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
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
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.
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.