An Interview with Community Consultant, Jade Blackthorne

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.

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The Intern Speaks: The World of Our Play

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.

Part 2

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.

The Intern Speaks: The World of Our Play

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.

Part 1

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.