Postcards from The Odyssey #6: Little Moralists

In our on-going series of postcards from the We Players’ production of the Odyssey on Angel Island, Caroline Parsons, who plays Calypso (among other roles), reflects on lessons learned from smaller audience members…

Caroline Parsons as Calypso captures an attractive mortal. Photo by Tracy Martin.

After recent performances of The Odyssey on Angel Island, I have been taken to task by a couple of outspoken little girls. This happens after a scene in which I portray the sea nymph Calypso, who had detained Odysseus for seven years in her loving grasp before Zeus compelled her to let him go. As the scene ends she professes her love for mortal men and her outrage at having lost Odysseus to his homeward journey. One day, as I tearfully bade the audience of delightful and attractive mortals farewell, an elementary aged girl with an indignant chin approached me, saying, “Why are you crying? Odysseus isn’t your husband.”

Caroline Parsons as Calypso entreats Telemachus (James Udom) to stay with her on Ogygia. Photo by Tracy Martin.

Watch out Mary Magdalene, the morality of little girls is coming to vilify you! I improvised, as I am wont to do in this interactive scene, “I know…but I loved him.” The fierce crusader in stretch pants and silver embroidered sweatshirt assessed the veracity of the statement shrewdly, and granted, “I believe you” with a curt nod of her head before walking away with her hands on her hips. Another informed girl tore off a bracelet one of my nymphs had given her, a gift representing an eternal promise to stay with Calypso on the island of Ogygia, and slinging it angrily to the sand she said, “This is a reciprocal situation!” meaning, well, I’m not entirely sure what. What was clear was her immense mistrust of the goddess Calypso and her attempt to wrap the audience in binding chains of love as she had done to Odysseus. These opinionated children are coming to the show having read The Odyssey, probably in the company of an intelligent adult partner, but they do not need help understanding the archetypal characters in Homer’s world: the war hero with the fault of hubris, the faithful wife, the beautiful temptress, the evil sorceress, the good son- we know them by heart already. The work of theater is to bring them to life in a way that challenges the audience’s expectations but leaves them saying, “I believe you”.

Libby Kelly as Penelope and James Udom as Telemachus in the final scene of The Odyssey on Angel Island. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

WePlayers is a company built to shake expectations: Alcatraz is a stage? An audience can walk 3.5 miles during a show? This Odyssey doesn’t end with Odysseus’s home coming? Nowhere is this expectation breaking more apparent than in the ending of this production. In the last scene we find Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife who has awaited his return from the Trojan War without remarrying for 20 uncertain years, crying because Odysseus has finally returned home: only to slaughter the men who have besieged her household, the serving girls in tow, and then leave again immediately. In Homer’s poem he comes home to stay and there is a happily ever after ending. In this production, why he has departed so quickly is interpreted variously by the different characters. The old school nurse Eurycleia believes he has gone to absolve himself of the bloodshed with prayer, the politically minded Mentor believes he has left Ithaka to avoid attack by the island families whose sons he has just slaughtered, and it is Penelope who has the wisdom to see that whatever the reason for his departure, he is a changed man after the war and she can no longer spend her life in waiting for the man she once admired. He is gone forever. A brilliantly emotive Libby Kelly portrays Penelope’s descent into despair. A little girl stands nearby and queries, “Why is the princess crying?” I do not know how her adult answered her, perhaps with a lengthy discourse on how war can change a person, on how twenty years away from your spouse is not automatically bridged, something about betrayal, or most likely, “Because she’s sad.” In either case the adult is being asked to describe a complexity of emotion that is often absent in the stories our children see on screen or read before going to bed. In contemplating the significance of my work with WePlayers, I am reminded of a genre of story called temblon, described by the writer/researcher Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves: “[The temblon] overtly entertain, but are meant to cause listeners to experience a shiver of awareness that leads to thoughtfulness, contemplation, and action.”

Claire Slattery, Frieda de Lackner and Joan Howard surround Caroline Parsons as they prepare her for the ritual eating of the Lotos. Photo by Tracy Martin.

After performing a trance in the Lotus Eaters scene I am left dangling limply on a long rope in a round depression at an old military site. From this seemingly lifeless state I have the pleasure of overhearing audience members’ reactions as they depart. The voice of a little boy follows an eager run to the edge of my cavern, “Pit of Shaaaaame!” he denounces gleefully. On another day I hear an adult say to a young girl who wants to know why I am down there, “Because she is a bad girl a very very bad bad girl.” The subtleties of the scene have been missed, surely, since the Lotus Eaters’ ritual is a communal one in which the drinking of the Lotus juice induces a clairvoyant and exhaustive trance, the culmination of a meditative group oracle ceremony. However, the use of our play as a version of the traditional warning folktale is no less important than an interpretation more closely aligned with our intentions. I imagine that next time that curious girl doesn’t clean her room or do her homework her adult counterpart can remind her of what happened to the “bad bad girl” in that Odyssey play. The child, who was so concerned about my well being, may have a strong reaction to that! I say, let’s come into the theater like children: full of righteous ideas, full of passion, and ready to be swayed and taught by what we see. I say, let’s care that much.

The cast and audience of The Odyssey on Angel Island dance in Aolia, the land of the wind. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

–Caroline Parsons

Caroline Parsons is a freelance theatre, dance and yoga instructor and teaching artist. She last performed with We Players in their Hamlet on Alcatraz.

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Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Marissa in Theatreland

Marissa’s attached note says everything: “Researched in London, written in Paris! xo Your Foreign Correspondent” Enjoy!

They call it Theatreland. Like Wonderland. A word that evokes the magical, transporting power of theater and makes you feel like a kid again. Go to London’s West End, and the street signs inform you that you have now entered Theatreland. Unlike Broadway, the other main theater district in the Anglophone world, it is not glitzy or fast-paced or neon-lit. The Cambridge Theatre, where the musical Matilda is currently playing, is located on a quaint and adorable little cobblestone plaza.

However, like Broadway, the West End contains a lot of shows that just don’t appeal to me: it overflows with jukebox musicals and nostalgia pieces. (I was using the Rock of Ages theater as a landmark, then got momentarily flummoxed when I confused it with the We Will Rock You theater.) OK, maybe I should have tried to get tickets to Matilda – Roald Dahl’s novel was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. Or to Posh, the satirical drama that everyone is saying will be the next History Boys. And I was sorely tempted by Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, but gave myself a stern talking-to along the lines of “No, Marissa, you will not spend one of your six precious days in London attending an 8-hour play by an American company based on an American novel.”

Because this was my first trip to London, I wanted theatergoing to be one component of my visit, rather than the main event. Therefore, I saw two plays – Fear, at the Bush Theatre, and Henry V, at the Globe – and passed by, visited, or ate at several more theaters. Here are some lessons I picked up from my sojourn in Theatreland.

All theaters should have cafés. In six days in London, I ate three meals at theaters. (Four, if you count the sandwich I grabbed at Pret a Manger and then ate on the steps of the Palladium Theatre, for lack of anywhere else to sit.) The Bush Theatre, located in a former library in Shepherd’s Bush, has an amazing café that serves baked goods, all kinds of alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, and a daily hot meal special or two. Even better, an entire wall of the café is taken up by a bookshelf containing play scripts and theater books, free for the browsing. Former library, indeed! I wanted to move into that café and never leave.

A few days later, I was on the South Bank and in need of a late lunch. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre and its attached restaurant. The Menier’s productions get great reviews (two of their Sondheim revivals have transferred to Broadway) and so does the food that they serve. I had a very good sandwich, in a room hung with theater posters and production photos on its exposed-brick walls. After lunch, I peeked into the attached art gallery and the theater’s lobby, and even chatted a bit with an actress who was there auditioning for an upcoming show.

Finally, on my last day in London, I again needed a late lunch after touring Westminster Abbey. Having had such good luck with the other theater cafes, I visited the National Theatre, browsed its bookshop, and picked up a sandwich at its snack bar.

It’s great when you can get a tasty, reasonably priced meal at a place that isn’t a chain restaurant or a tourist trap. It’s even better when you can enjoy your food in an interesting, cultured setting. Theater cafés fulfill these needs for their patrons, while at the same time promoting the theater’s brand and making theater seem like an accessible and friendly entertainment option. When I walked into the Bush Theatre’s café about an hour before showtime, it was full of young people drinking coffee and working on their laptops, and I doubt that they all had tickets to the show that night. Theater cafés are not the only reason why theater is more popular in the U.K. than in America – but they’re certainly one of the reasons.

If the show is good, you lose yourself in it. I got a £5 groundling ticket (£5! And they say London is expensive!) for Henry V at the Globe. It can’t get any more English than that, can it?

Of course, I followed the standard advice for groundlings: bring layers, wear comfortable shoes, try to get in early so that you can lean up against the front of the stage or against the back wall. I opted for the back wall, which, being slightly under the roof’s overhang, had the added advantage of protecting me from the rain showers passing overhead that night. But I’d been out all day, visiting the South Bank and the Tate Modern, and hoped that my feet wouldn’t hurt too badly as I stood for 3 hours of Shakespeare.

And at first, I was worried, because the beginning of Henry V is kind of slow going. There’s all that interminable discussion about the “Salic law,” plus the first appearance of Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym was tedious rather than funny. And I noticed my feet hurting. A lot. However, as the show proceeded and the action picked up – the battle scenes, the famous speeches, the well-balanced blend of comedy and drama – I got lost in the play. Shakespeare’s language, the actors’ skill, and the thrill of seeing a show at the reconstructed Globe overtook me, and I didn’t notice my own physical discomfort at all. Such is the magic of Theatreland.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Pint Sized Plays Interviews 3: Marissa Skudlarek and Nancy Cooper Frank

We thought we’d start your weekend off right with a pair of interviews from two returning Pint-Sized playwrights. Marissa Skudlarek was part of Pint Sized 1 and Nancy Cooper Frank was part of Pint Sized 2. Now they’re both back for more!

How did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Marissa Skudlarek: I’m a longtime friend of Theater Pub and had a play, Drinking for Two, in the inaugural Pint-Sized Play Festival in August 2010. (Otherwise known as “the play about the pregnant lady.”) This year, as the submission deadline for Pint-Sized approached, I had a cluster of ideas in my head that seemed to want to coalesce into a short play, and I realized that this play could easily take place in a bar. So I sat down and wrote Beer Theory.

Nancy Cooper Frank: This is my third collaboration with Theater Pub. The first was way back in 2010, so I can’t remember how I first heard of this creative bunch of people. I’m tickled by the way the action in a Theater Pub production can move from table to table, through the audience, across the pool table, along the bar, up to the balcony.

Nancy Cooper Frank

What is the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Nancy Cooper Frank: You can’t waste time setting things up. You have to dive right in.

Marissa Skudlarek: Because short plays have to be so concise, so precise, they live or die by their initial concept. Even more than a full-length play, a short play needs a zesty or sparky or intriguing idea behind it. I have written so many bad short plays for school assignments — plays that were doomed from birth with no hope of salvage, because the ideas behind them were so weak. (Which is why I doubt that the best way to teach someone playwriting is to make her write a lot of short plays… but that’s another story.)

What is the best thing about writing a short play?

Marissa Skudlarek: The freedom to experiment and to be as weird as you want to be. For instance, I could never see how to make direct-address monologues work in my plays, and thus hated and feared direct address. But in “Beer Theory,” my characters talk to the audience and I’m OK with it! Moreover, the whole time I was writing this play, I was thinking “This is weird, it’s bizarre, it probably won’t make sense to anyone but me.” But I was willing to take the risk and write it because, hey, it’s a short play, it’s not a full-length.

Nancy Cooper Frank:
See answer to question 2.

Who do you think is a major influence on your work?

Marissa Skudlarek:
The answer to this question might be more apparent after you see “Beer Theory,” which is in a sense my attempt to articulate my artistic credo in the form of a seven-minute quasi-romantic comedy… so I’ll just say, I have always felt far more affinity with Apollonian modes of art than with Dionysian. In particular, this year I have been paying special attention to the dictum “content dictates form,” recently popularized (though not coined) by my hero Stephen Sondheim.

Nancy Cooper Frank: My Uncle Albert, whose stash of ’60s era Mad magazines I discovered as a six year old. It’s pretty much my first memory of myself reading. Of course, it meant I was reading parodies of books and movies I’d never read or seen, or even heard of.

If you could pick one celebrity to be cast in your show, who would it be and why?

Marissa Skudlarek: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I think he would be a good fit as the male character in my play, a guy in his late 20s who loves indie rock but hates going to concerts. And, more to the point, I’ve had a crush on him ever since I saw that insanely charming YouTube video of him singing in French.

Nancy Cooper Frank: Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench. Because they’re great and if they were cast in my show, I would not be the Oldest Living Collaborator with Theater Pub. (Oh, you said pick one.)

Marissa Skudlarek

What is a writing project you are currently working on?

Marissa Skudlarek: This is going to be a busy and Olympians-focused summer for me. I will be revising my 2011 Olympians play, Pleiades, for publication in the upcoming anthology. Plus, I will be writing my 2012 Olympians contribution, The Love Goddess, based on the Aphrodite myth — it will be my first screenplay!

Nancy Cooper Frank: I’m revising my Daniil Kharms: A Life in One Act and Several Dozen Eggs. (based on the life and work of the Russian experimental writer) and also working on a longer play with fairy tale elements set in Russia.

What’s next for you?

Nancy Cooper Frank: I guess I’ll just keep on writing and reading plays and going to plays.

Marissa Skudlarek: Other than “Pleiades” and “The Love Goddess”? Well, I’ll also continue to write my “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life” column for the San Francisco Theater Pub blog every two weeks… watch this space!

What upcoming shows or events are you most excited about in the Bay Area theater scene?

Marissa Skudlarek: I’m looking forward to Shotgun Players’ next two shows. They reliably do strong and interesting work, and this summer they are offering Truffaldino Says No, a world premiere by witty local playwright Ken Slattery, and Precious Little, a script that I have heard amazing things about (it’s had some productions on the East Coast) but didn’t know if I would ever get to see staged.

Nancy Cooper Frank: Circle Mirror Transformation at Marin. Custom Made Theater’s Merchant of Venice.

What’s your favorite beer?

Nancy Cooper Frank: Any decent Pilsner. Love those hops.

Marissa Skudlarek: I don’t drink beer — that’s why they kicked me out of Portland, Oregon when I turned 21. OK, I do love Belgian fruit beer (Lindemans Framboise) but that doesn’t really count as beer, does it? I stick to wine when I’m at the Cafe Royale… and cocktails or cider at other bars.

Don’t miss the Pint Sized plays, opening July 16 and playing July 17, 23, 30 and 31 with a special performance at the Plough and the Stars on July 18. All the rest are at our usual stomping grounds, Cafe Royale, located at the corner of Post and Leavenworth in San Francisco’s lovely Tendernob neighborhood. Performances are free, no reservations necessary, but show up early and stay late- we’re bound to be sold out and the crowd is always the best part of Theater Pub!

Pint Sized Festival 3: The Bard and the Llama

pint sized 3: the bard and llama

Don’t miss the Pint Sized plays, opening July 16 and playing July 17, 23, 30 and 31 with a special performance at the Plough and the Stars on July 18. All the rest are at our usual stomping grounds, Cafe Royale, located at the corner of Post and Leavenworth in San Francisco’s lovely Tendernob neighborhood. Performances are free, no reservations necessary, but show up early and stay late- we’re bound to be sold out and the crowd is always the best part of Theater Pub!

Pint Sized Plays Interviews 2: William Bivins and Seanan Palmero

Next up in our series of interviews behind-the-scenes of this year’s Pint-Sized Play Festival, we have two staples of the San Francisco Theater scene. Bill Bivins is a very established Bay Area playwright, with working having appeared in the BOA Festival, at SF Playhouse, PianoFight and Central Works, just to name a few. Seanan Palmero is a real jill-of-all-trades, having worked with a number of companies, including No Nude Men and Atmostheatre, wearing a lot of different hats- writer, assistant director, stage manager, tech. Both are making their Theater Pub writing debuts with this year’s Pint Sized plays!

So how did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Seanan Palmero: After seeing two hilarious Pint Sized Play Festivals, it dawned on me that submitting something is the way to get in on the fun.

William Bivins: I can’t remember how I heard about The Pint-Sized Play Festival, but I came to it last year for the first time. I love the “bar-specific” aspect: the spontaneity and immediacy of having a dramatic scene not involving my family suddenly occur at the next table. As it happened, I had a play, Celia Sh*ts, that takes place in a bar. The characters in the original draft were drinking bourbon, not beer, so I did have to do a major structural rewrite before submitting the play. I’m glad I did; I’m excited to see it on its feet… or in its corner table.

William Bivins

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play? 

William Bivins: Staying lean. You have only ten minutes to develop full-bodied characters, build a complete story and fit in all those product placements.

Seanan Palmero: Character development.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play? 

William Bivins: It doesn’t take a year to finish.

Seanan Palmero: Editing. Cut, cut, cut. When in doubt, chuck it out. Unless a really smart person tells you otherwise.

Who do you think is a major influence on your work? 

William Bivins: Madame Deadline.

Seanan Palmero: I’m not sure yet. I’m still learning to steal, um — borrow, I mean, “find inspiration” from the greats.

If you could pick one celebrity to be cast in your show, who would it be and why? 

William Bivins: Woody Allen about thirty years ago.

Seanan Palmero: Allison Janney. She exhibits a higher level of awesome, so much so that I think she has super powers.

What is a writing project you are currently working on? 

William Bivins: I’m finishing final rewrites on The Education of a Rake, which, since you asked, opens at Central Works in Berkeley on July 28th. You can get tickets at http://www.centralworks.org/

Seanan Palmero: I’m co-authoring Hyperion for the San Francisco Olympians Festival this year.

What’s next for you?

Seanan Palmero: One thing at a time.

William Bivins: After Rake, I don’t know. Anyone want to commission me to write a play? Will work for gin.

So what upcoming shows or events are you most excited about in the Bay Area Theater Scene? 

William Bivins: Besides Pint-Sized Plays and The Education of a Rake–which, did I mention, opens July 28th?–I’m excited about PianoFight’s upcoming show, Duck Lake.

Seanan Palmero: Custom Made’s production of Merchant of Venice, which opens July 10th.

Seanan Palmero

What’s your favorite beer?

Seanan Palmero: Redhook, at the moment.

William Bivins: Theakstons Old Peculier. (Yes, that’s how it’s spelled.)

Don’t miss the Pint Sized plays, opening July 16 and playing July 17, 23, 30 and 31 with a special performance at the Plough and the Stars on July 18. All the rest are at our usual stomping grounds, Cafe Royale, located at the corner of Post and Leavenworth in San Francisco’s lovely Tendernob neighborhood. Performances are free, no reservations necessary, but show up early and stay late- we’re bound to be sold out and the crowd is always the best part of Theater Pub!

Pint Sized Plays Interviews 1: Tom Bruett and Leah Winery

This year’s Pint Sized Plays interviews have begun! First up, we have a pair of this year’s playwrights, Tom Bruett and Leah Winery, both of whom will be participating in Pint Sized, and Theater Pub, for the first time. To find out more about this year’s festival, and the people behind it, make sure you keep your eye on the website- and don’t miss the Pint Sized Play Festival III when it opens at the Cafe Royale this July 16th!

So how did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Tom Bruett:
I heard about the Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival on Facebook through many friends that were sharing info about it. I had this crazy play about selling sex toys that I thought would be perfect for the venue and thankfully the folks at the Theater Pub agreed!

Leah Winery:
I’d gone to a Christmas theatre pub with a friend and really felt that I wanted to have my voice heard in such an eclectic mix of people. There are some theatre companies in this town that are ostensibly open to the entire community, but are actually incredibly insular and exclusive. I love that as a relative unknown, my piece was accepted into the festival. It really shows that the producers of Theatre Pub are more concerned with the quality of the writing than the reputations of its writers.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?


Tom Bruett:
I think the hardest thing about writing short plays is coming up with a unique and interesting situation and then creating characters that people care about and have something to say in ten pages.

Leah Winery: You run the risk of falling in love with the characters and the story and wanting to know more about their world. God forbid; it inspires you to write a one act or a full length in order to flesh out their journey.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?


Leah Winery:
It forces you to be concise. There’s zero time for exposition or introduction. It’s almost like walking into a random movie theatre half way into the film, watching a single scene, then walking out. In a very tight framework, you have to trim the fat and get to the meat of the story immediately in the name of efficiency.

Tom Bruett:
I love short plays because it allows you to have an evening of work by a bunch of different writers, covering a ton of different subject matters. I love the sense of community that is created.

Who do you think is a major influence on your work?


Tom Bruett:
Nicki Silver, Edward Albee, Thornton Wilder

Leah Winery:
Jack Daniels.

If you could pick one celebrity to be cast in your show, who would it be and why?


Tom Bruett:
Jennifer Coolidge. Come on! Wouldn’t you love to hear her try and sell sex toys?

Leah Winery:
Steve Carell. He’s the master of the repressed, ticking time bomb type of guy who wouldn’t be able to vent his true feelings about his horrible wife until she was dead.

What is a writing project you are currently working on?


Leah Winery:
I’m working on filling out a lovely little Q&A for Pint Sized…

Tom Bruett:
I’m working on a play about fighting time and aging. I love comedy, but I’m trying to tackle some bigger subjects.

What’s next for you?


Tom Bruett: I’m starting grad school part time in the fall at SFSU. Looking to round out my BFA in a theatre a bit.

Leah Winery: I’ll probably step away from writing for a while and focus on raising my toddler. I’m sure my next piece will have something to do with poop, and the profound implication that everybody does it…Or zombies from outer space. Or pooping zombies from outer space. That’s never been done on stage, right?

So what upcoming shows or events are you most excited about in the Bay Area Theater Scene?

Leah Winery: I can’t wait to see Truffaldino Says No at Shotgun Players. Ken Slattery is a fantastically funny writer, and the concept of an Italian harlequin clown who ends up in the States in a bizzaro sitcom world is brilliant.

Tom Bruett: I’m very excited about Upright Grand, by Laura Schellhardt, that is opening at TheatreWorks in July. It’s a beautiful play about the relationship between parent and child directed by the fantastic Meredith McDonough.

What’s your favorite beer?


Tom Bruett:
Blue Moon!

Leah Winery
: I’m actually not much of a beer drinker. (spoken in a gruff, Spanish accent) I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis…And yes, that was the most interesting response in the world.

Don’t miss the Pint Sized plays, opening July 16 and playing July 17, 23, 30 and 31 with a special performance at the Plough and the Stars on July 18. All the rest are at our usual stomping grounds, Cafe Royale, located at the corner of Post and Leavenworth in San Francisco’s lovely Tendernob neighborhood. Performances are free, no reservations necessary, but show up early and stay late- we’re bound to be sold out and the crowd is always the best part of Theater Pub!

Postcards From The Odyssey #5: Discovering the Sleepy Giant

Rebecca Longworth continues to send us postcards from We Players’ production of “The Odyssey on Angel Island”. This one is written by cast-member Maria Leigh, who talks about what it’s like to be a member of the ensemble of this unusual and demanding theater piece.

I woke up early on the first day of rehearsal for The Odyssey on Angel Island. I was nervous and excited and had a long commute to work. In the meetings leading up to our first day a mantra of sorts had emerged and was ringing in my ears, ” Don’t miss the boat. Don’t miss the boat. Don’t miss the boat”. And somehow, none of us did despite traveling from cities across the Bay Area. It was a beautiful day in early March, unseasonably warm, and as the ferry churned through the bluegreengraybrown before it, I realized that it was one of those rare moments in life where I was perfectly balanced between before and after but that the moment of falling from one to the other was imminent. The cast and crew had all signed on to spend a third of the year on Angel Island and while I understood what that meant in a technical sense, I didn’t know anything about Angel Island in a practical sense.

The adventure begins…. Photo Credit: Terry Barnet

At 1.2 square miles in area, 788 feet at its highest point, and only 3 miles from San Francisco, Angel Island dwarfs Alcatraz and, as a state park, is merely the price of a ferry ticket and back. And yet I had only visited the island once before, years ago. When pressed I would have volunteered:

“It was pretty.”
“And?”
“And I think we walked a lot?”

So the first really surprising thing I learned when I arrived on the island was that people live there.

A house on the Northeast side of the island. Photo Credit: Nathaniel Justiniano

There are currently 27 people living on the island (with six more arriving soon), 18 are parks employees and the remainder are family members. There are thirteen residences on the island, although two are currently unoccupied. The youngest inhabitant is six and the oldest is old enough that the person I talked to about it felt awkward about quoting a number.

In partnering with We Players, the residents are not just sharing their space but welcoming us into their home. The number of ways that we intersect as part of this partnership are too numerous to count but the parks and rec staff are always incredible. A case in point: “You need a stake large enough to gouge out a cyclops’ eye? No problem.” The next day a fallen tree weighing 4,500 pounds arrived.

We couldn’t have wished for more generous or knowledgeable hosts. And while during the production you will see the fruits of this beautiful collaboration and will see parks staff greeting you along the way, it’s probably worth a couple of return trips to get to see people like Casey Dexter-Lee in her primary role as State Park Interpreter. In this context you can hear about how park residents are the most recent inhabitants of the island in a chain leading back through Asian immigrants, multiple military eras, European explorers, to the Miwok people.

A mysterious structure. Photo Credit: Terry Barnett

In The Odyssey, Mount Olympus is situated on a spectacular semicircular cliff befitting the gods. Nearby is a rickety wood and metal structure where Telemachus kneels in prayer. While architecturally interesting, I didn’t give the structure much thought given the preponderance of cool abandoned structures that are sprinkled around the isle. But as time went on, I learned that the cliffs were actually the edges of an abandoned serpentine quarry and the structure was a rock crusher. During the period that the serpentine quarry was operational, there was also a sandstone quarry just above the beach that is Calypso’s home in The Odyssey. The flat area where you stand to watch the Olympian gods, was once as tall a hill as the cliffs. But in the years between when the quarries opened in 1850 and when they was last used in 1922, the hill was mined down to the level ground that exists today. Some of the stone from the quarries was used in Angel Island structures but much of it went into military construction in other parts of the Bay Area. Throughout its operation, state and military prisoners provided much of the labor, and in an ironic twist, stone from this operation was used in the construction of a new fortress – on Alcatraz.

As you can imagine (and perhaps have read about in previous posts) there are a tremendous number of logistical concerns in terms of staging The Odyssey. One that is perhaps easily overlooked is how much water travels along the path of the audience in each show. Drinking water, water used in rituals, water used as scenic elements, and more. Each day the production moves approximately 50 gallons of water around the island. Not to mention what individual audience members carry on their person or the end of the day when we line up to take turns in the shower.

A cleansing ritual in Temenos – Photo Credit Tracy Martin

But where does the water come from? On this point the best person to chat with is Rick Ables, Water and Sewage Plant Supervisor, who is very knowledgeable and articulate on every detail of Angel Island’s water supply. All of the water on the island comes from a protected underground aquifer that is remarkably constant even in drought years. To date there has been no salinity or other intrusion problems from the bay into the aquifer. The water is extracted using four wells ranging in depth from 240-325 feet deep. The water is monitored for coliforms and disinfected using sodium hyperchlorite (more commonly known as bleach). The water on the island is of very high quality and is maintained in accordance with the California Department Public Health standards. The water is then kept in three facilities totaling 1,500,000 gallons. Wastewater is processed through a sanitary sewer treatment plan that eventually releases clean water back into the ground and completes the hydrologic cycle.

Another shock for me on the island was seeing spotted fawns bounding delicately through the underbrush on the island. Or standing on Calypso’s beach in the dark and seeing bright eyes peer and a husky gray body hustle out onto the sand. How on earth did deer and raccoons end up on Angel Island?

“We’re not doing anything, honest!” – Photo Credit Jaquie Klose, Angel Island Conservancy

The prevalent theory is that they both walked over when Angel Island was not yet an island. However, as both can swim, it is possible that if the populations died out at any point new animals may have swam out and repopulated. The gap between Tiburon and Ayala Cove is quite narrow and is actually called Raccoon Strait (although this name comes from the HMS Racoon which was the second European ship to visit the island not the adorable swimming bandits). The deer population was also bolstered by the military who repopulated them after overhunting. The deer population currently stands around 60. The raccoons are not tracked. And while you may or may not see deer or raccoons randomly on your travels during the show, they do make a memorable appearance in the company of a certain witch later in the play.

I guess what has surprised me most in my personal odyssey with this show is the attachment that I have come to feel for Angel Island. While I love site specific theatre for many reasons – accessibility, vitality, specificity – I have never spent so much time in a performance site. On the island, I have been able to see different wildflowers come in and out of bloom, watched goslings become geese, learned which patches of grass become swampy when it rains. As a cast we have sung in the pouring rain, run in the sun, watched the fog roll in, and the sun rise and set. Each day my roots have gone deeper into our island home, the sites have become increasingly relevant to the actions that happen within them, and my choices are informed by the landscape I am in.

Every time we visit a site, it becomes more richly layered with memories and experiences from the visits that came before. I think about all of the life that crossed the same places before me and the lives that will come there after. About the simultaneous constancy and dynamism of place. I think of you, the audience, who will come and those who have already come and gone. That we share an experience but that we also have our own perspective. Every show there are moments where I see things that are so beautiful but will never be seen by anyone else. And while part of me is sad that no one else will ever see these perfect instants, I know that each person will find their own private moments. An interaction with a character that only they see, a perfect perspective that chance brings for them alone, a scent on the wind carried on an intake of breath and then gone. And then that moment will pass and we will be together again, sharing the adventure, traveling together, borne aloft by this sleepy giant that is Angel Island and who is ready to speak to those who will listen.

A home away from home. Photo Credit: Annette Goena

Factual information in the article is drawn from interviews with Angel Island State Park employees and the sites for California Parks and Rec and the Angel Island Conservancy.

Maria Leigh is a Bay Area actor, collaborator, and cultural philosopher. She is next appearing in a new work entitled, Dirty Laundry, created by The Collaboratory, August 10 & 11, 2012 at The Exit Theatre. Her next written piece will be a one act, Rhea, premiering as part of The San Francisco Olympians Festival III: Titans vs. Olympians, December 19, 2012 also at The Exit Theatre. For more information, please visit: marialeigh.com.