SF Shakes Chats with Carla Pantoja, Director of Vision for Free Shakespeare in the Park: Pericles Prince of Tyre, Summer 2021
This summer, SF Shakes will perform Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Last summer’s production was broadcast live and online due to the pandemic. This year’s selection, however, will be an experiment in hybridity and structure as the Bay Area gradually enters a post-pandemic era. The play will be performed live in 4 episodes released serially over the duration of the summer. Episodes 1 through 3 will adopt the same online format as last year’s virtual King Lear, but the final episode will usher SF Shake’s return to in-person park performances. [Visit our Pericles page for details and program information.]
In addition to the episodic performance structure, another new element will be collaborative shared leadership among multiple directors. Festival Artistic Director Rebecca J. Ennals will helm Episode 1. Veteran virtual director Elizabeth Carter will drive Episode 3, and Carla Pantoja will direct Episodes 2 and 4. Carolina Morones will serve as pre-show director responsible for stringing the episodes together with engaging connective tissue and synopses so that playgoers can follow the story from episode to episode.
As Director of Vision, Pantoja acts in a showrunner capacity, providing the creative foundations for the production, ensuring artistic consistency across the span of all episodes, and making sure that the story that Pantoja wants to communicate with and through Pericles is conveyed to audiences. Before we go any further, it’s worth summarizing the play briefly since it’s not as familiar to some as say Macbeth or Hamlet.
Pericles is a Jacobean romance set in the Eastern Mediterranean of the classical past. The literary emblem of romance is the wandering boat as the vehicle for separation and reunion. Romances commonly stage a tragic de-composition of the family—often the fault of shipwreck—that is eventually reversed by a joyful re-composition of the family by play’s end. In between these scenes of separation and reunion are travel, conflict, and confusion. The play ricochets all around the ancient Mediterranean starting in Antioch (Turkey) and visiting Tyre (Lebanon), Tarsus (Turkey), Pentapolis (Libya), Mytilene (Greece), and Ephesus (Turkey). Family separation begins on a boat at sea when Pericles loses his wife Thaisa to death in childbirth in the midst of a great storm. Bereaved, Pericles entrusts the rearing of his newborn daughter Marina to the care of his allies, the rulers of Tarsus. Fourteen years pass and Marina’s foster mother seeks to have Marina murdered, but not before the young woman is suddenly kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel in Mytilene. When Pericles arrives in Tarsus to retrieve his daughter, he is told that she is dead and he returns to the sea to drift despondently. In Mytilene meanwhile, Marina’s grace, learning, and virtue utterly disrupt the business of the bawdy house and she is removed to an honorable house on the island to earn her living as a teacher. When Pericles, despondent, arrives in Mytilene, Marina is called to the scene to provide consolation. This chance meeting redeems the history of Pericles’s loss and triggers an astonishing series of recognitions that ends with the joyful reconstitution of Pericles’s family.
Meet Carla Pantoja
Chances are you have already encountered Pantoja if you follow theatre in Northern California. Her roots run deep in the Bay Area where she was born and raised. She has a long history with the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. She played Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew (2014), Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (2015), and Paulina in The Winter’s Tale (2016) for Free Shakespeare in the Park. She directed Romeo and Juliet and Comedy of Errors for the Festival’s Shakespeare on Tour Program, and she has taught in Bay Area Shakespeare Camp. As an actor, director, intimacy director, and certified fight director she has worked widely throughout the Bay Area with groups like Cal Shakes, Playground, Magic Theatre, SF Mime Troupe, Shotgun Players, and Woman’s Will (the last was an all-female Shakespeare company.) She is also the secretary for the Dueling Arts International governing body.
In 2020, Pantoja moved north to become an Acting Company Member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a performer’s paradise Pantoja calls “Actor Hogwarts.” But, she was part of the “Lost Season” at OSF. She performed in The Copper Children but the season was shut down by Covid-19 almost as soon as it opened. She returned to the Bay Area and became a Resident Artist for SF Shakes once again, which is how she ended up as the Director of Vision for this year’s summer play. Incidentally – yet importantly—she is the first Latina ever to direct in Free Shakespeare in the Park (a distinction she shares this year with Pre-Show Director Carolina Morones) and the first Latinx artist to direct Free Shakes since 2000.
SF Shakes: Why Pericles? Why now?
Pantoja: The question we kept returning to in the season planning committee was: what story do we want to share with the community, especially after a year of pandemic lockdown? Last year the Festival performed Lear, which is a tragedy, but this year we wanted to remind ourselves of the things we’ve been missing. The pandemic resulted in prolonged isolation that we wanted to remind ourselves of the fact that we live in community, that we seek togetherness. We didn’t want tragedy again this year, we wanted something lighter. We considered The Comedy of Errors, but we kept coming back to Pericles because his journey really resonated with all of us and where we are right now slowly emerging from a difficult time shared by all. Throughout the play, Pericles gets hit with loss after loss and he encounters communities in crisis and yet he remains resilient. We felt so much connection to that and to the resiliency and persistence of these characters as they suffer a journey of loss and a quest for community. The reunification of the family at the end this play is what we have all been reaching for. And that’s why we went with Pericles. It’s a step in the direction of healing.
SF Shakes: In fact, the season planning committee decided on a translation of Pericles by playwright Ellen McLaughlin. Can you explain what this means? How does it differ from Shakespeare’s play text?
Pantoja: Yes, it can be misleading. When folks hear “translation” they think movement from one language to another or they may think the language of the play is recast in modern vernacular. Neither of these is the case with Ellen McLaughlin’s treatment of the text. McLaughlin’s modern-verse rendition makes some of the original text’s language clearer. If someone saw the play and did not know that it was a translation, they would likely think they were watching a Shakespeare play. What we really appreciated in this translation, though, was McLaughlin’s talent for making the story easier to follow. The role of Gower—the play’s chorus—is more prominent. And we felt that having a strong dramatic guide in Gower was essential to our episodic structure. Who best to sum up for audiences the action of the last episode and guide us into the next? Gower essentially escorts the audience through the stages of the hero’s journey. [Learn more about Ellen McLaughlin’s translation of Pericles.]
SF Shakes: Speaking of stages, can you talk a little about why the planning committee decided on an episodic performance structure?
Pantoja: It just made sense. The play itself is episodic in nature going from one place to the next to the next. And the play is punctuated with cliffhangers like storms, deaths, and pirates. But also, the play covers a huge span of time: we see Pericles at very different stages of his life that it made sense to break it up and to do something different from last year’s virtual Lear, which was performed live all summer in its entirety. Episodes will push the story along and keep playgoers coming back for each new chapter. It’s really a way to challenge the medium of virtual theater and go beyond what we did last year.
SF Shakes: Can you talk about Episode 4, which will be performed in front of audiences in parks just as in the “before times”?
Pantoja:I don’t want to speak for everyone when I say this—but I think I might be—I’m looking forward to coming together again, gathering again, sharing a story side by side, shoulders touching. This is everyone’s greatest hope. I know actors are looking forward to being in front of an audience again and I think audiences are looking to connect with stories on stage again too. After the trying year we’ve all had, a year in which so many have felt physically isolated from their friends and loved ones, I really want SF Shakes’ return to parks to feel like an open hand extended in welcome. I want this play to touch audiences.
SF Shakes: The Mediterranean setting of this play is so prominent, almost a character in itself. Can you talk about how the Eastern Mediterranean will be mapped in your creative vision?
Pantoja: Essentially, we have moved the Eastern Mediterranean to the Bay Area. The names of those ancient cities—Ephesus, Tarsus, and so on—will remain the same, but we’ll be doing something of a mashup of the Bay Area and the Mediterranean, what Elizabeth Carter calls a “mirrorverse” that allows the Bay Area to be celebrated. Some of our local clothing styles and Bay Area vibes will play a large part in the look of the play. On top of that, we’ll be doing some in-person filming on location around the Bay Area. If folks are paying attention they will recognize some spots where SF Shakes has performed in the past along with some other local sites. This Pericles will be a love letter to the geography, people, and culture of the Bay Area.
“A room full of instruments”
SF Shakes: You’re a fight director and intimacy director. You seem to be a very physical artist grounded in the body. How will this basis in physicality translate to virtual theatre for the first 3 episodes? (Watch the short video below for Pantoja’s moving reply)