Partner Spotlight | Cal Shakes

Cal Shakes production of "The Good Person of Szechwan" performed at Bruns Amphitheatre in 2019. Photo by Kevin Berne courtesy Cal Shakes.

This is the time of year when the outdoor theater season typically winds down with the approaching cooler weather and darker evenings. The last of summer programming would stretch into the first or second week of October when the return of summer-like weather often hits the Bay Area. But this year, as with all entertainment houses, the outdoor theater season never began. As we continue to highlight resilient BARTable partners in the “Partner Spotlight” series, we put our focus on the California Shakespeare Theater, otherwise known as “Cal Shakes.”

Sarah Williams of Cal ShakesSarah Williams, Cal Shakes Managing Director. Photo courtesy Cal Shakes.

Our virtual visit here is with Sarah Williams, the Cal Shakes Managing Director who oversees the administration and operations of the organization. Sarah came to Cal Shakes in fall of 2019 after four years at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (“Berkeley Rep” – also a BARTable partner) where she served as the Associate Managing Director. In her role at Berkeley Rep, Sarah managed the administrative operations and production of numerous creative workshops supporting the theater and artists. In addition, she supported Berkeley Rep's mainstage productions and produced many of their outstanding special event productions. During her tenure there, Sarah also managed the Berkeley Rep artist housing project—a seven-story mixed use building consisting of 45 apartments, classrooms, and production space. Prior to Berkeley Rep, Williams held positions with Yale Repertory Theatre, Huntington Theatre Company, and Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sarah serves on the board of Crowded Fire Theater in San Francisco. She holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama where she was the recipient of the Morris J. Kaplan prize for recognition in theater management and a BA from Boston College. As you can see, Sarah is an amazing addition to the Cal Shakes family.

A little bit about Cal Shakes, some history, Sarah’s role, how she came to Cal Shakes

“Cal Shakes started as an artistic collective in 1973. It became an official company – then called Berkeley Shakespeare Festival - in 1974 and performed at John Hinkle Park for over 15 years. Cal Shakes moved to its current home at the Bruns Amphitheatre in 1991 and we changed our name to the California Shakespeare Festival. In 2003, we changed our name yet again, this time to California Shakespeare Theater, but we’ve been lovingly known as Cal Shakes for decades. While we started out as primarily performing Shakespeare, our programming has evolved over the years and we do work beyond the Shakespeare canon. Under the leadership of our Artistic Director Eric Ting, Cal Shakes has started producing what we call ‘New Classics,’ new work that expands and reframes the concept and ownership of classic theater. ‘New Classics’ include shows like ‘black odyssey’ (by Oakland native, Marcus Gardley), ‘Quixote Nuevo’, and ‘House of Joy.’ Our mission is about redefining classic theater for the 21st Century through the lenses of equity, diversity, and inclusion. That’s what drew me to Cal Shakes. I was appointed Managing Director in September of 2019. Just a year ago and what a year it’s been! I could not have predicted the challenges that our organization, our nation, and our world would encounter in 2020.”

Cal Shakes pre-picnicPre-show picnic with friends on amphitheatre grounds. Photo courtesy Cal Shakes.

Cal Shakes’ relationship to SF, Orinda, and the Bay Area

“Cal Shakes has been a part of East Bay summers for nearly 50 years. People come from all over the Bay Area to picnic on our grounds before settling in for a performance under the stars. We’re accessible by BART and have a shuttle that provides door to door service from the Orinda BART station to the theater. You can ask anyone who's performed at or been an audience member at Cal Shakes their favorite memory and it will likely include some combination of freezing, sweltering, being interrupted by mooing cows in the hills behind the stage, and all sorts of other unusual encounters. Performing and seeing shows outside is an event all on its own. But it’s one of the most special, magical experiences. People often call us a ‘hidden gem’ because we’re tucked away in the hills of Orinda. But we don’t want to be hidden! Through our work, we strive to make theater that is inclusive and to make our space a place that is inviting to everyone in the Bay Area. This is a goal we’re constantly striving towards. In addition to the work we do on our stage, Cal Shakes has been working with youth for decades through our Artistic Learning initiatives. Our teaching artists share the work of Shakespeare and classical theater in classrooms all over the Bay Area, we have a yearly summer conservatory, and student matinees. The Bruns Amphitheater is a beautiful resource and any way we can share that resource with community is important to us.”

How the pandemic has affected the company

“Like theater and performance organizations throughout the country, surviving this pandemic when we can no longer gather together has been overwhelmingly challenging. After cancelling our season, we launched an emergency fundraising campaign. Ticket sales are a primary revenue stream for us, and we were just about to open single ticket sales for the 2020 season when the shelter-in-place hit. So many of our patrons have been generous to us in this moment – donating dollars or donating the cost of their subscriptions. So many things about this moment have been devastating and there is so much need in the world. It’s really meaningful to see people choosing to donate to Cal Shakes to help ensure that we make it through this moment and to a 2021 season. While we don’t have performances at our venue this summer, the stage has since become a location for a local exercise studio to host outdoor classes. We partnered with a local music venue to record a music video. As an outdoor space we have a resource that’s particularly valuable right now and if we can be of service to other organizations and communities, we want to do so. In addition we’ve been holding a variety of digital programming (Cal Shakes Online) for our audiences – and for new audiences – to stay connected to our work and grounded in our values.”

How the BLM movement has affected the company

“After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd (among countless others and the death tolls continuing to grow), we knew we had to respond to this moment. As artists it is part of our DNA to respond and engage in the world and the conversations around us. And even more frankly, as a nonprofit arts organization run by two people of color, it wasn’t even a conversation that we would show up to support the movement for Black lives. We launched a series of online panels, conversations, and discussions on allyship and anti-racism as part of our ‘Direct Address’ programming under the Cal Shakes Online umbrella. Within this series of conversations, we’ve invited people to join us for some difficult conversations on race, anti-blackness, equity, allyship, and anti-racism. We’ve seen incredible participation with most events drawing anywhere from 200-300 attendees from all over the country. We do what we can as an organization, but more importantly, we continue to strive to find opportunities to support Black artists and Black businesses. We certainly aren’t experts in allyship or anti-racism, but we’re committed to being on this journey and offering opportunities and resources to our communities.” 

Cal Shakes production of "House of Joy"Emma Van Lare and Sango Tajima (l-r) perform in the Cal Shakes production of "House of Joy" at Bruns Amphitheatre in 2019. Photo by Kevin Berne courtesy Cal Shakes.

Where the pandemic has provided silver linings for the organization including best lessons learned and new best practices that will remain in the post-pandemic “new normal”

“We’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a theater when we can’t produce theater. As artists and storytellers, we know that gathering together and being in the company of others is something that can’t be replaced with streaming content. But this moment has forced us all to reckon with how we continue to stay engaged when staying apart is vital to overcoming a health pandemic. Digital programming that centers participation and conversation is one of the lessons we’ve learned about how to stay connected with people. It’s one thing to watch a filmed version of a play. It’s a whole other thing to join a watch party of a Shakespeare movie with live commentary by a panel of local actors and a dramaturg like we did with our ‘Mystery Shakespeare 1592’ events. You almost feel like you’re in the room together and the chat feature allows for instant interaction. That feeling of being together is what we try to incorporate in all our digital programming.

I do hope that post-pandemic we continue to build and deepen relationships with our neighbors and with our communities. I find that people are caring for each other more and mutual aid has become far more ingrained in our daily routines. We’re looking out for our neighbors, we’re doing our research into the systems of oppression within our country, we’re finding ways to be more human with one another. Theater has always asked us to do that and that is one lesson that I hope will carry through this moment in time.”

How are company actors spending their time & how are they doing?

“One of the many devastating things about the pandemic and the subsequent cancelling of our season is that we also had to cancel many weeks of employment for the artists that perform on our stage and the production, front of house, and box office staff that keeps everything running behind the scenes. Freelance artists and arts workers lost nearly all their work for the next year in a space of basically a week as the shelter in place orders went into effect and performing arts orgs were forced to close all over the country. While the arts have always proved to be resilient, this is certainly a test of artists resiliency. Artists and arts workers have a variety of skill sets that transfer beyond the stage. If you need someone to record a webinar for you, call up an actor. If you need something altered or hand sewn for you, reach out to a costume designer or wardrobe supervisor. Our scene shop staff, who typically spend their days building our sets, are skilled carpenters. Folks are finding creative ways to lift up and practice their skills even if it’s not on the stage. And if you need recommendations, call us!”

Personal experience and perspective during this pandemic

“I live by myself, which, most of the time, I love and feel grateful to be able to do. However, the pandemic has brought a whole new level of loneliness and lonesomeness – amid all the other extreme feelings we’re feeling as humans – anxiety, fear, anger, rage, grief. It’s been a whole lot to hold my personal experience alongside my determination to see the performing arts industry bounce back (and bounce forward) from this moment. I’ve been finding a lot of comfort in daily walks around my neighborhood. And Zoom calls with family and friends across the country. But I can’t wait to be able to give people hugs again, dance in a crowd, and have a cocktail at a crowded bar.”

Cal Shakes Bruns AmphitheaterBruns Amphitheatre amidst the rolling hills of Orinda. Photo courtesy Cal Shakes Facebook page.

How do you feel this pandemic will affect theater for the long term?

“The arts are resilient. Theater has been around forever and will always be a part of our lives because we’re humans and humans are storytellers. But I do believe that this moment of reckoning around racial equity in our country and in our organizations combined with the pandemic has provided the theater community an opportunity to rethink its longtime practices and structures. I believe that this is the start of a transformation for theaters. I hope to see more voices, more perspectives, more diversity throughout the entire theater industry – from actors to playwrights to technical staff to crafts artisans to board members to executive leadership and to audiences.”

How can/has BART Marketing best support/ed your organization?

“We’re so grateful to the team at BART for demonstrating their commitment and partnership to us. When we cancelled our season in March, they reached out to us directly to show their support. One thing I love about our theater is that it’s BART accessible and being able to maintain strong relationships with the service that helps keep the Bay Area connected means so much. We love the visibility being a BART partner affords us because BART reaches so many different people. We look forward to any opportunity we have to share the work we do with people and BART is a great introduction to so many new people.”

Hopes for 2021?

“I have so many hopes for 2021! I hope for a responsible and effective vaccine or treatment to COVID-19. I hope for a fair election with wide participation. I hope for continued focus on the Black Lives Movement and the cry for racial equity and dismantling of systemic racism. For Cal Shakes and the Bay Area theater community, I hope for an unprecedented level of support from our local communities, patrons, and donors so that we can all return to 2021 with live programming. At Cal Shakes we’re planning for a 2021 season that safely welcomes everyone back to the Bruns Amphitheater with joy.”

While we are unable to visit the Bruns this October to experience the finale of a delightful season, we look forward to welcoming back the outdoor live theater “hidden gem” when it’s safe to do so. For now and from the comforts of our own homes, there is so much Cal Shakes has to offer with heart and soul in the way of theater and beyond at Cal Shakes Online.


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