Thursday afternoon after one last visit to ReMix coffee in Ashland I set off south on I-5 toward San Rafael and Marin Shakespeare.
Lesley, the managing director of Marin Shakespeare is a good friend of mine who invited me to stay with her when I was in the area. Shortly before I left Oregon, Lesley let me know that there was an event happening at their new building that evening and their star actor, Dameion Brown, would be speaking. I’d been eager to meet Dameion for the last couple years after a news story of him went viral. Dameion had started performing Shakespeare in prison through one of Marin Shakes’ programs, and after studying Shakespeare for years behind bars, he began acting professionally when he was paroled several years ago.
I’ve been interested in prison Shakespeare for the last few years, after first being exposed to the idea in episode of This American Life and then shortly thereafter attending a screening of the film Shakespeare Behind Bars, a documentary about Curt Tofteland’s successful program in Kentucky. I’ve met with Curt in the past about starting a prison Shakespeare program of my own but I’ve not had the time or resources to take it on in earnest. However, a couple of years ago I was asked to teach a six week Shakespeare program in a juvenile detention center. I worked with a group of students to create a program of comic scenes from Shakespeare as a kind of sketch comedy show. To say it was an interesting experience would be an understatement. I loved the students I worked with and thought that a couple of them had serious potential to pursue theatre, but the guards in the facility were so hostile and so unpleasant that I don’t think I would ever do another program like that again. Working in juvie is different than working in an adult prison, and as much as I would like to connect with younger folks, it was honestly too upsetting for me to sustain long-term.
Unfortunately I was only able to make it to Marin Shakes in time to hear the last ten minutes of Dameion’s talk, but the little bit that I caught was incredibly moving. Dameion talked about how the Shakespeare program was instrumental in breaking down racial barriers in prison, that white and black inmates were much more likely to spend time together after the program started. It was a powerful thing to think about.
After Dameion, Lesley and Bob talked about their programs and the renovations they are working on. Marin Shakes recently bought a new building and raised the funds necessary to renovate their outdoor amphitheater space, and they’re now raising money to renovate the building that they purchased. They run Shakespeare programs in 11 prisons and work with schoolchildren all around the Bay Area. I had heard a little bit about their expansion at the STA conference back in January but I didn’t realize quite how impressive their programs were.
After taking a tour of the new building (with its huge costume/prop storage space upstairs) I went back to Lesley and Bob’s house to get a good night’s sleep before my big adventure the next day, whitewater rafting.
One of my friends, Rebekah, is a whitewater rafting guide in Coloma, CA, about two hours away from San Rafael where Lesley lives. When I mentioned that I would be in the Bay Area, she insisted that I come out and ride along on one of her rafting trips. So I got up early on Friday morning and drove two hours east to Coloma to go on my very first whitewater rafting trip.
I very nearly missed the trip entirely because my GPS wouldn’t recognize the address Bekah gave me so I had to put in an address that looked to be nearby and got a bit turned around. But after a little over two hours in the car I made it to her spot and put on my helmet and my personal floatation device (“PFD” is the new terminology, no one says “lifesaver” anymore evidently).
I got assigned to a boat with some recruiters from some staffing company or other on a team-building retreat. I was pleasantly surprised by how nice they were, as at first glance they seemed like the kinda dudes who would’ve bullied me in high school. I made it painfully clear early on that I am not the outdoor type by forgetting my sunscreen, borrowing someone else’s and then spraying it onto my helmet instead of my face. I spent a lot of the day looking like a total dweeb, but it was fun. The river we were rafting is the American River, which has class 3 rapids (on a scale of 1-5), meaning they were bumpy enough to be exciting, without being dangerous.
We spent almost five hours on the river, joking around while Bekah told us about the wildlife and the river. There were a few points where we were invited to hop off the boat and swim a bit, but mostly we sat in the raft, paddling at Bekah’s command. It was exactly the kind of adventure I was hoping to have on this trip. I wanted this experience to be as much about exploring America as learning about Shakespeare, but there have been points where my schedule was so fast-paced that I haven’t done much except sleep, drive, and see shows. The fact that I can’t keep up with blogging shows just how little free time I’ve had for a lot of the trip.
About an hour before lunch, we made friends with a frog who jumped up into our boat and refused to leave. We tried our best to shoo him back into the water; one of the guys even picked him up and tried to nudge him back into the river, but he just crawled farther up the guy’s arm. So the guy put the frog onto his helmet, where he hung out until lunch. Through twists and turns and rapids, our little frog friend hung out on that helmet. He was only persuaded to leave when my raftmate took off his helmet and set it down in the boat when we stopped for lunch.
We hit the most intense rapids after lunch, and then met up with a jetski that towed us down the calmer parts of the river to the beach where the bus picked us up. By the time we’d gotten back to the company’s HQ where I’d parked, I was running way behind to get back to San Rafael for Marin Shakespeare’s production of Pericles. So I said a hasty goodbye to Bekah and set out west back to the Bay. I hit some traffic but I got back to San Rafael with about a half hour to spare before the show.
I was excited for Marin Shakespeare’s production of Pericles both because it’s a play that isn’t performed often and because Dameion would be playing the title role. Like I said, I got back with just a half hour to spare but I still ran to the store for a Red Bull because I had been up since six am and had spent the whole day in the sun.
Lesley directed the show, which I actually hadn’t realized before. Pericles is a fun and wacky play, and because it’s rarely staged (at least in the last century) it doesn’t carry the kind of weighty expectations that a production of Dream might. Leslie said that one of the appealing things about staging Pericles is that it’s as close as we’ll ever get to what Shakespeare’s audience experienced: seeing a Shakespeare play knowing almost nothing about it in advance. With just about every other play in the canon, even if you haven’t read or seen the play, you know enough about it that you’ll recognize famous lines and characters. Not so with Pericles, I’ve read it and seen it twice before and while I can remember the broad strokes of the plot, the fine details aren’t etched in my memory in the way that they are with most of the other plays.
Lesley decided to set the show in a kind of vaguely sci-fi world that felt to me like an episode of the original Star Trek from the 60s. Rather than visiting other city states on the Mediterranean, Pericles was traveling to dramatically different worlds. But in the same way that while Star Trek certainly is sci-fi, it frequently tends to downplay that aesthetic, with Kirk visiting worlds that are almost more fantasy than sci-fi: Ancient Greece planet, Alice in Wonderland planet, Haunted House planet, &c. All of that explanation to simply say that there were mildly sci-fi elements to the aesthetic, it was eclectic enough that you didn’t necessarily feel like the show was pushing too hard for a statement about space travel or inviting you to think at length about the logistics of Pericles’ ship. It simply gave a kind of out-there feel to a show that is, by all accounts, quite out-there.
Lesley told me that her number one priority when directing is creating a clear story that an audience can follow. To that end, she played a bit with the text for Gower, the chorus-esque character who narrates some of the action between acts. It worked wonders to make the show comprehensible, and I was none the wiser, and if I didn’t notice, there’s almost no chance anyone else did.
As a whole, the show was wacky and fun. It seems like the vaguely sci-fi setting and the novelty of doing Pericles at all allowed the cast to lighten up and play. The show moved along at a brisk pace and was never dull.
Pericles isn’t as much of an ensemble show as Twelfth Night or Dream; it’s Pericles — and to a lesser extent, his family — and a handful of briefly appearing, half-realized characters. The most compelling role after Pericles himself is his daughter Marina, kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel but who turns out to be so angelic that she — like the “old religious man” from the fifth act of As You Like It — ends up turning all her would-be customers into pious believers who abjure the temptations of the flesh, much to the consternation of her “employers.”
Dameion was endlessly impressive as Pericles, maintaining a compelling and resonant gravitas that served as an anchor for a show that could’ve easily spun out of control. Despite the irreverence of a lot of the show, Dameion’s Pericles remained sympathetic; you never stopped being invested in what happened to him. Not to say that he was morose or overly serious, there were a few good laughs (his mother-in law pretending to oppose his courtship was hilarious), but overall you really felt for Pericles in all his trials and tribulations.
The crux of the play, the one moment that chokes me up even in a production as fun as this, is the reunion of Pericles with his daughter Marina, whom he has believed to be dead for years. There’s a beautiful quality to that painfully incremental revelation, watching the two of them trying not to believe that their joy could possibly be true. Pericles has all the information he needs early on in the conversation, but he keeps trying not to believe it, trying to keep himself from being tricked. It’s too good to be true, I need more proof. Pericles and Marina played that scene perfectly, and I’ll admit, I got a little misty in spite of myself. The two of them had such amazing chemistry together.
In an absolutely mind-blowing twist, Dameion himself had a similar experience. Dameion believed for over a decade that his stepfather who’d raised him — an African military officer — had died in Africa until he received a phone call from him in the last few years. That experience informed the way he played that scene in ways I can’t even begin to comprehend.
After the show, Dameion came by Lesley’s for a bit and we finally got to meet in person. We all sat around Lesley’s talking for a long time; I told Dameion about my trip so far and he shared some of his own experiences. Dameion’s first major role after be released was Othello, and he still feels very possessive of that part. He told me he always sizes up other Othellos that he sees in performance. Othello is a role that seems to inspire a bit of jealousy and possessiveness. When a group of English artists tried to get Paul Robeson into the UK when he was being persecuted by McCarthy, Olivier famously refused to help because he was worried that Robeson being in the country would ruin his own chances of ever playing Othello again. Obviously Dameion’s a much more civil and much less racist person than Olivier, but it’s still a funny thought, the attachment that actors feel to that particular role. Dameion also expressed interest in our un-rehearsed Bootleg Shakespeare shows, and I’ve decided that it will be my personal mission to get Dameion out to Richmond for a show.
Meeting Dameion was one of the highlights of my trip so far. He is not only an incredibly talented and painfully eloquent human being, but he’s so humble and kind and welcoming. After Dameion left, Bob told me that he and Lesley are trying to cast him as much as they can before he becomes a famous movie star. It’s probably the highest praise you can give an actor. And he deserves it.
Saturday I had plans to meet up with one of my favorite writers and Shakespeare nerds and to see a production of Dream. More on that in the next entry.