“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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
“Everything that happened seems to be coming back.”
Kate Keller, who will be portrayed by Savvy Scopelleti in Monday night’s staged reading at the Encinitas Library, observes this in Act One of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. It is a foreshadowing comment whose results will change her family entirely by the conclusion of the play.
It is this sense of unease that permeates this particular Miller tale. Written in 1947 on the heels of the war, the play analyzes the aftermath of war in our society within the context of the family. And just as Kate, the matriarch, understands that the past cannot truly be left behind, as the play unfolds, we see the characters navigating their way through relationships, hope, and ultimately their own battle scars.
“What’s so wonderful about Miller is that he writes about universal truths,” says Amanda Sitton, who will be portraying Ann Deever. “He writes about family and love. Unfortunately, the underlying theme of war isn’t something we get away from as a culture.”
While the families have been irreversibly affected by this period in American history, the unease in the play stems from their refusal to acknowledge the past or to fully deal with the consequences of their past actions. Therefore, while the story seems innocuous at first, the smooth veneer these characters have built over time slowly begins to crack.
In his essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Miller wrote, “The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies.” The stable ground of patriarch Joe Keller, who will be played on Monday by Dale Morris, has been built on secrecy and denial, and it seems as if it is about to be shaken at any moment, thus releasing a domino effect of fallout.
“Miller is one of those faces on the Mount Rushmore of American theatre, so doing this show in any form has been a long-term goal,” says Dale, although he admits that he may harbor some judgment about the characters in the play. Indeed, none of the characters is truly free from critique, even though everyone seems to earnestly defend his or her own past decisions.
“It’s interesting how everyone in the play justifies their own actions,” says Brian Mackey, who will be portraying Chris Keller, the surviving son in his family who is intent on marrying his brother’s former love interest, Ann. “That’s what’s interesting, those decisions in a human life, those moments when you have to make a decision one way or the other and how that affects the people around you.”
“It’s rife with grey area,” observes Amanda. “There’s no true villain.”
Even though the play was written over 60 years ago, there are still echoes of today’s conflicts. Eddie Yaroch, who will be playing the next-door neighbor, Dr. Jim Bayliss, observes that decisions in our most recent wartime could have been similarly fraught with difficult or even negligent behavior, which is a major source of tension in All My Sons. “There was probably some similar guilt trips happening in the Defense Department that soldiers are dying because of their lack of initiative or funds,” he says.
Ben Cole, who will be portraying Frank Lubey and whose appearance on the scene often lightens the increasing moments of tension, says that each character in the play also carries their own sense of guilt about the war, which also prevents them from moving forward.
“Everyone has a great deal of denial about what actually happened and a great deal of guilt about maybe even surviving or getting off or escaping blame,” he says. “Frank avoided the war completely by being just too old for the draft.”
“Bert avoided the war by being way too young,” chimes in Eddie, referring to Christian Payne, 11, who will be portraying Bert, a neighborhood tattletale. When asked why his character feels the need to constantly announce the misdeeds of his friends, Christian replies with, “Well, he’s young. He’s eight, you know.”
Christian joins the cast for his first Intrepid project alongside what Director Christy Yael-Cox calls “a fantastically talented group of actors.” Also featured are Tom Hall as George Deever, Erin Petersen as Lydia Lubey, and Debra Wanger as Sue Bayliss.
– Tiffany Tang
All My Sons by Arthur Miller, a staged reading, will be held at the Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, October 28. 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.
Fall is upon us – the chill is in the air, the holiday preparation is underway, the scarves are out of their summer hiding spots. While Intrepid Shakespeare finds itself between shows at this time of year, that doesn’t mean that Artistic Directors Sean and Christy Yael-Cox are taking extended vacations. Far from it. Beginning tomorrow, both will start teaching fall classes at the theater.
“It’s a nice time of year,” says Sean, who is also Intrepid’s Director of Education. “We are in pre-production for Macbeth and gearing up to announce our fifth season and our 2014 reading series.” Believe it or not, in the land of Intrepid, this is what qualifies as “downtime.” Fortunately for experienced actors in need of a tune up or new faces needing a landing place, this is also the perfect time for Intrepid to offer a selection of classes revolving around Shakespeare, public speaking, comedy, and scene study.
While Sean will helm two of the classes, The Play’s the Thing: Intermediate Scene Study will be taught by Producing Artistic Director Christy Yael-Cox. “It’s a great opportunity for people to work with Christy,” says Sean of the woman who has directed or co-directred the entirety of Intrepid’s productions this year, all of which were honored with Critics’ Choice. “She rarely has time to teach classes, so those who are signed up for this one are really lucky.”
In order to register for Christy’s class, at least one year of training is required, or experience acting in at least one production. Christy will be tackling both Shakespeare and modern scenes with her actors, and describes the class as ideal for those who want to work on their craft.
“It’s like a mini-rehearsal session with her,” says Sean.
If a more intensive Shakespeare experience is the goal, Sean will be teaching a class on approaching and acting the Bard for new and experienced actors.
“It’s amazing when I talk to seasoned actors in town and mention our upcoming Shakespeare auditions,” says Sean, who played the title role in Hamlet earlier this year. “Even the most experienced actors have said that they would love to audition, but Shakespeare scares them.”
In light of this, Sean feels it is important to bring Shakespeare down from its unreachable, scholarly pedestal and tap into its origins.
“When he was alive, his plays were popular with everybody,” explains Sean. “People forget that Shakespeare wrote for everyone.”
If there’s any fear that four weeks of Shakespeare will be entirely lecture-based, Sean is quick to dispel that. “We’ll be discovering the material by doing,” he says. In other words, be prepared to get on your feet.
Sean’s Shakespeare session is open to new and experienced actors, and he is quick to assure participants that both are necessary to the process of unpacking this playwright.
“Everyone learns so much by watching other actors in class,” he says. “It’s actually really nice when there’s different levels.”
Both The Play’s the Thing: Intermediate Scene Study and Willpower: A Shakespeare Class will commence this weekend and run on Sundays for four weeks. There is still time to register for limited available spots.
Also on the fall docket is Phil Johnson’s A Master Class on Comedy, which will take place November 24. Public Speaking with Sean will begin November 3 for two sessions.
Classes will be held on Intrepid’s mainstage theatre, the Clayton E. Liggett, on the campus of San Dieguito Academy. For more information on fall classes, click here.
– Tiffany Tang
“I think about comedy all day and all night.”
Phil Johnson, most recently seen this summer as Bottom in Intrepid Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical,” admits this obsession without hesitation.
“I probably need a twelve step group for my love of it,” he adds.
In lieu of addiction therapy, Phil Johnson will instead be putting this passion to good use by sharing it with others. Along with Artistic Directors Christy and Sean Yael-Cox, Phil will be an instructor in Intrepid’s brand new offering of fall classes.
What will he be teaching? A master class on comedy, of course.
A comedic stage veteran, Phil has shone on the San Diego stage for more than 15 years, racking up starring turns on the city’s major stages, and receiving a Craig Noel Award this year from the San Diego Critics’ Circle for his rendition of Sheridan Whiteside in “The Man Who Came To Dinner.” Aside from his stints in Los Angeles writing with the Acme Comedy Theatre, his grant from the San Diego Foundation for the Arts to develop his comedy solo show version of “Hound of Baskervilles,” and his comedy/cabaret fellowship with the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, his most impressive comedic credit is probably his run as the tavern-owning criminal Thérnardier in the Broadway production and the national tour of “Les Misérables.”
While continuing to develop projects in town, Phil is also eager to share the tips and pointers that his own comedic gurus have taught him over the years. A master class for Intrepid Shakespeare seems the perfect fit.
“I have a great enthusiasm for good actors who are also good comedians,” he says. “It’s thrilling and exciting to go to the theatre and be impressed by someone who can do both sides of the coin. Plus, I love Sean and Christy, and I would love for there to be a whole bunch of good, funny actors in San Diego for me to play with all the time.”
The three-hour master class will be geared towards professional working actors; however, theatre lovers are also welcome to enroll. While some actors may shy away from comedic training, Phil maintains that the funny bits are completely accessible to even the most dramatic of thespians.
“So many people think it’s separate from them, so they’re not using all the tools in their toolbox,” he says. “Almost any good actor can be a good comedian. It’s about details and intention and thinking things through.”
To that end, he plans to organize the class around a checklist – particulars that the actor can pay attention to in order to achieve the maximum comedic effect from his or her scenes.
“If the audience is laughing, then they are following your story,” explains Phil. “If they aren’t, then you need to shake things up.”
This is why he loves previews, he says, which is that time during the run of a show when things can still be adjusted after receiving input from the audience’s reaction each evening. “I get to see what works and what doesn’t before opening.”
This willingness to continually pursue the perfection of comedic timing is part of paying attention to the details. This is something Phil learned from his comedic stints in theatre, his own teachers, and also from a childhood spent watching the greats: Bill Cosby, Carol Burnett, Sonny and Cher, and Jonathan Winters. Honoring the legacy of comedy is something he feels is fundamental to its study.
“I think one thing that young people don’t do often enough is watch the old stuff. They don’t know who Bette Davis or Rock Hudson are,” says Phil. ”Comedy is so much an homage to what’s come before.”
Studying the legends is one way to keep one’s skills polished and in tune, but nothing beats the experience of a class. “I wish I had had someone to give me a tune up every once in a while,” he says. “You can always be funnier.”
And what if you are rather nervous about taking a master class in comedy?
“Don’t worry,” says Phil. “Nervous people are almost always funny.”
– Tiffany Tang
A Master Class on Comedy with Phil Johnson. November 24, 6-9 pm. Clayton E. Liggett Theatre at Intrepid Shakespeare (SDA Campus). $60. Enroll here.
When “A Life in the Theatre” by David Mamet debuted on Broadway in 1977, it opened hot on the heels of the playwright’s first White Way explosion, “American Buffalo.” Needless to say, the heartfelt strains of this new offering were somewhat off-putting for those expecting what the New York Times had called Mamet’s “bad boy bluster.”
Yet, Jason Heil, director of Monday’s night’s staged reading of this Mamet two-hander at the Encinitas Library, feels that this play fits nicely into Mamet’s canon, despite its more vulnerable moments.
“It may not fit into the Mamet mold,” he says, “but his writing style is very much there in this piece.”
That iconic writing style – also seen in “Oleanna,” Intrepid’s Season Four opener earlier this year – is what draws this Shakespeare-focused theatre company to certain contemporary playwrights. Mamet, who so clearly stamped his name on the voice of modern American theatre over three decades ago, lends his signature style and phrasing, this time in a very poignant fashion.
Chronicling the life of two actors – one a veteran and one a promising rookie – “A Life in the Theatre” is a series of vignettes that take place off stage, backstage, and even onstage, giving the audience a sincere portrait of friendship, professional camaraderie, and even a little competitive spirit.
“They are always trying to pin down where they stand with each other,” explains Jason, who directed last season’s main stage production of “Turn of the Screw” for Intrepid. “As the play evolves, and the younger actor gains more status and more confidence, we see how his growth affects their relationship.”
Bantering off of each other on Monday will be Sean Yael-Cox, Intrepid’s Co-Founder and Artistic Director, as the young upstart John, and San Diego notable Dale Morris as Robert, the heavy with a wealth of experience. In a unique segment of San Diego theatre history, Sean and Dale appeared together in a production of “The Elephant Man” when Sean first moved to town in 1998 and have been looking for a project to work on together ever since.
“When we were planning this yearlong series, this play was one of the few comedies we had on the list,” says Sean, referring to Intrepid’s monthly Staged Reading Series at the Encinitas Library that has played to sold out audiences and standing ovations, and has featured contemporary and classical, as well as Shakespearean pieces. This month will mark the ninth installment in what has become known as a concentrated showcase for notable San Diego talent.
“We are lucky to have hosted the highest caliber directors and actors from the start,” says Sean. “”The reading series has been a major undertaking. We’ve set the bar high and we are eager to maintain that level of performance quality for our audiences.”
To that end, every once in a while – however reluctantly – the schedule must be changed to accommodate this uncompromising outlook. For instance, “Julius Caesar” was originally slated for the September reading, but with a cast of more than a dozen actors and a director visiting from Los Angeles, a November timeline ultimately proved to be a solution for scheduling conflicts.
“For us, it was important to get the right group of people, especially for Shakespeare. We didn’t want to compromise on that,” says Sean. “We try to remember that theatre is growing and changing and that it’s a living thing, which means it can be a little unpredictable at times.”
Fortunately, that also means that the Mamet treat originally scheduled for the end of the year will be enjoyed a bit early, and that September’s audience gets to witness the dynamic connection between these two actors who have themselves been longtime friends.
“Both of these actors bring a lot of depth and groundedness to what they do,” says Jason, commenting on the impressive body of combined work. “I’m looking forward to digging in and mulching around with them a bit.”
One of the most interesting dynamics of the play, says Jason, is the fluidity of their relationship. “I like watching the two colleagues attempt to stay professional, to forge a friendship, to figure out the friendship that forges just by working with someone.” Again, it is Mamet’s words that endow that fluidity with a sense of realism.
“He creates this flow with the words that goes back and forth between the actors,” explains Jason. “He messes up clean dialogue and the result mirrors the way we speak. In reality, our thoughts take us somewhere and we overlap and interrupt and we don’t censor ourselves.”
Jason also points out that many modern playwrights now echo Mamet’s realistic style, which at the time of his debut, was a stark departure from the rigidity of his predecessors’ clean lines.
“When you look at the ‘classics,’ even with a modern play, these are texts that are still going to be standing years later,” points out Jason. “A ‘classic’ is a well-built script, where there’s a lot of answers buried within, and not laid out on a platter. It’s the playwright who knows how to write a play through the words and underneath the words at the same time.”
Recently a Broadway revival starring Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, “A Life in the Theatre” has been described as Mamet’s “valentine” to his business. Does that mean that non-theatrical types will still find the play as captivating as those who have taken a turn onstage themselves?
Jason is reassuring. “There are moments in the piece when it is really two people opening up about each other or their feelings for theatre and what theatre means,” he says. “But it’s more that we are saying come and take a peak behind the curtain, and we will show you what’s going on back here.”
– Tiffany Tang
A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet, a staged reading, will be held at the Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, September 23. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to firstname.lastname@example.org and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15. Julius Caesar will play in November.
As Sean Yael-Cox, Artistic Director of Intrepid Shakespeare, prepares to direct the company’s upcoming staged reading on Monday evening at the Encinitas Library, one question keeps reverberating in his mind:
“Why isn’t this play performed more often?”
The play in question is Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which will be presented by a stellar cast of San Diego heavies, among them Tom Hall as Oscar Wilde and Jim Chovick as the Marquess of Queensberry.
“It feels incredibly timely and appropriate to look at this play now because it’s about human rights,” says Sean, citing the recent waves of political change with regards to equality. “It’s a strong play to do now.”
Kaufman’s play, assembled in a docu-drama style which lifts direct quotations from historical documents, personal letters, and creative work, follows the later years of playwright Oscar Wilde as he undergoes three lawsuits in England – one which he initiates in order to rebuke a slanderous statement made against him by the Marquess of Queensberry, and two others initiated by the government on the charges of “gross indecency” between Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the Marquess’ son.
“A lot of people don’t know what happened to Wilde and how it ended for him,” comments Sean. “I think it says something about his writing that he is known for his wit and his charm and not remembered for the trials.”
Charged with the task of portraying Oscar Wilde is Tom Hall, most recently seen in Intrepid’s production of Hamlet as Horatio. Even though Tom describes the role as “very challenging and very daunting,” he is thankful that the authentic words of Wilde are there to provide a foundation for his real life character.
“You get a strong sense of who he was and how he carried himself through his writing,” says Tom. “Wilde wasn’t just a person. He’s a personality.”
Also recreating an historical figure is Jim Chovick, who will be portraying the Marquess as well as two different prosecuting attorneys in the reading.
“The Marquess of Queensbury is the nemesis,” says Jim, also last seen in Intrepid’s Hamlet as the Ghost. “He’s rather rough and strong arms his way through life.”
What lends credibility to these characters is that their conversations are almost entirely created from historical record, and Kaufman manages to investigate the trials with a modern perspective while maintaining the integrity of the people involved.
“It’s like a crash course history lesson, but it’s incredibly theatrical,” says Sean, who will also take a turn on stage during the reading. “It’s almost like doing an Oscar Wilde play because there are so many excerpts from his writing. It’s the beautiful poetry and a ton of humor.”
Sadly, it is the creative writings of Wilde that are also used as evidence against him when he is put on trial for his “illegal” activities with Douglas. Tom notes that because of this, it is not the actual relationship between the men that ends up under the microscope. It is Wilde’s struggle for artistic expression.
“He was really being tried for his subversive views on art, morality, and Victorian society,” says Tom. “Wilde believed in the power of art to transform man. He believed that art could change the world, could bring about peace, and all of these ideas that were revolutionary for his time.”
Jim agrees. “The playwright knew what he was doing,” he says. “Wilde isn’t defending his actions, he’s saying I’m an artist and art rises above these petty little rules.”
This “rule” that Wilde was ultimately found guilty of was “gross indecency” between males, and while the term was never clearly defined by Parliament, it was used to criminalize homosexuality in Victorian England. It was not repealed until 1967.
The somewhat didactic nature of this play should not be intimidating, however. Anyone familiar with Kaufman’s The Laramie Project will understand his unique ability to take facts and weave them into a compelling narrative.
“The best kind of play is one that will move you emotionally and educate you,” says Jim. “Anything that is well-written will resonate. It’s human nature.”
Rounding out the cast of historical figures is Brian Rickel, Danny Campbell (most recently seen as Polonius in Hamlet), as well as John Tessmer, Ben Cole, and Edred Utomi who are all currently acting in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the musical, which closes on Intrepid’s mainstage on Sunday.
– Tiffany Tang
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moisés Kaufman, a staged reading, will be held at the Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, August 19. 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.
As Titania the Fairy Queen, Jacquelyn Ritz has a very clear idea of the role she plays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Musical.
“I like to think of the fairies as Greek gods,” she says.
Her fellow magical misfits agree with her. Occupying the forest throne alongside Jacquelyn sits David McBean as Oberon the Fairy King. Kevin Hafso-Koppman rounds out the fairy trifecta with his gymnastic portrayal of Puck in this Shakespearean classic, reimagined by Intrepid through the sounds of the 60s.
“They are super human beings with super human powers,” elaborates David. “Since the fairies have such power, they seek destruction in a way that’s different from humans. These things that occur in their lives become so much more important to them. And the results of their feelings affect the entire world.”
The main source of fairy angst is Titania’s adoption of a changeling boy, which infuriates Oberon. Titania’s refusal to hand over the boy further stokes Oberon’s fury, inspiring vengeance in the form of a flowery love potion forcing Titania to fall “head over wings” for a Bottom, a Mechanical metamorphosed into a donkey.
“Oberon has no power directly over her, so he can’t change her,” David explains.
And where does trickster Puck fit into this struggle?
“Puck has his foot in both camps – the real world and the fairy world,” says Kevin, elaborating on Puck’s ability to maneuver and help manipulate both the fairy royals and the lost lovers running through the forest. “The whole story and the whole dream are Puck’s flip of the world.”
From this fairy’s perspective, things are certainly topsy-turvy – the human lovers succumb to the magical spells of things supernatural, while the magical monarchs are reduced to petty humanlike spats and acts of retribution.
“I don’t think it’s petty,” chimes in Jacquelyn. “But I’m Titania, so I have to feel that way,” she adds with a smile.
Another topsy-turvy aspect of this Intrepid’s Midsummer revival is the casting. Both David and Kevin were featured in the 2012 production, but in vastly different roles: David played the Mechanical Flute and garnered rave reviews for his “play-within-a-play” Thisbe, while Kevin soared from rope swings as the lover Lysander.
Opportunely, Kevin is able to incorporate this gymnastic ability into Puck.
“This time around we are getting a lot more physical with the role because we are discovering some different things,” he says. “It’s difficult because the last person did something that was so brilliant and so funny and you want to take those little things and put them into your performance, but also create your own thing.“
For Kevin, that “thing” has translated into the construction of a trapeze atop Puck’s perch center stage, from which he is able to incorporate his athletic approach to his heart’s content.
For David, the return to Midsummer also included a role as musical director.
“This time around, I get to be a part of the moments where music adds to the storytelling,” says David. “It’s been a treat for me to be a part of the show in an intimate way and to help the new actors learn the songs. They are so clever and remarkable. It’s been an honor to be directing them.”
For Jacquelyn, who recently relocated from Chicago and is making her San Diego debut with Intrepid, the infusion of music into this play just makes sense.
“Music is a great bridge from this world to something higher,” she says. “When you mix that with Shakespeare, which is another way of taking this world and elevating it through poetry, it just heightens it.”
However, this “heightening” does not serve to exclude the audience from their understanding of the play. In fact, it does just the opposite.
“The music clarifies the relationships,” explains Jacquelyn. “People who maybe don’t know Shakespeare as well, still know music. We know songs, we know how we feel when we are singing to someone else or someone is singing to us. It makes more of a connection.”
These fairies are in flight through August 18. Come see them rock the forest and find your own musical connection.
– Tiffany Tang
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Musical plays through August 18 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas. Tickets available here.
(Photo credits: Daren Scott)
Mapping Shepard: A conversation with Fran Gercke, “Geography of a Horse Dreamer” staged reading director
“The great thing about a Sam Shepard play is that you don’t know where you’re going or where you’re going to end up. You just know that you took a wild ride.”
Fran Gercke, director of Monday evening’s staged reading of Geography of a Horse Dreamer at the Encinitas Library, pauses a moment before he adds, “And if it’s done well, you want to go again.”
It’s hard to imagine that anything wouldn’t be done well in this reading, with such a formidable cast assembled under Fran’s leadership. Brian Mackey, Tom Stephenson, Tom Hall, Eric Poppick, Jon Sachs, and Jake Rosko will be bringing to life the story of the horse dreamer, whose winning predictions capture the interest of some local mobsters keen on exploiting his talents for big payoffs.
“It’s the story of a wonderfully wacked out, incoherent group of people who get together to solve a problem,” says Fran. “Shepard calls it a ‘mystery,’ but there is no Poirot in this story.”
But there is more here than just your run-of-the-mill struggle for power, says Fran. Although it has been described as a riff on DH Lawrence’s story “The Rocking Horse Winner,” Geography of a Horse Dreamer could also be seen as an unpacking of American culture, as well as an exploration of hope and…dreaming.
“We’re all chasing the ‘American dream,’ but whose dream is that?” Fran says, pointing out one of the most pervasive notes in Shepard’s anthology. “Our quest for authenticity is always based on an image we saw somewhere, or what our grandparents told us about our cultural heritage. When we distort ourselves to match the image we are chasing, we find we don’t like the distortion. It doesn’t feel real.”
However, this struggle for achievement is also part of our cultural landscape, he continues, part of our own “geography” of dreaming. Our only hope lies with the artists, who take on almost shamanic powers in Shepard’s plays.
“In Shepard’s landscape, if you are referred to as an artist, watch out,” says Fran. “You have magical powers, and ones that you probably can’t control yet.”
In Geography, the artist is the dreamer.
“It’s not a perfect play,” says Fran, but it is perhaps the first play where Shepard begins to define his voice. We see the beginning notes of his later, more iconic plays like True West and Curse of the Starving Class.
“Shepard has a really wonderful and goofy sense of humor,” Fran says, mentioning that during rehearsals this week, one of the actors described the play as an amalgamation of Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, and John Waters.
“Basically he says, let’s have a lot of fun and put people on stage you would never want to run into in real life.”
– Tiffany Tang
Geography of a Horse Dreamer by Sam Shepard – a staged reading, will be held at the Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, July 22. 6:30 pm complimentary wine and appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to firstname.lastname@example.org and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15.
Dropping in on the Mechanicals during the early days of rehearsal is not unlike dropping into a cocktail party with old friends – minus the cocktails. And minus any actual history of friendship, for that matter.
It’s true. The five actors who will portray the working class players in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical, which previews this week, have bonded so quickly, one would think that they had known each other for years, when in fact they all met at the show’s first rehearsal.
“It is the first time we’ve worked as a group, but not the last,” says Phil Johnson, who will be portraying Bottom. “We’re getting a van.”
To be a Mechanical in A Midsummer Night’s Dream means that you get to be responsible for most of the humor in the play, as the band of hopeful actors gathers and rehearses in the forest, falling prey to the machinations of the Fairies.
“It was really fun for me to be a part of the group that everyone remembers as just the clowns,” says Gerilyn Brault, who will be portraying Peter Quince, the troupe’s director. “It’s been really freeing to work with this amazing group.”
This sentiment is a common one, even to Savvy Scopelleti, who will be reprising the role of Snug, which she portrayed in last summer’s production.
“It’s a different show this year,” she says. “It’s a new cast with new energy…and it really did gel so instantly.”
Thankfully this insta-bonding has created a safe environment of play and experimentation, relieving some of the stress that learning both the Shakespearean text as well as the 60s tunes which will be infused into the show can bring. Brian Imoto, who will be playing Snout and who is also fairly new to Shakespeare, takes solace in the fact that the Mechanicals are supposed to be “amateur actors.”
“It was a relief to me,” he says. “We’re off the hook!”
The group immediately dissolves into laughter, something that happens every thirty seconds or so. After spending more than five minutes with this crowd, you bring to wonder how they actually get anything done in rehearsals, with all of the gut-busting going on.
But no one seems to be worried. For now, this group of talented actors and singers are indulging themselves in their off-stage repartee. It can only come in handy once the curtains open this week. Nathan Riley, who will be playing Flute and ultimately the lovelorn Thisby, barely contains his enthusiasm for his tribe.
“If you’re going to see Midsummer this summer, which I’m pretty sure you will,” he says, “this is the one to see.” — T.T.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical runs July 11-August 18 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas, CA.
Purchase tickets now.