Monthly Archives: November 2013
Fran Gercke, Brian Mackey, Shana Wride, and Ruff Yeager sit at a table. No, they are not planning world domination via the theatre, although given the breadth and depth of their collective experience, that task would not be too far out of their reach.
Instead, they are thoughtfully pondering a lengthy list of plays, both classical and contemporary, written by a wide range of playwrights. They have been tasked with one simple challenge.
When Intrepid first opened its doors in 2009, along with the mainstage productions came the idea of staged readings – opportunities to hear plays in an intimate setting, presented by accomplished actors, lead by passionate directors, and accented with flavorful wine and tasty hors d’oeuvres.
The success of these sporadic readings was so much that, this time last year, the City of Encinitas offered Intrepid a standing spot in the ocean-view community reading room at the Encinitas Library in which to present an yearlong season of staged readings.
“Intrepid is helping us realize this longstanding preference of the residents to experience live theatre,” said City of Encinitas Arts Administrator Jim Gilliam of the city’s first and only professional theatre company.
Now, one year later, as 2013 and the inaugural season of the Staged Reading Series winds to a close, Intrepid and the City can see a plethora of accomplishments in the creative wake of this communal endeavor.
Among the playwrights featured this year were the likes of Moisés Kaufman, Jane Anderson, John Patrick Shanley, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, and, of course, William Shakespeare. The monthly readings on the whole hired more than 80 talented local actors, as well as eight directors culled from the most influential players across San Diego’s ever-expanding theatre scene.
For many, participation in a staged reading marked a debut with the company. Other faces were more recognizable to the subscribers who regularly attended the readings as well as the mainstage productions. Audiences embraced the readings, returned month after month, and were rarely hesitant to offer standing ovations at the conclusion of any given evening.
With this success of the series, the City was eager to renew the staged reading series contract with Intrepid for 2014. However, Artistic Directors Sean and Christy Yael-Cox knew that if Intrepid was to commit to another year, they had to harness and build upon the sense of community involvement the readings had inspired.
That’s when the idea of a Staged Reading Committee came into being. Instead of Sean and Christy deciding the playlist for a year, the reading series would be handled by a team of respected actors and directors who, from the benefit of their varied perspectives, would create, direct, and cast the 2014 season of staged readings for Intrepid.
Cut to the lengthy list of plays. While these four San Diego theatre notables may be scratching their heads about the 2014 compilation, one thing is certain. They are all excited to be at the table.
“I love the idea of committee-based theatre,” says Shana Wride, who directed the reading of Yasmina Reza’s “Life(x)3” this year. “To be part of a group of like-minded talented people and be allowed such a wonderful creative outlet is a real treat.”
In addition to choosing plays that are favorites, the team has endeavored to pick selections that are new to them and, hopefully, to audiences. This is one of the advantages of working as an ensemble and acquainting fellow committee-members with unfamiliar plays.
Fran Gercke, most recently seen as John in Intrepid’s mainstage production of “Oleanna,” says this is one of the best parts of the process.
“I am excited about the ability to read new work and hopefully introduce the audience to a whole host of characters and a whole world they’ve not known before, about which they’ve no ideas, no preconceptions,” says Fran, who directed the reading of Sam Shepard’s “Geography of a Horse-Dreamer” this past year. “It’s always fun when there’s a thriller aspect, a who-done-it quality to every story so that you’re always wondering where is this going and how is this going to end. New stories provide that.”
While a staged reading is rehearsed, it is comparatively easier to present than a mainstage show. Therefore, the opportunity to perform big budget plays in this simplified environment – leaving much to the imagination – is also appealing.
“It is amazing to me how just listening to a play can, and has, elicited such strong, positive responses from audience members,” says Brian Mackey, who directs the yearly reading of “A Christmas Carol,” the reading series season finale.
Fran agrees. “I get caught up in staged readings because they invite me, almost magically and with little effort, to imagine much of what is happening,” he says. “That’s not so common anymore.”
From collaboration to imagination, the staged reading series is ultimately an opportunity to do the thing that everyone loves to do.
Ruff Yeager, who portrayed John Barrymore in this year’s reading of Paul Rudnick’s “I Hate Hamlet,” says it simply. “I am looking forward to working with incredible actors on a play I really love.”
Add in a little wine and cheese, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a successful 2014 Staged Reading Series.
– Tiffany Tang
Intrepid’s 2014 Staged Reading Series
presented at the Encinitas Library
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife by Charles Busch
Abundance by Beth Henley
In a Forest, Dark and Deep by Neil LaBute
Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose
A Number by Caryl Churchill
Private Lives by Noel Coward
Defiance by John Patrick Shanley
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket
Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Seminar by Theresa Rebeck
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”
Julius Caesar utters this famous line in Act One of Shakespeare’s tragedy, blissfully unaware that fault and fate would soon play large parts in his own destiny. In this Monday’s staged reading of Julius Caesar, fault and fate are two questions Director Jason Rennie knows better than to tackle directly.
“I have always been very intrigued by the play and it took a while to figure out why I was drawn to it,” says Jason. “I think it’s mostly because the ambiguity is so appealing to me.”
That ambiguity is what has made this particular tragedy so memorable for audiences, and at the same time so challenging for actors and directors. Even though acts of savagery abound, the clarity of right and wrong in this political arena is not so absolute. Sympathy, surprisingly, falls on the backs of unexpected characters. The lines in the sand are blurry.
While this is Jason’s first foray into directing Julius Caesar, he has been through this story as an actor more than once.
“My drive to want to do this play stems from the frustration I’ve had as an actor,” he explains, citing the questions the story raises about politics, patriotism, and power. “The play itself doesn’t take one side or the other as far as the central conflict is concerned. All these characters, even the antagonists or the minor functionaries, are all drawn with ambiguity. It’s plausible to see them on one side or the other of that conflict, and you can easily sympathize one way or the other.”
In fact, he states, a more accurate title would probably be The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus, the character on whom most of the moral ambiguity falls during the course of the story.
“Brutus feels patriotic and wants to combat tyranny,” explains Jason, “but at the same time he’s thinking of committing murder. Can you ever truly justify and sanctify murder? I think none of those questions are actually answered within the play.”
Shakespeare plays his political cards close to the vest on this one, which makes sense, given that the play is perceived as a veiled critique of the Elizabethan monarchy. The fascination with Rome in the late 1500s provided an apt backdrop to the perceived overreaching power of Queen Elizabeth’s self-proclaimed deific reign.
“Elizabeth was starting to equate herself with that divinity and an immortal type of ruler, which was extremely hubristic,” says Jason. “It was a very hot political issue at the time.”
For us in modern times, the play still carries a critique – not of monarchy, necessarily, but of patriotism and the lengths to which it will be cited as justification for untoward acts.
“What is the motive when you invoke patriotism?” Jason asks. “Is it to justify an act that you personally don’t feel you can stand behind without it? And who’s to judge?”
Indeed, many of these questions have arisen within our current political climate, not just domestically, but globally. While Shakespeare writes sympathetic characters on both sides of the issue in Julius Caesar, the dialogue is the same as the one we are currently having around the world.
“A lot of the political issues that have been front page issues over the last few years can be boiled down to the same types of things,” says Jason, commenting that Julius Caesar could be performed against a backdrop of the current political landscapes of Egypt or Syria. “It’s a question of who has more power and do they deserve it?”
And with complicated questions come complicated answers. Once power is taken, what is left of the political state? It’s fine to depose a king, says Jason, but what happens afterwards? In this light, he says, Julius Caesar becomes not only a tragedy, but also a cautionary tale.
Hopefully, he and his actors can shed some light on this subject, but Jason is just as wary as Shakespeare was of actually picking sides.
“Shakespeare isn’t condoning or condemning a political assassination in Julius Caesar, but instead asking whether or not it is within the public’s power to make the decision,” clarifies Jason with a statement that, like the nature of both art and politics, perhaps generates more questions than it does answers.
– Tiffany Tang
Julius Caesar, a staged reading. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, November 18. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to email@example.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15.
Christy Yael-Cox does laugh as she checks the time and speeds down the 10 East, en route to Palm Springs and one of the closest National Theatre Live screenings of Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth.
This year in particular has given Christy a lot to reflect upon. As CEO and producing artistic director of Intrepid Shakespeare Company, she has navigated the company through one of its most diverse production years, which also saw the introduction of the year-long Encinitas Library Reading Series as well as the new summer youth program, Camp Intrepid.
2013 was also a critically acclaimed year for Intrepid: all three of the company’s mainstage productions received “Critic’s Choice” in San Diego. All three were directed or co-directed by Christy.
Now, immersed in pre-rehearsal mode for Macbeth, the Season Four finale and – perhaps not coincidentally – the 13th production on Intrepid’s roster, she propels herself forward into the next chapter of the theatre company she runs with husband Sean Yael-Cox.
What’s on tap? Among other things, there’s the announcement of the Season Five set list (“some Shakespeare, some comedy” is all she will reveal), a commitment to another year of monthly readings at the library, and an expansion of the education program to include – oh yeah – prison time.
“There are those things in your life where at a cellular level everything says yes,” says Christy. “This is one of those things.”
Back when Intrepid began, Christy and Sean had a meeting with the director of San Diego Youth Services to discuss implementing a Shakespeare curriculum into the juvenile prison system. Since the kids there are required to be in school, the idea is that part of their Language Arts learning can happen by getting up and acting out some theatre, specifically Shakespeare.
“I understand on a personal, visceral level how redemptive it is to work through your own stuff through these plays and these characters,” says Christy, who, even though she spends most of her time directing these days, started her theatre career acting. “I think it’s empowering. I do. I think it’s life-changing.”
While this was always the goal, now seems like the right time to move forward with the idea, starting in juvenile detention centers and then to one day moving into adult prisons.
“What’s amazing is how successful these programs have been across the country in reducing recidivism,” she says. “I believe in this so much.”
This program will join an overwhelming roster of programs Intrepid has already implemented over the past four years. In addition to full seasons of mainstage productions, the company now hosts a monthly staged reading series, an education tour that has performed in over 50 schools and for over 35,000 students, an internship program with the students at San Dieguito Academy, fall and spring classes for adults, and the recently created summer drama camp.
“I love creating something from nothing,” she says. “Camp Intrepid was built from nothing. The idea for the school tour happened at my kitchen table at 2 a.m. while the kids were sleeping.”
As the mother of two, Christy understands that much of Intrepid’s movement has to be accomplished on the go or in the middle of the night. She is never without her iPhone, capturing bits of creative inspiration in the notes app throughout the day and reading dramaturgy research while putting the kids to bed at night. Taeya, 8, and Bodhi, 2, are no strangers to the theater, sometimes accompanying their mother to rehearsals where they are doted on by actors before finding quiet corners for naptime or tea parties.
It is evident with speaking with Christy that ‘Mom’ is her favorite role and that the idea of forming a theatre company was so appealing because she knew it would allow her to prioritize her family time. While it may seem as though this idyllic setup was always the big picture plan, Christy’s path from her childhood in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to now helming one of San Diego’s formidable young theatre companies was not entirely a straightforward journey.
Firstly, she admits to being the black sheep in the family (“No one else does theatre”). Her theatre roots were formed at The Citadel, Edmonton’s premiere theatre house, where she was taking classes when she was barely in school and was cast as a fairy in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the age of six.
“I was doing it already, so my parents thought they should put me in classes,” she says and laughs. “I remember that audition for Midsummer was very rigorous.”
And even though she claims her directing work for Intrepid is her first, the truth is that there was a tragic play about a broken valentine at Glenora Elementary School, which she may or may not have written, cast, directed, costumed, and starred in.
“I was a really nerdy kid,” says Christy.
Surprisingly, some of the turns in her path also include things like leaving behind a career in investment banking (“The myopic focus on the accumulation of wealth was unhealthy for me”), an unexpected move to Los Angeles to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (“I always thought I would go to New York”), and finally discovering a shared vision of theatre with someone who would eventually become her husband.
“The thing that Sean and I both knew was that Shakespeare could be done better,” she says of their first conversations. “We knew that it was more exciting than what we were seeing everywhere else. We couldn’t understand why people weren’t making it as exciting as it was.”
“The elements we were passionate about in respect to why we wanted to start the company we found in King John,” says Christy, who often circles back to the company’s mission to present Shakespeare in an accessible, immediately relevant, and meaningful way. In Intrepid code, that translates to honoring the text and keeping the plays modern.
“It’s about telling the story in the best possible way,” she says, and then recites what has become her own directorial mantra: “Keep going back to the text. Go back to the text. The answers are always in the script, which is the reassuring thing. Shakespeare is a very trustworthy playwright.”
King John inspired the critics, and not only because it had been 42 years since the play last saw light on a San Diego stage. The U-T ‘s James Hebert called it “a bracing and fast-moving thriller.” Martin Jones Westlin of SD CityBeat surmised that “as long as Intrepid stays the course, its claim to Shakespearean excellence will follow.”
The early critical love may have set up some lofty expectations, but Christy is more reflective when considering her first directorial foray.
“The actors did a wonderful job,” she says, “but looking back there’s probably a lot of things I would have changed. Part of my problem is that I’m a perfectionist.”
But the perfectionism follows on the heels of collaboration, and one of the things that inspires Christy when she directs is the co-creation that happens between her and the actors.
“The best thing I can do is trust my actors and the very best thing I can do is treat it as an ensemble,” she says. “Our brains together will create the best possible product.”
“I’ve worked with Christy several times now,” says Tom Hall, who played the title role in King John and has since been cast in many roles at Intrepid. “One of the things I love about her is the room she gives you as an actor. It’s always a collaboration with her. She lets you know from the very beginning that your input counts. That’s one of the most generous things a director can give an actor.”
“This is going to sound corny,” says Christy, “but the part that I like the most about directing is being of service to the actors. It’s trying to make the actors the best version of themselves. I’m literally just there to make everyone great.”
As Intrepid wraps up 2013, it is obvious that this approach has served the company well. This year, productions maneuvered seamlessly from Shakespeare to Mamet to musical – with Christy at the helm of each one.
Hamlet was the company’s fourth production in their new home in SDA’s multi-million dollar performing arts center in Encinitas. Including this play as the finale of Season Three was a decision that neither Christy nor Sean, who played the title role, took lightly.
“Hamlet is hard because, first of all, it comes with way too much pressure attached to it,” Christy says. “There the, ‘Holy crap, you’re doing Hamlet! Don’t screw up Hamlet!’”
How to sidestep the pressure of producing Shakespeare’s most intimidating play?
“You’d be surprised,” says Christy, “but Sean and I tried not to talk about it beforehand.”
This is not actually that surprising given the fact that Sean and Christy give little regard to anything that causes hesitation in general. “Intrepid” not only refers to the manner in which they interpret Shakespeare, but also the manner in which they approach the work: fearless, fast, and undaunted. For them, this means spending little time worrying and more time researching and making pilgrimages throughout Southern California to see screenings and productions of the Bard.
This also means always, always, going to the text for answers about which lens through which to tell the tale.
“I think the thing that I loved about Hamlet was that it’s a really accessible story,” says Christy. “Ultimately, it’s about a family. It’s also so brilliantly, brilliantly, brilliantly written. There were times when I was sitting in rehearsal thinking, ‘I can’t believe I get to sit here and listen to these words.’”
Hamlet was set in the 1930s, which is the first time Intrepid chose a particular period of history as a setting. Christy felt it was right because of how the women were treated in the play. But the decision was not made to inspire empathy for the females. The decision was made on behalf of the men.
“It changed your perception of the men if it was set today, from my very 21st century feminist perspective,” she explains. “So for me it was helpful to move to the earlier part of the 20th century, which didn’t make their actions right. It just made them more commonplace.”
“Christy gets the psychology right, whether it’s that of individuals, couples, families, or armies,” says Danny Campbell, who played Polonius and has also been acting with Intrepid since their inaugural production of Macbeth. “She can bring convincing life to the stage because she has that insight into the human heart and mind. She knows what makes people tick.”
Among the critical acclaim was Pam Kragen’s observation in U-T, an apt reiteration of Intrepid’s mission and probably music to Christy’s ears: “…articulate, honest and contemporary…Intrepid’s Hamlet truly honors the words of Shakespeare and, at the same time, makes sense in today’s world.”
On the heels of Hamlet were rehearsals for the Season Four opener, Oleanna, and Christy laughs as she recalls the dramatic shift that had to occur between shows, not only with the tone, but also with the physical space. While Hamlet boasted a cast of 13, Oleanna is a two-hander. Where Hamlet was done broadly on a three-sided thrust stage, Oleanna was set up intimately in the round. Of course, moving from the language of William Shakespeare to that of David Mamet also presented its own set of challenges.
“I walked into the first day of rehearsal and said ‘All I know about this play is that it’s going to feel like we’re falling down a rabbit hole, and I promise you that we’re going to make it out the other side,” says Christy of her first conversation with her Oleanna actors, Fran Gercke and Rachael VanWormer. Even though Mamet’s writing can be “tricky,” she says, it is also like discovering a code – one that she knew the three of them would have to unlock together.
“I think the actors who are really invested in solving the problems and who participate in the process have a better end result. They’re not robots and if I treat them like robots then we’re not going to get the best, most evolved version of the play.” She pauses. “I could be wrong,” she says. “David Mamet would probably disagree with me.”
Regardless of what Mamet might think, the product delivered. In The Reader, Jeff Smith called Intrepid’s Oleanna the “best acted” production of the play he had seen. “Gercke and VanWormer are both excellent,” he said. “Their tandem work is truly impressive.”
Fran, who played John, credits Christy with this sense of unity and co-creation.
“The most striking qualities of her direction and leadership are her patience and generosity,” he says. “She’s always willing to listen, to patiently guide, to eagerly collaborate. It’s a unique and rare combination in any director – confidence and humility.”
“We had standing room only and super full houses at the end of the run last summer. It was a brand new thing that, for all intents and purposes, I made up in my head, so I wanted to give it the chance to evolve,” says Christy.
The show involves intertwining Shakespeare’s woodland comedy with music from the 1960s, a pairing that turned out to be tremendously successful and inspiring for both the directors and the actors.
“We learned really early on with King John how well modern music underscores Shakespeare plays,” Christy explains. “We’ve had amazing soundtracks with every Shakespeare play we’ve done which led to the evolution of the musical.”
The Examiner called it “one of the most innovative success stories of a theatre company.” Jeff Smith agreed, saying “this musical deserves a long life after this excellent production” and encouraged Intrepid to “take it on the road.”
Midsummer ran in tandem with the first appearance of Camp Intrepid, a summer camp run by Sean and Intrepid Artistic Associate Erin Petersen featuring youth programs in Shakespeare and musical theatre. By day, the theatre was filled with kids working on improvisation activities and pirate musicals. By night, audiences would stream in to enjoy a little Bard-inspired doo wop by the professionals.
Needless to say, when Midsummer closed in late August and camp sessions came to an end, Sean and Christy finally found time to do the things they had been putting off all year – like sleep.
“It’s encouraging to us when we have people who believe in what we’re doing and want to be a part of it,” says Christy. “It means the absolute world to us, because we do work ridiculously hard. We work harder than anyone could imagine.”
Sean agrees, and is quick to give props to his wife. “Intrepid’s productions have been a great success both critically and with audiences and that is specifically due to Christy’s directing, leadership, and artistic vision.”
The hard work has certainly paid off. There is already a ten-year plan in place and neither Sean nor Christy has any intention of slowing the pace of the company’s breakneck growth.
Of course, looking back on the little girl who once produced an entire valentine tragedy in grade school, it isn’t entirely that surprising.
“All the things in the past,” says Christy, “you don’t realize it at the time, but all of these things connect. You only know it when you’re looking back.”
– Tiffany Tang
Macbeth will open in January 2014. Tickets available now.