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.