Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Isfahan Blues

April 30, 2015

Here’s the latest article I’ve written for the SF Examiner, in print and online today. It’s about an African-American theatre company and a Middle Eastern-American theatre company collaborating to do a play about when The Duke Ellington Orchestra toured Iran in 1963. I’m really enjoying being able to let people know about cool stuff like this:

SF Examiner article.

April 27, 2015

I’m a writing for the SF Examiner as a freelance journalist. Here’s my latest article:

Persephone’s Roots – An All Hallow’s Eve Ritual

October 21, 2010

VOX: This is my first blog post previewing a play (and not about something I’ve already seen.) A few weeks ago I learned about an upcoming production in Berkeley by the Ragged Wing Ensemble. I’d seen them perform before, most notably in production they did of “The Tempest” in 2007. This play was a new one, based on an ancient myth, called “Persephone’s Roots; An All Hallows Eve Ritual.” What caught my attention was that it looked like it was going to be both a play and an actual Pagan ritual. This seemed like a good combination to me, and one that has historical validity. And it also seemed a natural fit for the Bay Area, where there are lots of theatre people and lots of Pagans!

I contacted Ragged Wing to get more info and ended up talking to the director, Anna Schneiderman.  So here, then, is my first blog interview, an edited transcription of what we talked about on the phone:  

ANNA SHNEIDERMAN: I co-founded Ragged Wing Ensemble in 2004. My background includes doing a lot of work in outdoor pageantry, ritual performance and large spectacle events with Bread and Puppet in Vermont and Redmoon in Chicago. I studied classical literature and philosophy at the University of Chicago – the Greeks mostly. I studied the connection between performance and ritual, and how ritual can be a performance. I strongly believe that theatre is ritual, and that it comes from that, and that there is a reason why it has survived so long.

The type of theatre that we usually see, where we go and sit in a theater and watch something from beginning to end, and there is this separation between the audience and the performers, doesn’t really serve that ritual function anymore – although I feel it has the potential to. On the other side, many rituals today don’t have any craft to them. What I feel is important, and what we’re trying to recreate, is something that is in between: that is crafted and rehearsed and at the same time it involves the audience in a ritual that they can participate in, that feels like they’re making something happen.

I’ve wanted to do something for Halloween for a really long time. I love Halloween, and the sense of accessing the spirit world is compelling to me. It’s my favorite holiday, and I didn’t want to just go to a party. I wanted to celebrate it in a more sacred and intentional way.

So I looked around at what was happening in the Bay Area; I thought it would be great to create something for Halloween that was a ritual and a performance, and some way for community to come together. Then, maybe six or seven months ago it clicked that this Persephone myth would be a great way to work on it. Basically it’s a journey into the underworld, and there is moment where she has this choice, and there is a deal that happens at the end where she goes back and forth between the underworld and the upperworld. The cycle of the year gets created at that moment. It’s a powerful story, and really relevant to the moment of Halloween.

The next step was I found this park in Berkeley – Codornices Park. It has this tunnel that I fell in love with, and it has this field and this wooded area with all these nooks and crannies. It’s really mysterious and beautiful. So these three thoughts came together: the Halloween ritual, the Persephone myth, and this park. And it all made sense to do the show at this place and this time.

I’m not in the Pagan community; I didn’t realize that the gods in this story were living deities; Little did I know that people are actually honoring them in a living religion. I think it’s great. I’m totally thrilled that Persephone and Demeter are still living Gods. I had no idea. This story and its archetypes are in the culture. And people, even if they aren’t Pagan, usually have some awareness of the archetypes. These are archetypes that everyone can connect with, and I hope that the way we handle this myth can be acceptable also to people for whom these are living gods and goddesses.

I don’t myself pray to these deities. But I feel that by making this performance it’s kind of like I’m praying to them; because it’s a piece of art that we’re creating about them, which is probably the hugest honor you can do. I want it to be open to anybody, not just people who believe in these deities as their own deities. There is a reason for ritual; It’s kind of essential to human nature. But a lot of people in our culture have lost the opportunity to participate in ritual on a regular basis. So I feel that the function of this performance is to be a ritual without being religious, so that people from any background can access that thing that we need.

I have nine people in the creation ensemble. They’re actors, singers and dancers, and we’re creating it together through a collaborative process. They’re coming at it as actors, not Pagans. They auditioned to be in a show. It’s more about creating an experience for the audience than about fully embodying the gods oneself. I think there is something about collectively putting on this performance that is really magical, and then we offer that to the audience so that they can experience it too.

The audience is going to enter the park and we’ll give them certain objects to hold and things to do so that they can interact with the piece as they go through. There will be live music, and the audience will help make it. There will bells to ring, and rhythms to clap, and there will be call and response songs. We’re kind of thinking of the audience as a Greek chorus. But it’s not going to be like a Greek tragedy where we all sit in a big amphitheater and watch it.

They’ll meet the two main characters, Persephone and Demeter. Persephone will discover the underworld. I’m going with the idea that she chooses to go into the underworld; it’s not an abduction. She feels the pull of the underworld. Another thing we’re doing with this piece is that Hades is not represented as a character, but more as like a force, and a place that Persephone wants to go; she is attracted by this dark force and then invites the audience to join her. So we will go with her and go into this tunnel and follow her path.

In my research I found that the myth of Persephone is a marker for the patriarchal religion taking over from the Goddess religion. Basically Demeter, Persephone and Hecate all pre-dated Zeus and the other Olympian gods. The idea of Hades abducting Persephone, and this forced marriage, is part of a series of myths about forced marriages that basically are about sublimating the goddess religions to the patriarchal religions that came in with the Hellenistic gods. One of the reasons I have gotten so excited about doing this particular story was the idea of bringing our society back into balance, and bringing back the presence of the goddess to our culture.

People who come to this might not normally go to something that was fully a ritual, and then maybe they’ll get taken into the ritual side of it as well. The parts where the audience can interact are essential to the piece. But it won’t be intimidating or scary or putting people on the spot. They’ll feel like they’re a part of it and they’re making things happen, but nobody is expecting them to stand up and say something, or to go into a trance. Anybody, including kids, will be able to come and experience this.

“Persephone’s Roots” runs Wed, Oct. 27 – Sun, Oct. 31 @ 5:30 pm at Codornices Park, 1201 Euclid Ave. in Berkeley, CA. This is a free event. More info at

Pax, and Happy Halloween!


“Spring Awakening,” “David Byrne”

October 24, 2008

At the Curran Theater the musical “Spring Awakening” was in its last week. I bought a rush ticket on Wednesday, Oct. 8, and I was giddy with delight from the opening number. I was immediately pulled into what was happening on stage. It was an intimate experience, even up in the balcony where I was. Part of this was because of the story and the songs, which were very intense and emotional. But it was also the way it was staged; the cast, the band, and members of the audience (sitting on bleachers) were all together up on the stage. The set was minimal. When a character was singing or acting the other cast members who weren’t in that scene would remain on stage and watch, sometimes just sitting on the floor, sometimes moving to various places and then jumping in to sing the chorus. Throughout the entire performance the actors were all simultaneously telling the story, in the story, and watching the story. The fourth wall was not even an option, so there was a feeling that we were all in on what was going on.

The music in “Spring Awakening” is awesome, especially when performed by such a talented bunch of singers (backed up by a great rock band.) Something else that made the whole show so special was the choreography. I didn’t really notice it while I was watching the show – probably because it was so well done and such an organic part of what was going on. It didn’t even feel like the cast was “dancing” – they were just being the characters, and moving the way the characters would move. But I thought about it afterwards – this was a production that left me thinking about a lot of things – and I realized that what I had experienced was a result of the brilliant choreography of Bill T. Jones. Bill T. Jones! I saw him and Arnie Zane performing together in a loft space 25 years ago. And here he is now, putting the magical touch on a Broadway show, making it an ecstatic experience.

The night before “Spring Awakening” I saw David Byrne at Davies Symphony Hall. He had a hot world-music band that was also able to rock out on old Talking Heads songs, and he had three interpretive dancers. I mention this because the style of dancing they were doing was, though not similar to the choreography of “Spring Awakening,” from the same alternative reality: a place that once was in a bunch of old buildings below 14th Street in New York City, and that now is in a neighborhood that is accessible to more people. I’m talking about “downtown.”   I don’t know who told Byrne’s dancers what to do, but their movements were the visual equivalent of his eccentric lyrics and music. They were so far downtown they were like a Jules Feiffer “Village Voice” cartoon come to life. What was really amazing about all this was that it was happening in the same space where Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony. And the place was packed, and the audience was going nuts. There was David Byrne, this geeky, neurotic guy, and they loved him and everyone, onstage and off, including me, was having a great time. Downtown, wherever it is these days, is a fun place to be.

I’m not sure what all this means, but it was pretty cool. The downtown aesthetic has moved uptown, to Broadway and the symphony concert hall. And I was there to enjoy it. 

Pax, Vox

“Pericles” – San Francisco Shakespeare Festival

September 18, 2008

Last weekend I went to the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival production of “Pericles.” They have been performing it all summer in various locations, but there is only one more weekend of it left. I saw it in the Presidio, which is where they have been in San Francisco for the last few years. (Before that they had been in Golden Gate Park.) Just getting there was an adventure. Before SF Shakes started to use the Presidio I hadn’t visited there much – I had to learn to the bus routes to where they were doing the play. This year I was experienced enough to actually hike part of the way into the Presidio. I ended up on what turned out to be one of the oldest foot-paths in the City. According to a plaque I read it has been in use for hundreds of years, and it was really fun to think about how many generations of hikers had walked on it before me. It was called “Lovers Lane,” which seemed like the perfect path to take to go see the love story of “Pericles.” I arrived safely at the Parade Grounds, where SF Shakes set up their portable stage, sound system, lights, generator, etc. It’s quite a lot of equipment to haul around from city to city to put on a show, and they’ve been doing it for 26 years now. I think of SF Shakes as a real local treasure – I look forward to seeing them every year. When I talk to tourists who are visiting San Francisco, and they ask me what to do here, I tell them to go to the park and see a play! It’s a chance to see some of our local talent at their best, visit an historic site, and, on a night like I saw them, see a full moon rising up above in the fog. What could be better than that?

They do a Saturday evening performance, and then another on Sunday afternoon, and the contrast in the weather between them can be quite extreme. This year I caught an evening show and, as in years past, it was very cold and foggy – but I dressed appropriately. “Pericles” is not one of Shakespeare’s (or anyone else’s) classic plays. But the cast and crew of SF Shakes did a fine job of making it a fun evening of theatre. I’ve only seen it a few times prior to this (including once in June at CalShakes) and I was impressed with how they were able to make sense of the long, twisted plot. This is a story of a man on a journey. It’s a weird, improbable journey, but then so are most journeys – and in fact most lives. So I walked away from “Pericles” with something of a better understanding of what it means to be alive. This production was set somewhere in the American frontier in the 1800s. I can’t explain why or how, but it worked. Live music was a big part of the show. I don’t know much about the musical genres that were used – I guess you would call it “old timey” or maybe old gospel or folk. But the musicians were talented, and it was quite a change from last years SF Shakes show, when all the music was pre-recorded pop songs and classical music. The live sound mix, as well as the actor’s voices, came through clear and clean over the SF Shakes p.a. system (which they haven’t always done in years past.) The dancing and costumes were colorful. It was a pleasure watching the cast move around. The accents that most of them had were at first a bit strange, and maybe even annoying and confusing. But after a while I got used to it as I settled into the world that they were creating on stage.

I was happy to see some people from last years SF Shakes production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” returning. I loved that show, and went to see it every weekend it was in the Presidio. Emily Jordan and Michael C. Storm, who last year played Oberon and Titania, were back again in the lead roles. Wow! They are both so talented that it was worth seeing the play just to experience their acting. I barely recognized either of them when the play began – their characters are so different from “Midsummer.” I took the bus home and slept well after an evening in the park. When I woke up the next morning I continued to think about the play I had seen. It was one of those kind of performances that stayed with me, and left me feeling good in the days that followed. Go see it this weekend if you have the chance, and it might do the same for you.

Pax, Vox

“Rock ‘n Roll” – ACT

September 15, 2008


I saw Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n Roll” in previews at ACT. It was fantastic! I’m not going to write a lengthy blog about it – maybe I will later after I go to see it again, which I definitely plan on doing. All I can say now is: don’t miss it! And when you go, get there early and take your seat. Before the show starts they play some amazing music, and sitting in the beautiful ACT theater and listening to it, while gazing at the awesome set design on the stage, is the perfect way to get into the mood for this play. The music is, in fact, an important part of the play’s story. The more of it you can hear beforehand, the more you’ll appreciate “Rock ‘n Roll.”

Pax,  Vox