I spent the past two months directing Romeo and Juliet at a high school, as part of Portland Playhouse's Fall Festival of Shakespeare. We closed last weekend, after three performances at their school and a culminating event at the Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland, as part of a two-day marathon of eight high schools performing in rapid succession, laughing for each other, crying with each other, and cheering each other on. The following Monday, I met with my students for a final time, for all of us to share some feedback on the experience of making a play together, in the context of eight high schools and a collaborative process. After breaking the ice with some general remarks like "it was really fun" and "I'm going to miss you guys so much," one brave student shared with us how her sister had died when she was twelve, and ever since then, she had felt like she could never be herself and didn't fit in anywhere -- until this experience, where she found a family and a support system where she felt safe and loved and accepted for who she was. This story spurred a slew of honest sharing that tended to fall into three categories: stories about loss/pain and finding hope again, stories about what "family" means, and stories about finding a sense of belonging. My Shakespeare students created a stunning piece of art beyond their age and experience. And, through creative collaboration, they learned lessons about trust, friendship, acceptance, hope, and support.
Salt and Sage is pressing forward, through our Sex Tragedy Reading Series, The Twelve Dates of Christmas, and then to Great Falls in January. Asae is a work horse, accomplishing more than seems humanly possible, and I'm doing what I can to keep up. Sometimes, it feels like far too much. But I know there are things much bigger than me at work in this art we create. I witnessed them in my students this fall, and I feel them when I dive into acting, the art I love.
The first rehearsal for Twelve Dates of Christmas is this afternoon! Well, not exactly. Today is the first rehearsal in which actress, Melanie Moseley, directress, moi (Asae Dean), and stage mistress, Elizabeth Garett are all in the same room. For the last two weeks Melanie, from the comfort of her home office in Portland, and myself, from the comfort of the Manchester Art Farm in Pittsburgh, have rehearsed via Google Hangout…talking through the beats, filling in the back story, and assigning accents to the various characters. Ginna Hoben wrote Twelve Dates of Christmas and loosely based the material off of her own adventures and misadventures in dating after having her heartbroken. Twelve Dates is the story of Mary, a working actress based out of New York City, who flies home to Ohio for Thanksgiving to spend her first holiday with family plus fiancé. The fiancé cancels on her, feigning food poisoning, and Mary catches him in his lie when she tunes into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and see him sucking face with another woman on national television. While Mary goes about the business of mending her heart, her family goes about the business of setting her up. What is a newly single girl to do, though? Cherish her aloneness? Carve a few more notches on her bed post? Search for signs of a new Mr. Right? The Twelve Dates of Christmas is hilarious and heartwarming, sassy and sweet. Today is about getting the play on its feet, figuring out some of the character’s core mannerisms, and staging a kick-boxing class that stirs up some sibling rivalry. Fun!
We will post ticket information for Twelve Dates of Christmas soon. And for those of you who are sad about the passing of Halloween and Dia De Los Muertos or craving some classical fare, Salt and Sage’s Sex Tragedy Saturday Staged Reading Series starts next weekend with The Spanish Tragedy, come and have a bloody good time! 2 pm Backdoor Theater, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Tickets $5. Cash only.
The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd, was the first "blockbuster" of the Elizabethan stage and here at Salt and Sage, we are beginning our Sex Tragedy Saturday reading series with this classic on November 9th at 2 pm at The Backdoor Theater. I hope you'll join us! Here's a little taste of what to expect:
The Spanish Tragedy is an action play for poets, a sensational story told in vigorous verse. The plot is pure mayhem: a dead soldier, Don Andrea, calls on Revenge to protect his friends and punish his foes and his prayers seem answered as his former girl-friend, Bel-Imperia, takes up his best friend, Horatio, for her new lover to piss off her wicked brother, Lorenzo. Bel-Imperia underestimates her brother's obsession with both her sexuality and their station. Lorenzo in the company of Balthazar, a Portuguese prince who wants Bel-Imperia for himself, slaughters Horatio before her very eyes. Now, Bel-Imperia and Horatio's father, Hieronimo, are the vengeance seekers; as Don Andrea watches impotently from the sidelines. Multiple double-crosses lead to the bloodbath of the final scene. Along the way, the violence only escalates, there are stabbings, hangings, and a shooting; one characters "runs lunatic" and another bites out their own tongue. It's spectacular!
Want more? Come to the reading. Want more right now? Me too! Warning, here begins a lot of geeking out:
I'm particularly excited to present The Spanish Tragedy hot on the heels of having directed Hamlet. Among revenge tragedies, a popular genre in Early Modern Drama, Hamlet is the paragon and The Spanish Tragedy is the exemplar. Indeed the parallels between Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy are so striking that some scholars suspect that Kyd also authored the so-called Ur-Hamlet, a lost play on the story of Hamlet which predated Shakespeare's by at least a decade. Douglas Bruster suspects Shakespeare actually had a hand in revising The Spanish Tragedy, additional passages appear in the 1602 quarto edition of the play. (You can read about his argument in the recent New York Times article "Much Ado About Who?: Is it Really Shakespeare?") Other candidates for authorship of the additional passages include the playwright and actor Ben Jonson, who played Hieronimo near the start of his career. Whether Kyd wrote the Ur-Hamlet or Shakespeare (or Jonson) revised The Spanish Tragedy is immaterial in establishing, to borrow a phrase from David Bevington, "its towering influence."
When I directed The Spanish Tragedy in 2010, it was not so much the parallels to Hamlet that struck me as its clear influence upon many other plays in Shakespeare's cannon. Lorenzo is an antecedent for Iago in Othello, Pedringano for Barnadine in Measure for Measure. Lorenzo is in no way like Benedict, however, what Shakespeare nerd can not think of Much Ado About Nothing when Lorenzo advises Balthazar that "in time the savage bull sustains the yoke?" This time I am sure that all the lines Shakespeare quoted for Hamlet will jump out and delight. I actually wrote on both Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy in my MLitt Thesis, "Brides, Wives, and Widows: Marriage and Murder in Early Modern Drama," however the plays appeared in separate chapters, now that I'm working on both so close together, I'm fascinated by the way the roles of both plays two female characters compare.
Of course in Hamlet (at least Q2 and Folio - Q1 well that's another story), neither Gertrude nor Ophelia have much agency in the revenge plot. Ophelia is mostly there to be crushed. She is the collateral damage of Hamlet's mistakes and it is in her demise that she fuels the final confrontation between Hamlet and the court. And Gertrude? Well she can contribute to Hamlet's vengeance by refusing to sleep with Claudius. Which she might do, though the text does not say. She is certainly no conspirator as Bel-Imperia is in The Spanish Tragedy, just how much Gertrude knows and when she knows it is shockingly ambiguous. In the infamous closet scene, Hamlet rebukes her for committing incest and reveals that his father was murdered. The fact of the murder goes by so quickly though, that one cannot be sure whether Gertrude absorbs the words of her sometimes-hyperbolic son as more than mere metaphor.
In The Spanish Tragedy, there is a mother who runs mad and an ingenue who conspires with and executes revenge alongside the protagonist. Plays like The Spanish Tragedy deserve to be read and staged because they are great plays and because they complicate the idea that all female characters in Early Modern drama behaved like those in the Shakespearean cannon. The stage needs Ophelias and Bel-Imperias. Actresses (and actors) deserve a stab at both.
- Asae Dean
As for me, I'm spending the month directing a 75-minute Romeo and Juliet at Ridgefield High School as part of Portland Playhouse's Fall Festival of Shakespeare. Ridgefield's mascot is the "Spudder," a regal, patriotic, and super-tough fighting potato, pictured left. Not sure what that has to do with anything, really, except that I repeatedly and continually find a kind of unexpected and unexplainable joy in this chaotic and self-described "impossible" process (akin to the unexplainable joy this potato man, who lives in Ridgefield's office, brings me). The Fall Festival comes from a model developed by Shakespeare and Co., based out of Lenox, Massachusetts, for which we directors received five days of training in person from the program's co-founders. The model is designed to bring Shakespeare's words to a visceral level and empower students to take real ownership of every part of the process in developing the play. And it culminates in a festival at the Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland, at which all eight high schools involved perform their shows back to back over two days, to packed audiences full of their peers (and the general public) who cheer for each other as if they're at a sporting event. We're two and a half weeks away from performance, and we're at a point in the process where it feels impossible; there are too many balls in the air. And yet... I know it will come together. So for Monday, I'll put on my fighting potato face and dive back into the fray!
Jenny mentioned last week that she and I are spending October in different states, working with other companies. October finds me in Pennsylvania directing Hamlet for Pittsburgh Classic Players. I am treasuring the time and my appetite for Early Modern plays is only growing from this verbal feast. Fortunately, there is more Early Modern drama waiting for me back in Portland. Salt and Sage is holding a staged reading series in November – Sex Tragedy Saturdays. We want to whet Portland’s appetite for plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and are starting with three of my favorites: Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy, and John Marston’s The Insatiate Countess. I wrote on all three of these plays (among others, including Hamlet) for my Masters of Letters Thesis “Brides, Wives, and Widows: Marriage and Murder in Early Modern Drama.” In my thesis, I focused on the pattern in Early Modern drama of sexual subversiveness as a primrose path to murder and proposed that that script had to do with a new emphasis in early modern England on love and companionate marriage. I chose to write on these plays not just for what they might reveal about the past but because they fire my imagination. They are plays for Shakespeare fans who also dig True Blood; they feature amazing roles for women and some of the most delicious verse ever written. We will share more details about these readings as November draws a little closer, for now, here is a little taste of their bounty:
Let dangers go. Thy war shall be with me,
But such a war as breaks no bond of peace.
Speak thou fair words, I’ll cross them with fair words;
Write loving lines, I’ll answer loving lines;
Give me a kiss, I’ll countercheck thy kiss.
- Bel-Imperia, The Spanish Tragedy
I sooner will find out the bed of snakes,
And with my youthful blood warm their cold flesh,
Letting them curl themselves about my limbs,
Than sleep one night with thee. This is not feigned,
Nor sounds it like the coyness of a bride.
- Evadne, The Maid’s Tragedy
My blood, like to a troubled ocean
Cuffed with the winds, incertain where to rest,
Butts at the utmost shore of every limb.
My husband’s not the man I would have had.
- Isabella, The Insatiate Countess
Asae and I have completed the first performance leg of our journey as Salt and Sage Productions: a whirlwind experience of performing in different places, crashing in different sleeping spaces, loading our equipment in and out, taking care of logistics, spending a lot of time on the road, and making artistic and personal discoveries. The irony of "The Exit Theatre" being a sort of jumping-off point of our journey, strikes me as I take a few moments to breathe in all that has happened, and all that is still to come. We're spending the next month or so in different states, both creating some art with other groups before reconvening again in early November for our Christmas play. And in a sense, we have made a bit of a temporary exit. We have laid Cinnamon and Cigarettes to rest (again, if still temporarily); we are taking some breathing room from our home theatre space, and we are doing a bit of creating apart from each other. But one of the beauties of theatre is that from exits always come entrances. The end is never the end, even when it is. The next play is always right around the corner. So I'm taking a moment, now, to be grateful for the exits and the entrances, the support I consistently receive from all sides, the connections I've made and continue to make, the dear friends and fellow artists who help me become a better artist and human being, and the opportunity to do what I love on a daily basis.
Saturday, we wrapped up our run of Cinnamon and Cigarettes at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. We, theatre artists, often remark on how an audience shapes a show, however, place does as well. The other week I mentioned the greatness of Exit Studio where we were performing. Really, it was the perfect venue for Cinnamon and Cigarettes - intimate with great sight lines and killer acoustics. Today, I want to talk about the Exit Theater in context, the neighborhood that surrounds it which no doubt interacted with the work, not only for us, but for out audiences as they made there way to and from the theater. The Exit, which hosts the Fringe Festival, is located at 156 Eddy Street in the Tenderloin neighborhood. The headline of a 1959 Time Magazine article on an acclaimed jazz club (the Black Hawk) captures the Tenderloin’s reputation with the alliterative and pejorative headline “Success in a Sewer.” A half century later, one can still imagine a national magazine referring the Tenderloin (or at least parts of it) with the same sensational headline. Piss and pot were the dominant fragrances along the two blocks of Eddy Street that we traveled back and forth as we loaded our set in and out for each show. Afraid of becoming stranded in a Bay Area traffic jam and missing a performance, we would often arrive two hours early and go sit in coffee shop on the corner of Eddy and Cyril Magnin. This was not the kind of coffee shop patrons usually hang out in, rather, it was one of those purely functional spots where folks come to get a cheap cup of coffee, an aspirin (they came attached, gratis, to the cup sleeves) and a donut before heading into work or diving down into the Metro Powell Downtown Station. Once as we were sipping our coffee and remarking on the city, another customer, (a middle-aged woman with purple highlights in her jet black hair), sensing that we were not from around here, gave us the lay of the land saying that down the street was all “junkies, pimps, and whores” while around the corner was “all corporate and boring.” She identified herself as a gallery owner and advised us that the area near Valencia street was the happening area in the city. Having walked past a man bitching out a dealer over what his $20 got him and looking out at the Gap and Forever 21 across the street, it was easy to agree with her assessment. When you turn the corner from the coffee shop at a sharp diagonal, you are whisked away from the harsh urban landscape of Eddy and greeted by throngs of tourists and giant retail stores (Uniqlo, Sephora, Lush, H&M) blasting dance music. Just as there are individuals running hustles on Eddy, there are street performers running another kind of hustle here. One night on Eddy, I encounter an older, probably homeless, gentleman who pressed a dying rose into my hands, I accepted and then handed the flower back with an apology that I had nothing to offer him. One day along the retail avenue, I saw two teenagers performing a Miley Cyrus song on an electric ukulele, for tips. Jeremy, the protagonist of Cinnamon and Cigarettes, had an artistic streak – the two poems in the play were written by him, and was homeless in his late teens. I could not help but wonder where he would have fit in the San Francisco landscape at different points in his life. Taking Cinnamon and Cigarettes to the San Francisco Fringe was an exciting and empowering experience and performing it in the Tenderloin, a sobering one.
- Asae Dean
2 Shows + Strike on Saturday, 724 miles in 16 hours along the Pacific Coast Highway on Sunday, and a 2.5 hr one shot only tech today: I am so grateful that Tuesday is a day of rest! The gratitude list for Cinnamon and Cigarettes just keeps growing. There are the individuals who shared their stories with Jenny as she worked on painting the fullest picture possible of Jeremy, there are the folks at the Fertile Ground Festival where Cinnamon and Cigarettes premiered, there is Danny Palmer who designed the beautiful poster, Tommy Harrington who shot our awesome trailer, the volunteer house managers including Wendy Philpott and Benjamin Newman who stayed and helped us strike on Saturday. It took us around two hours to restore lights and pull staples out of the canvas scrim that served as the backdrop to the show (there is another thank you - Anon It Moves who left that part of their set in place for us) and just like that, the Portland run of Cinnamon and Cigarettes, Salt and Sage's inaugural production had come to a close. You can tell from the photo below of Jenny, Cassie, and I how ecstatic we have been to share this work with audiences.
Then came that epic drive. Confession: I never learned to drive stick. Poor Jenny had to drive the entire trip. We schemed about Salt and Sage's future, swapped stories, and listened to favorite songs including Nine Inch Nails, who are actually growing one me!
Today, the special thanks list grew by six: Jenny's cousin's family - who are housing us while we Fringe it up - plus Amanda, SF Fringe Coordinator extraordinaire, and Curtis, our SF Fringe technician, who happens to share Jenny's love for Nine Inch Nails and asked Jenny after the run whether she every performs music apart from her work in the theatre. (She doesn't, however, who knows what the future holds!) Amanda and Curtis were two chill professionals who made what could have been the most stressful part of the last 72 hours (TECH) a relaxed, easy, productive affair in which we were able to feel the space, find our footing, and play.
Gooseberries. Nine Inch Nails. Jeremy introduced Jenny to both. They picked gooseberries in Jeremy’s backyard when they were just kids, a couple of fourth graders playing around. Jeremy played Jenny Nine Inch Nails in eighth grade as they were wading into the treacherous waters of adolescence. These moments of Jeremy sharing his tastes with Jenny are among my favorites in Cinnamon and Cigarettes. Audiences tend to laugh at each. We all remember the pressure to like something unfamiliar when our best childhood friend shared it with us for the first time. And we can all relate to the way matters of taste felt so central to our identity as teenagers. During the show Jenny plays piano and sings snippets of songs she and Jeremy loved. The way Cinnamon and Cigarettes integrates music feels very familiar and true to life: from the way music bonds friends to the way we reach for music to alternately amplify or sooth our pain.
Jenny and I are good friends as well as collaborators. Nine Inch Nails, though, is a point of disagreement. Closer is a great song and all, but I just have no interest in the rest of Reznor’s oeuvre. When I want to indulge my pain I turn to country music, say Kasey Chambers, when I want to spit on society it’s The Coup. Back in high school, Tori Amos would have occupied the first category and Hole the second and if you disliked either artist, I probably mistrusted you and harbored the suspicion that you were against all things good, or at least women.
All of this pondering of musical taste during Cinnamon and Cigarettes has made me realize that perhaps one of the best, or at least most under-appreciated parts of adulthood is the way that we retain the ability to be passionate about our tastes but lose that gut sense that differences of opinion are an attack. Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to Nine Inch Nails, you can relate to the joy and pain Jeremy and Jenny feel in Cinnamon and Cigarettes and how the music woven throughout the show spoke to them. Also, Jenny is a beautiful piano player and vocalist.
The Portland run of Cinnamon and Cigarettes ends September 7th. Hope to see you at The Backdoor Theater, or you can catch us at the Exit Theater in San Francisco, Sept 11th, 14th, 15th, 20th and 21st.
Jenny and Jeremy, age 6
Cinnamon and Cigarettes ("the remount") opens in five days. I'm terrified and excited to be sharing this story again. As I have worked/played with my dear co-collaborators Cassie and Asae to discover what the story has become seven months after I first performed it, I'm realizing that the story is me. It's funny: although I do play "myself" for parts of the play, I spend much more time as other characters -- and the story I'm telling is not specifically mine, it's Jeremy's. But the more I tell it; the more I explore what the characters are saying and how their voices define them and shape the story, the more acutely I feel the reasons I needed to tell this story in the first place. It's the story of my first love; it's the story of my deepest loss; it's the story of my rawest joy -- and it's a story I can't keep silent. I hope you'll let me share this story with you.