF Shakes: Any final revelations about this experience?
Robyn Grahn: Yes, this has really opened a door for new forms of collaboration. I was really moved by how my campers put their heads together to work around the restrictions of social distancing. In a sense they became more social.
Robyn Grahn is a Resident Artist and Teaching Artist for SF Shakes. She has performed in two seasons of Shakespeare on Tour, SF Shakes’ educational program that takes Shakespeare plays into schools throughout California. She is also the Engagement Coordinator for SF Shakes, helping our organization connect with community in alliance with our partner organizations serving people experiencing homelessness.
Hey. Here we are. All of us. It’s been a couple of weeks of shelter-in-place here in California – two weeks of wildly shifting emotions, of rapidly acquired hobbies, of anxiety, of connection, of pressing a giant pause button on our lives and finding out how that feels. For some. For others, our first responders, medical professionals, food, farm, and grocery workers, delivery folks, and sanitation workers, it’s anything but a pause, and those of us living our suddenly quiet and tightly inscribed lives think of them often.
It’s also a heartbreaking time for artists and culture workers. We depend on live, in-person, real-time interactions between humans. So many of us have been thrown suddenly out of work, seen dream roles disappear as shows are cancelled, locked the doors of museums and theatres and concert halls that are nothing without the people who inhabit them. Many are struggling with unemployment claims, relief applications, and access to health care, not to mention keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table.
But in some ways, it’s also a hopeful time for the arts. Many have noted that during this time, folks have turned to culture for solace, for laughter, and for connection. Online concerts and readings, great performances suddenly made available, education opportunities from favorite artists… these things have been bright points of light on our ever-present screens.
Many of us have also taken comfort in nature – we can still get outdoors, within our 6’ bubbles. Some have noted – doesn’t the sky seem bluer? Aren’t the animals, even in urban settings, emboldened by our absence? Without the noise of traffic and airplanes, does the birdsong seem especially clear and sweet? Our parks are oases of sanity, places to take deep breaths and appreciate the planet we often treat so poorly.
I have been thinking of London in 1606, where Shakespeare wrote King Lear under quarantine, and Mexico City in 1695, where Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, herself infected with plague, finished the brilliant work which we are only now fully exploring and appreciating. It is an astonishing coincidence that these two writers and these works were exactly what we were exploring in the month of March, as we moved so rapidly from in-person rehearsals to little boxes on our screens. We found great joy in working on these plays, even remotely – we learned that no matter what, we must continue to make plays together, in whatever form we can.
SF Shakes exists at the intersection of art, nature, community, and access. This is who we are, and who we’ve always been. We don’t know when we can come together again in person as a community, in nature, to enjoy a live presentation for free in the park. What we do know is that engagement, the exchange between artists and community, between neighbors who sit beside each other to break bread, laugh, and cry at our shared human experiences, is our mission just as it has always been. We can’t be with you in person right now. But we ARE still here, and we are still committed to offering Free Shakespeare, either in your park or in your living room, featuring the brilliant actors you have always enjoyed seeing on stage. Your children can still attend Bay Area Shakespeare Camp in its new distance-learning format, with the great teaching artists who have always been the core of our company. We hope that as we explore new ways of engaging with the ever-flexible, ever-relevant words of William Shakespeare, you will join us. Humanity, and theatre, have made it through this before, and we will again.
And now for the inevitable request – which you are hearing from every cultural organization you support. We need you more than ever. We need to connect with you, we need your ideas, we need to know what would bring you joy and comfort, and we need you to support us with whatever financial resources you can. At this time, we still have artists on the payroll, and we have not let any staff go. We are a lean and frugal organization and we know how to work with very limited resources. 2020 will be an even leaner, harder year for us, but we will do what we can to stay together and make art – and we cannot do it without your support.
Thank you. Be well. Stay safe. See you soon –
Artistic Director, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival
Place your right hand over your heart. Now gently thump your chest with the palm of your hand in sync to the rhythm of your ticker: da-DUM, da-DUM. Now say the word “hello” in time to the gentle beating with the stress on the second syllable, just like the da-DUM of your heart– hel-LO, da-DUM, hel-LO, da-DUM, hel-LO. Now smile and pass this feeling on. This ritual is called the Heartbeat Hello or the Heartbeat Circle and it’s how every session of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat begins. Shakespeare’s Heartbeat is an innovative program that uses Shakespeare’s language to engage students on the autism spectrum. It was originated by Kelly Hunter, a British actor who developed the Hunter Heartbeat Method in her work with children during her time with the Royal Shakespeare Company and later in her own company, Touchstone Theatre Company. Its name implies the synchronicity between the beat of the human heart and Shakespeare’s favorite meter, iambic pentameter– a string of five iambs or metrical units consisting of two syllables, one unstressed followed by one stressed as in: But SOFT! What LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?
Lauren Kivowitz is the founder of Inclusive Arts, a consultancy that advocates for equity, inclusion, and neurodiversity through arts education. As a teaching artist for SF Shakes, Lauren has recently completed one term of teaching Shakespeare’s Heartbeat at Francisco Middle School, an exciting new endeavor for SF Shakes. Recently, we caught up with Lauren to talk about the kind of work she does in San Francisco to advance access and inclusion in the arts.
SF Shakes: Please tell us about the work you did to win a Learning Achievement Award from ArtCare: The Friends of the SF Arts Commission.
Kivowitz: I won it for a partnership project between ACT (for whom I am a teaching artist) and AccessSFUSD: The Arc. Essentially, my class brings together students from Access—which is a program for transition-age young adults with disabilities—and adults from The Arc and IN:SF, both organizations for adults with disabilities. My students represent a wide range of ages, communication styles, and levels of mobility. For the first half of the year we work on improv, skill building, and exploring what it means to be an actor. In the second half, we devise a play based on a theme that is important to the group. Previous themes have been power and boundaries; this year’s theme is community. I come from a devising background, so after we talk a lot about our ideas and generate tons of different scenes through improv, I synthesize them all to produce a script that we’ll be performing on May 18 at the Access Spring Art Show.
SF Shakes: How did you get started with Shakespeare’s Heartbeat?
Kivowitz: I have a master’s degree in Applied Theater from CUNY School of Professional Studies in New York. Applied Theater involves using participatory theater techniques for education, social justice, and community building; and I’ve always been interested in neurodiversity, so I focused in my studies on doing theater work specifically with neurodiverse populations and then decided to make this my niche. When I moved back to San Francisco from New York, I approached SF Shakes—this must have been around 2017—with the idea of doing work at the intersection of theatre and disability and that I was interested in exploring what an inclusive performance might look like. The conversation ended there. This happened a lot back then. I would get a lot of yes, this is very exciting and we want this, but for some reason or another, people weren’t willing to take the plunge. I ascribed it to people not knowing what they don’t know. What I offered sounded very different from what people are used to working with, and not everyone had the necessary comfort level or background to accept it. Eventually, Phil Lowery (Director of Education for SF Shakes) put me in touch with Joseph Schmitz from Eureka Street Learning. It was Joe who taught me the techniques for Shakespeare’s Heartbeat; he’s the expert, but now I’m starting to come into my own. Phil, Joe, and I met. We talked; and as luck would have it, there was a willing venue to start a Shakespeare’s Heartbeat program at Francisco Middle School. And that’s the origin story for Shakespeare’s Heartbeat at SF Shakes.
SF Shakes: Can you talk a little about the program itself? What are some of the principles underlying it and the practices that define it?
The whole idea is that it’s a very sensory experience and very structured and routine. It stems from the primal sensory experience which is the heartbeat—iambic pentameter, right? It connects you immediately with the rhythm of Shakespeare. This is Kelly Hunter’s sensory approach to Shakespeare. A key area of focus for Hunter are words that recur over and over again in Shakespeare’s work: eyes, mind, reason, and love. Activities are based on the senses associated with these words, with exercises inspired by AMidsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest primarily. A lot of what these games do is practice skills that might present challenges for people on the autism spectrum. You don’t have to be able to understand Shakespeare or be able to read his plays to tap into the power and the fun of these exercises. For example, anyone can play someone who is surprised to see a donkey in front of them, or play somebody who is having fun casting spells on people. But generally, what I find is that the Heartbeat Method offers new means of participation, and our students are really amazing at tapping into their imaginations and playing the games in a truly celebratory way.
Success and engagement look different on everyone.
And I think it changes every single day for any given person.
SF Shakes: How do you measure success?
I don’t, is the short answer. I say this to every person I work with, and I’ll say it a thousand times and a thousand more: success and engagement look different on everyone. And I think it changes every single day for any given person. Let’s take the Heartbeat Hello as an example. Some students will never vocalize “hello,” and there are others who have aides physically help them create the heartbeat motion; so, maybe success is that one day they create the heartbeat by themselves and have a moment in which they are clearly engaged, and maybe the next week they won’t do that. The repetition built into the curriculum helps us track changes. Even so, day-to-day success is hard to track because classes can be all over the place, depending on what the students bring into the room with them. But in the long run, I feel very confident saying that we’ve seen a huge uptick in engagement in our students, and that means something different for all of them.
It’s a myth that autistic people
don’t have imaginations!
SF Shakes: Would you agree that there is a complicated relationship between art education and art therapy? I ask this because from a certain angle, the work of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat could be seen as therapeutic.
I love therapy, but in this educational context it can be problematic to call what we do therapy, not just because of qualifications, but also specifically with regards to this population. I have found that many of the therapies often associated with folks with disabilities tend to focus on the need for change and are a bit more clinical and deficit-focused. These types of therapy are not as into celebrating the strengths of an individual, but focus more on how to “normalize” behavior so that the neurotypical world is comfortable with it. I really want to just enter the room and have the kids go wild with their imaginations–it’s a myth that Autistic people don’t have imaginations! You come as what you are and I’m going to celebrate everything you bring. And if there’s a behavior that is really distracting then we might see how we can use this behavior to inform our lessons in some way. The goal isn’t to “fix” anybody, or even to interrogate why anyone might be acting a certain way, though that’s certainly not to say that a type of therapeutic growth doesn’t happen in these classes. My goal is to give my students an outlet to celebrate their strengths and interests while participating in some really fun imaginative play. I like to challenge myself and other teaching artists to consider the question of how much you are comfortable saying yes to in the room, whether that’s ideas or behaviors or whatever. After years of experience doing this type of work, I have found that I am comfortable saying yes to a lot in my classes, which contributes to my own growth as well.
SF Shakes: How would you like to see the Heartbeat program grow?
Kivowitz: More schools! Summer camps! It would be great to get more mainstream exposure, perhaps introduce this to Shakespeare in the Park audiences. It’d be great to have the opportunity to do a little preshow activity, maybe where we do the Heartbeat Hello or something on that level, something that would expose the public to this program. I’m also interested in seeing how we can incorporate some of the elements of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat into creating relaxed performances that would be sensory-friendly for audience members with disabilities. I realize this can feel like a challenging feat, but imagine the whole audience of Shakespeare in the Park starting the show with a Heartbeat Hello. I think that would be amazing. It would be so cool. Let’s do it!
This is a transcription of an interview between SFShakes Literary Intern, Lily Goldman, and Jade Blackthorne, our Community Consultant. We first met Jade when SF Shakes conducted a Shakespeare workshop with community members experiencing homelessness in partnership with Project Homeless Connect and Simply the Basics. Since then, Jade has become a valuable member of the as a Community Consultant. Jade is a trans woman. The intersection of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and often racism work to make trans women some of the most vulnerable people of our society. They are often victims of direct violence and a host of biases that excludes them from proper housing, medical care, and employment. In SF Shakes’ efforts to acknowledge the urgency of modern urban exile and exclusion into this summer’s production of As You Like It, Ms. Blackthorne was generous and open in sharing her experiences. She is now contributing to the production with her expertise in sound engineering.
Jade: I’ve mostly worked in the performance art, theater and music world in supporting roles. I’ve always wanted to be a performer, but being transgender and how people treated me when they found out (in the past) made me fear I’d get hurt so I avoided that kind of public exposure. I’ve always been a musician and composer at least in my own world and now that I’ve come out and transitioning I want to try and get out, but I have a lot of work to do. For the last 25 years I’ve been unable to function because of PTSD stemming from my early childhood experience of abandonment, rejection, emotional, physical and mental abuse. When I was a child I didn’t understand why it was bad to tell people I was a girl and not a boy. This put me into children’s mental illness homes, foster homes and eventually I ended up living half my life on the streets. I had been given antipsychotic medications and other treatments that were supposed to cure me, and when the foster homes found out they locked me in closets, forced me to do things like write over and over again that I wasn’t a girl or that I’m bad, evil, sick and worse. Really, my story’s a book if I were to write one. It’s pretty amazing I survived. At age four, I told my father, a Hells Angel, that I was a girl, and he abandoned me in a Southern California desert. I really think if people understood what some of us went through they wouldn’t treat us as badly as some of them do.
Lily: So, Jade, can you tell me a little about your life’s trajectory and your artistic background?
Jade: Well, I’ll answer the second question first, because it kind of leads into my life trajectory. From as young as I’ve known, I’ve been attracted to music and theater and art. I was involved in a singing choir as young as five, and I was a soloist, a soprano. We actually travelled around the Bay Area, usually doing ladies auxiliaries and churches and stuff, usually singing stuff like “Edelweiss” and Sound of Music songs. I really enjoyed that, and sought out music and theater. The first instrument I got to play was a cello, it was donated by some woman who donated instruments to people, and I just kept on doing it and wanted to do it and play more and more. But by the time I was in my early teens I had moved to foster care and their attitude was that those kinds of things were for privileged people, people who deserved it, and somehow I didn’t. So, it was denied to me pretty much until young adulthood for a number of years. But I still kept on wanting to do it; every time I found a piano I would play it, every time I found an instrument I would try to play it. It became everything to me to get musical instruments and learn how to play them, but being poor and usually on the streets because of my gender, it was very difficult. But it it didn’t stop me. How I got here kinda relates to that, in that I just never stopped. I always had a musical instrument with me, whether it was a harmonica or a guitar or a flute, whatever I could bring with me when I was living on the streets and could have some kind of musical instrument. It’s just how I feel—very strongly about music. So, when I started looking for things to do so I wouldn’t isolate, ‘cause that’s a huge problem for trans people, I saw these events, and one of the events was the Shakespearean Festival, and the workshop, and we were invited there through Homeless Connect. And, so I came and I just was open about what I felt, and I came up with ideas and the next thing I know I’m talking to Rebecca [Ennals] and she’s saying you should come check this out and wanting me to be a part of this. And so, I said okay, this is something I can do, instead of sitting at home by myself, avoiding people, which is really hard for us. So that’s how I came to be here!
Lily: So that leads into my second question of how you found your way to this company and production. Do you feel like there’s anything you want to add about that one?
Jade: I was just completely surprised that I was asked to be an official community consultant. That blew me away. I just – it makes me feel accepted. I’m tearing up –
Lily: Thank you, Jade. So, in our production, our Forest of Arden has been heavily inspired by communities that exist where housing does not, and we know that you have some experience in those kinds of places. Is there anything that you feel is accurate, or really inaccurate, about our fictionalized world?
Well, it’s changed over the years. I’ve been homeless most of my life, and a lot of it I’ve lived out in the woods. When I first started living out in the woods was when I was sixteen, seventeen years old, and I was living in Santa Cruz. And they have the Pogonip [Park], and I would get a tent and go out and live there. Most of the time people were pretty friendly and supportive for each other and kind of conservative about keeping it clean, ya know: if you’re going to pack something in, you gotta pack it out. There was a lot more of that. But as the years have gone by, now people are less that way. People aren’t as social, they are leaving garbage, a little bit more destructive. There’s still some camaraderie, for people who have been there for a while I mean there’s still some of that. It’s not completely bad, but it can be awful to see if you actually went into the woods these days and are concerned about nature, and that makes it hard to do. Even for people who have experience. The show is closer to what it was when I was a kid. It would be interesting to see how they would incorporate more of what’s going on now, but I’m not sure if they can do that, there’s only so much time (laughs), ya know? And so much energy to do the play. But they do cover a few things, like harsh winters and things like that, and that’s good. That’s important.
Lily: Why did that change happened? Where do you think that came from? Jade: Well, I think it’s because of ostracization. People lost their jobs, the middle class lost their jobs because of manufacturing moving to other countries, and so they started more intensely needing to provide for families and moved into lower levels of jobs, which pushed out people who were already in the lower levels to not having jobs. They have no education and are more likely to get involved with drugs and alcohol, and that lead to people who just lost all hope. They just don’t care. They see these people who are saying, “you should care about these kinds of things; you should care and not make a mess, and not destroy the planet,” and they’re saying, “why should we care? You don’t care about us; you’ve ostracized us, you’ve basically pushed us out and said we’re at fault for this because we can’t find a way back in because there’s no room.” All these jobs disappeared. All the low-level jobs were taken, the middle class was gone.
My ostracization wasn’t necessarily that, but because I am transgender…I was… I tried to hide it. I tried to actually fulfil that ‘male role’ as much as I could, but even still, people could tell that there’s something different about me. And as soon as they thought there was something different about me, of course they would think the worst. I was let go of jobs quite often, without any explanation, without any reasoning, other than “people are uncomfortable around you.’ Sometimes I would say to somebody if I thought that they were friendly – because, you know, when you’re this way you can’t hide it. You want to let someone know, you want someone to be supportive. Often times the person you think is going to be supportive ends up complaining. They think it’s some kind of sexual thing. And, of course, you’re asked to leave because they’re uncomfortable with it. So that happened quite often. It’s not because I didn’t want to work. It’s not because I wanted to party, it’s not because I was lazy. I never got fired for being lazy or not working. I’ve always wanted to be involved and would do anything. It was almost like no, we’re not having you. That’s the ostracization now, it’s not necessarily political, it’s more social and economic. Once you’re cut off financially and you’re cut off socially, it makes it really difficult to care anymore. It wounds you, deeply.
So…getting invited to this is amazing. I’m emotional (laughs).
Lily: My last question is what do you want to make sure this community knows?
Jade: Give people a chance! Stop pre-judging everyone, you know, talk to people. We can’t solve problems by throwing money at it. You can’t go, “here’s some money, if you do something with it great, if you change your life we’re all happy for you, but if you don’t, oh well, you’re a bad person.” It doesn’t work that way. It’s like — people should start sponsoring the homeless. Like businesses sponsoring homeless people. Having people go out and find somebody who, like me, is looking for a way out. Even if they’re doing drugs and have problems, they’re more likely to stop if they have support and they have somebody going, “hey, we want you here. And we’re going to work with you to get you here.” When that happens, people change. It’s not about “go through this program, take these twelve steps, don’t drink, you change everything about you and THEN we’ll accept you.” It doesn’t work that way because you don’t believe that anyone will accept you, even if you did all of those things.
I have this really powerful belief that the only way we can change the direction we’re in as humanity is when individuals are able to heal and become educated. When you get that kind of power going as a community, we no longer need these massive regulations and rules and directionalist ideas of what is ‘progress.’ You know, ‘keep progressing, keep building, keep being bigger, keep consuming.’ Those things aren’t that important. It’s when you have community, there’s a different goal there. I think that’s the way it needs to go. I think that’s the only hope.
Enjoy this transcript of a talk delivered by Lily Goldman, the Festival’s Literary Intern, to celebrate the final dress rehearsal of As You Like It: a new musical on June 28, 2019. Lily, a Napa Valley native, is a theater major at Bard College, a lover of vegan ice cream, thrift stores, and inclusive art.
In an effort to bring our audience into our process, I am here today to walk you through the world of our play and how we made the decisions we did.
Our world of As You Like It is one of severe differences. The Court is a version of modern urban living, but heightened to the extremes. It’s a world where the class divisions are even more stark than what they are now. A space where the only people who can survive are wealthy, and subsequently, where corruption and hunger for power run rampant. The few members of the lower classes who remain are ignored, discriminated against, and eventually forced to leave.
Which brings us to the Forest of Arden. By no means is it an easy place, especially when we first arrive in winter. The effects of climate change have taken hold and the seasons are harsher than ever. That reality coupled with the lack of resources makes the Forest a harsh and unwelcoming place on the page and stage. However, it is also a place of community. Those who live there know that they cannot survive on their own. They remember acts of kindness and share what they have with all those who are in need. Our Forest is still a place of transformation and magic—as it is in Shakespeare—but one tempered by real danger.
When workshopping and staging our play, we were constantly thinking of the intricacies of the world we created. Every choice reflects this.
First, our set. The world of the Court is signified by red banners, soon to be emblazoned with the Court’s logo. Our designer, Neal Ormond, took inspiration from the corporate logos that dominate the skyline of San Francisco. The curtains also create a feeling of enclosure, surrounding our cast with stifling walls of blood red that obscure the vision of what’s in front of them, above them, and around them. You never know who might be just around the corner, listening and waiting.
The Forest is a different story entirely, populated solely by trees, it is far easier to see your surroundings. There is a feeling of openness, but also of vulnerability as the Court’s skyline looms in the background. While the Forest is mostly natural, it is definitely not the lush wonderland of the pastoral memory of England.
Resources are something we thought about often, hours spent deliberating on which character would have what and where it would come from. It made sense that the Court would be a place of technology and waste—ease always favored over sustainability, with single use plastic, fast fashion, and fast food in abundance. To put it simply, a place of gross excess.
This meant a lot for our Forest as well. It helped us discover that the Foresters live on a combination of natural resources and things they salvage from the Court’s piles and piles of trash. A lifestyle was born, coupling the natural with the reusable and recyclable. At the Duke’s campfire ‘feast’ you will see this in action. A good old forest potluck would not be complete without the natural food grown or caught by the foresters (and more adept exiles). Mostly in the hands of Audrey and Corin will you see bountiful natural resources. Audrey, a forester born and raised has been cemented in our world as a hunter, fisher, and queen of all things meat related. Corin, a kind and calm older man is an expert gardener and, logically, is the source of fermentation, bringing much cherished homemade alcohol to the cold winter night.
In the hands of a returning Phebe, we see the role the Court has to play in the Forest. Phebe is a woman who takes on the difficult task of running in and out of the city. She is a Robin Hood in her own right, bringing donated (and stolen) goods from inside the Court’s walls. She is proficient at navigating the treacherous forest and the even more treacherous city.
Which brings me to props! I feel it is important to mention something about our play that you will never actually see. For a long time, we were toying with the idea technology. What would a near future world be without it? It couldn’t have disappeared, but we also despised the idea of having smart phones on stage. So, for quite some time we played with the idea of futuristic headsets attached to the forehead, a technology that would project into the air in front of the eyes. On stage, however, this ended up looking more like an actor with something shiny on their forehead batting at the air in front of them. So, the idea was scrapped.
That wasn’t a problem for the Forest, though, where there would be no cell service and hardly any power. But props appear in the forest in other ways. It was important to us to realize that these people have been living in the forest for quite some time, some even for their entire lives; and structures tend to form when life is sedentary. So, we asked a few questions: how would they grow food? How would they get water? Would they have any form of power or light? To answer these questions, we settled on things like tire planters and tarp rainwater collectors which repurpose plastic. We even toyed with the idea of solar panels on the homes of the life-long forest inhabitants.
Another place these themes are very apparent are in the wedding decorations. Created by our props master, Amelia Adams, they are a wonderful amalgamation of natural and salvaged resources, utilizing pvc and seashells side by side.
Our costumes by Susan Szegda fall right in line with everything else. As you will see on our stage, the clothing of the Court is extravagant and completely impractical, inspired by the age-old practice of proving your status with self-inflicted dependency. The more money you have, the less you have to do for yourself. “There are people for that,” right? This is evident in the high heels, high neck lines, corseture, and suits worn by the elite. They flaunt their worth in elaborate, colorful displays of physical rigidity. This rigidity functions along gendered lines. Women in the Court wear dresses. Men wear suits. Everyone is colorful and decadent, but women are by far the more restricted. Bound in corsets, feathered neckwear, high heels, and the occasional leather pant, they are tied tightly to their perceived gender.
The Forest offers a stark contrast. A space of necessity and practicality calls for only the most functional and mobile of clothes. The Forest welcomes queerness. If you can contribute in any way, you are welcome. What is most important is being able to stay alive and functional. There is not ready access to new clothes; they only keep things that are accommodating for the rapid changes in weather. The modern materials they find or receive from Phebe’s Court missions like water proof fabrics and insulated blankets or jackets are incredibly useful. We also discovered that army surplus goods and clothing would be perfect since they are durable, help to camouflage, and are built for intense activity.
Some interesting things that come up in a space of function and practicality are the desire for individuality and the distancing from gendered appearance and understanding. As our Community Consultant Jade Blackthorne, has explained to us, individuality is deeply important when living anywhere, especially so when living in the woods. Accessories, trinkets, and embellishments help proudly assert identity. We see this on our stage in Jaques’s Misfits logo shirt, Orlando’s necklace from Rosalind, Celia’s blue skirt that ties her to her roots, and Touchstone’s refusal to accept function over form. Everyone expresses themselves through clothing.
We also learned that when you are exiled from a place or life, you bring the thing that is most valuable to you. People who flee tend to bring things they can’t imagine leaving behind, whether they be sentimental or monetary or both, We envisioned that Rosalind’s wedding dress would be something of that kind– something that was saved because of its personal significance. You will see all of these things and more on our stage tonight.
This is the thirty-seventh year of Free Shakespeare in the Park, yet another year of telling stories. The story we are telling today, is one of exile. It is a story of community. Of fear. Of heartbreak. But mostly, it is a story of love. Love no matter the circumstances. Platonic love and romantic love and familial love. Love that conquers, love that heals. That is what we are here to do. Spread love, encourage healing, inspire hope, and offer escape.
Thank you all so much for your time and enjoy the show.
Enjoy this transcript of a talk delivered by Lily Goldman, the Festival’s Literary Intern, to celebrate the final dress rehearsal of As You Like It: a new musical on June 28, 2019. Lily, a Napa Valley native, is a theater major at Bard College, a lover of vegan ice cream, thrift stores, and inclusive art.
Hello everyone, my name is Lily Goldman. I have been working as this year’s Literary Intern for the past month. In and out of rehearsals I have been engrossed in dramaturgical work, textual work, and contextual work. I am here today to share with you some of what I have been fascinated by in the process.
Like many theater-loving kids, I grew up with a knowledge of Shakespeare. I couldn’t tell you when I learned that you were NEVER under ANY CIRCUMSTANCE to say the M – word, the name of the Scottish play, anywhere near a theater or production. Or when I learned what a soliloquy was. Or when and where I learned that all Shakespeare was to be spoken with an English accent. But I can tell you that my knowledge of the Bard came with the inherent understanding that he was, old, dead, and confusing. It wasn’t until my eighth-grade class went on a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that I even considered laughing at an old, dead, and confusing playwright, but their Taming of the Shrew set in a late 50’s rockabilly beach town with sky high bouffants and a tattooed Petruchio, did actually make me laugh, even if half of my classmates fell asleep in the second act. While I did not understand every word, I felt invited into the story, which I found to be a truly ridiculous one. But even still, Shakespeare remained a sour name in my mouth. As I grew into an angstier—but still just as theater-loving—teen, I favored only the contemporary and cutting edge. I thought that classical was something that should remain on the top shelf to gather dust and leave room for the new and important work. When my senior year rolled around and it was announced that Romeo and Juliet would be our final play, I almost threw a fit. After three years performing in shows like American Idiot, Cabaret, and a stage adaptation of the movie Juno, I could think of nothing more boring. Shakespeare felt inherently pretentious and far distanced from me. I was worried it would push away our audience and my friends. But, it was inspired by the Altamont Music Festival, with hippy Capulets and rock and roll Montagues. The cast was to be decked out in tie dye, beads, and leather, performing Shakespeare with breaks for the Beatles and the Stones. I was cast as the Nurse, but à la Janis Joplin with cigarette in mouth and a bottle of Southern Comfort by my side for the entire show. On our closing night, during my solo of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” I looked out onto a sea of twenty-first-century lighters (iPhone flashlights) swaying back and forth. I felt like a Shakespearean rock star. We had brought new life into a play I had written off as decrepit. And my understanding of this old, dead playwright began to morph. I saw that the stories in his pages were able to span time and space all the way to the stage I stood on in 2017. And it made people cry every time. That is something powerful. I believe that when done right, Shakespeare can be for anyone.
When I had my first phone call with Rebecca Ennals about this production, I was surprised once again at the life prepared to be breathed into these words. We talked far less about the play than we did about climate change and homelessness and queerness. When we hung up, I sat with a somewhat unexpected feeling: gratitude. In her words I found the passion I have always been looking for in productions of Shakespeare. Passion about real things that are happening right now. And enough passion to actually do something about it. In this process I have seen this passion at every step. The research stage, the workshopping stage, the ongoing musical creation, and every single day of rehearsal have been imbued with purpose. We have been making this show for big reasons, and with those reasons at the forefront of every conversation.
One of the first steps I took in this process was reading the Arden edition of the play. As I made my way through the 150 pages of introduction by Juliet Dusinberre, I found myself surprised at just how much there is to say about this play. I truly wish I could impart all of the knowledge to you right now, but that would take far more time than I have been allotted. In her writing I found connections to things that made me once again reevaluate the importance I had placed on the works of Shakespeare and I found ways into this play that I had never considered. Discussions of queerness, capitalism, elitism, and artistry in the face of censorship were all circling around this story. These are things I care about and still see around me to this day. It was her introduction that made me understand where this play really came from. Exactly what point in real life spawned this story and in turn what fires it fueled.
Among the many things I learned from her was that this play was born into a world where trips to the countryside were common. The pastoral space of the Forest of Arden, where half of the story takes place, would have been easily recognizable for urban dwellers and have held special meaning to those of the upper class. Many nobles had countryside estates. These retreats could be purely for rejuvenation and relaxation, but also could come into play when there was public turmoil. If there was a scandal, the countryside would offer a haven from conflict, rumor, or disagreement. Of course, this lifestyle would be one enjoyed and employed by the wealthy and would have struck a vivid chord for Shakespeare’s target audience, the Queen and her court.
However, the pastoral would have also had connotations recognizable by all. Many city dwellers at the beginning of the seventeenth century were recent migrants from the countryside. As is still common today, the rural countryside was seen as a simple, romantic space full of people deeply connected to the earth, people who were entirely self-dependent and not concerned with whatever order might be enforced in the city. This allowed for the pastoral to function as a place of transformation, rebirth, and experimentation. We see this many, many times in the story of As You Like It. The exiled are constantly shifting and morphing away from the accepted rules of the Court and experimenting with sexuality, gender, and lifestyle.
Our iteration of the play recognizes some of these things, but our Forest is not at all the simple, romanticized place it was once painted to be. Like Shakespeare, we were inspired by the world around us. We recognized that the differences between urban and rural are not what they were in 1600. Instead, we created our worlds of difference by accelerating what we already see around us every day in San Francisco and the Bay Area.
Our play was birthed in 2019. In our moment, the realities of exile, refuge, and displacement are all around us. There are people living out of doors in every state in America. In 2018 it was estimated that on any given day there are – at the very least – one hundred thirty thousand people experiencing homelessness in California. For a combination of reasons, every single one of those people are not able to access housing. A 2018 report from Zillow.com, an online real estate database, disclosed that, “Income growth has not kept pace with rents, leading to an affordability crunch with cascading effects that, for people on the bottom economic rung, increases the risk of homelessness,” with the homelessness “growing faster in the least affordable rental housing markets,” which include Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. These areas hold “15 percent of the U.S. population – and 47 percent of people experiencing homelessness.” It also happens to be that people most vulnerable are those already targeted by our country: queer people, people of color, and especially trans women.
Being a festival that focus solely on Shakespeare has the danger of being very distancing, especially from communities already facing exile. Many people feel outcast by the idea of a story and playwright so deeply tied to classism and elitism. Through the centuries, Shakespeare has been claimed again and again by educated white men. Through organizations like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, these barriers have begun to be broken. But this work is still something that can be incredibly exclusionary. For audiences who might not understand the words perfectly, the stories can be lost. For audiences who cannot access the spaces or feel welcomed in them, the stories are lost. And that is not how we want to operate. We want to tell timeless stories to anyone who might want to hear them. To anyone who might want or need to get lost in a story. We want to provide that escape.
Back in February, we held a workshop through Simply the Basics and Project Homeless Connect, two homeless aid nonprofits. The workshop was called “Shakespeare for All Neighbors,” and nine participants showed up, all in transitional housing, waiting for a permanent home. They met five members of our crew and were welcomed into a day centered around Shakespeare and As You Like It specifically. As our director, Rebecca, put it on that day, “The idea here is to have fun. And to recognize that everyone has a story, and everyone’s story is as valid as Shakespeare’s.” The day was spent getting to know the story of As You Like It and the stories of everyone in the room. This was something that the festival had wanted to do for a while. It is imperative for us to bring the people experiencing these realities into the process, breaking down the barriers between audience and performer. Pushing the idea of radical inclusion to its actual bounds and remembering the mantra of “nothing about us without us.” We are so happy to have had one of the participants from that workshop join our crew! Jade Blackthorne is our Community Consultant, and has been incredibly open about her experiences as a trans woman who has been homeless. We have benefited greatly from her ideas, perspectives, and stories. She’s here tonight helping out with sound, one of her many talents.
One of our missions with turning this show into a musical was to further push inclusion. Language can be a giant barrier to Shakespeare, but we know that music is a language that speaks to everyone. Shakespeare with the addition of modern language and melody can make a giant difference in who feels welcomed to the show. If you enjoy music, we have something for you. If you enjoy story, we have something for you. If you enjoy Shakespeare, we have something for you! We are always pushing ourselves to see how it really looks to invite everyone in, with open arms and something for everyone.
Check back for Part 2 of this talk in which Lily discusses the artistic decisions made in constructing the world of our play.
In the Court of a near-future city, we meet Orlando, busking on the street. He is accompanied by Adam, a servant from the house of Orlando’s late father, Sir Rowland de Boys. Enter Oliver, brother to Orlando, a ruthless politician returning from a business trip. He is embarrassed by his brother’s performance and the two argue. Orlando accuses his brother of treating him badly and demands his share of the family inheritance. They brawl briefly. Orlando proves the better fighter, but he backs off and leaves the scene with Adam. Oliver then conspires with Duke Frederick’s champion wrestler, Charles the Lioness, to kill Orlando when they next meet in the ring
Elsewhere in the Court, we meet best friends and cousins, Celia and Rosalind. Celia is the daughter of Duke Frederick, who came to power by stealing the throne from his older brother, Duke Senior, Rosalind’s father. Celia attempts to comfort a distraught Rosalind when the Court’s social secretary, Le Beau, enters to invite them to watch the fight between Charles and Orlando. Wrestling is the favorite form of entertainment in the bloodthirsty Court. This is when Rosalind first meets Orlando, whom she falls for instantly. To everyone’s surprise, Orlando wins the match, which doesn’t please the Duke. Rosalind gives Orlando a token to wear.
After the match, Rosalind is banished by Duke Fredrick who considers her a political threat. Celia bravely decides to join her. They devise a plan that will allow them to move safely unnoticed: Celia disguises herself as a poor woman, Aliena, and Rosalind as a young man named Ganymede. Together they flee to the Forest of Arden where they settle into their new identities and
Back at the Court, Adam warns Orlando to flee his brother’s murderous treachery. So, coincidentally, they also enter the Forest of Arden and the safety to be found there. In another coincidence, Rosalind’s exiled father lives in the forest as well. We meet him and his community of native Foresters and Court Exiles weathering their first winter in the wilderness. Among the Exiles is Jaques, a melancholy member of the Duke’s cohort known for witty observations and sporadic behavior. Orlando, searching for food for the weakening Adam, stumbles into the Duke’s forest camp. After a rocky introduction, the Duke welcomes Orlando and is happy to learn that he is the son of his dear friend, Sir Rowland de Boys. Alas, by the end of their introduction, the elderly Adam passes away peacefully.
Back at the Court, Duke Frederick and Charles torture Oliver and send him to retrieve Orlando.
Months pass and spring comes to the forest; and everyone’s thoughts turn to love. Rosalind finds love poems hanging from the trees. The poems are poorly written and she and Touchstone poke fun at them until Celia reveals their author to be none other than Orlando, who is sick in love. Shaken, Rosalind wonders what to do about her disguise. Finally, Rosalind-as-Ganymede meets Orlando. She tells him she can cure his lovesickness if he comes to her house daily, pretends to woo her, and calls her Rosalind. He agrees to this plan. Meanwhile, other seemingly hopeless romances develop around them. Silvius continues to try and fail to woo Phebe. Phebe, for her part, falls for Ganymede after being insulted by him. Touchstone challenges a rival suitor, William, to win the affections of Audrey, a resourceful local woman.
Oliver arrives in the forest a changed man. He reports that Orlando was attacked by Charles the Lioness in the woods while trying to protect a stranger who happens to have been Oliver himself. The news causes Rosalind-as-Ganymede to faint. Oliver and Celia waste no time falling in love and getting engaged. To great relief, Orlando arrives with only a small wound on his arm and gives Oliver consent to marry Celia, but is sad that he can’t marry Rosalind. Ganymede enters and claims to be able to summon Rosalind through magic, telling Phebe, Silvius, and Orlando to come together the next day so he can set everything right with a wedding. The next day, Ganymede appears, bringing the brides with him. He says Rosalind will appear if Duke Senior (her father) blesses their wedding and if Phebe will marry Silvius. They agree and Rosalind drops her disguise to become Rosalind again. Jaques officiates the weddings of Audrey and Touchstone, Celia and Oliver, Silvius and Phebe, and Rosalind and Orlando
A messenger arrives to announce that Duke Frederick, who was coming with an army, met a religious man on the road and was converted from his evil ways. Reinstated, Duke Senior and the Exiles can return to Court. Jaques, curious about religious life, decides to stay in the woods with Duke Frederick.