.Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s New Season Takes on Clowns, Fools and Love Science

Company returns to full force with ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Twelfth Night,’ and the world premiere of ‘The Formula’

When you think of the great Shakespeare scholars, the first name that comes to mind is, of course, Isaac Asimov.

What? No? Hmm, well, the iconic science fiction author did write two volumes of Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare in the ’70s. That’s okay if you don’t remember, though, because the only thing anyone remembers from those 800 pages is this one short quote:That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool—that he is no fool at all.”

That particular sentence lives on in our collective cultural memory because it’s a succinct expression of an idea we’re all familiar with, thanks to Shakespeare: The fool is not really a fool. The clown is not really a clown. There’s a method to their madness (thanks again, Shakespeare), and their secret superpower is that they wield a wisdom that we in the audience lack.

Except, what if they don’t?

Or, more to the point, what if the occasional insight that pops out of Shakespeare’s clowns is actually the least interesting thing about them? What if the most successful fools are actually very much fools, and their best moments—the ones that make us laugh, and reveal their most genuinely human qualities—come when they don’t have a clue?

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Patty Gallagher, who has a lot of experience playing clowns—and does so in two of the three plays Santa Cruz Shakespeare is producing this summer, The Tempest and Twelfth Night—is willing to go even a step further. We laugh at clowns, she says, when they’ve gotten themselves into a situation where they desperately need to have the answers—but don’t. This is why the idea that clowns should be played “wacky” is a misconception, she says. Some of the funniest clowning comes out of learning to get serious.

“One of the main things I’ve learned about comedy,” says Gallagher, “is that you can’t necessarily go out there and think, like, ‘I’m going to be funny today, yuckity yuck yuck!’ Clowns are funny because they’re ordinary people, often outsiders, who face extreme circumstances and have to find their way out of it, or think their way out of it. To them, the circumstances are very serious. So part of the risk of comedy is you have to play it urgently straight, and follow what that character needs. Let the audience see the predicament of the clown and find it funny.”

Mike Ryan, SCS’ artistic director, says that’s a theme audiences might notice across all of the company’s season this summer, which not only includes Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Twelfth Night, but also the world premiere of Santa Cruz playwright Kathryn Chetkovich’s The Formula.

“It’s true of all the plays this year, actually,” says Ryan. “The joy of the comedy comes out of the stakes and the mistakes—that’s funny to use those two words next to each other—that people make. The stakes are high, and then people are also mistaken about what they’re actually playing for—which makes it particularly funny. Patty’s correct; she knows more about clowning than anybody I know. Clowns follow a very strict logic. They passionately believe that if they do A, B will happen. And we laugh because we know that’s not going to happen.”

The lighter tone of this season’s slate is a change-up from the bruising political intrigue of last year’s two SCS productions, The Agitators and RII, and after the intensity of playing Susan B. Anthony in the former, Gallagher is happy to return to comic roles.

“It’s quite a delight to be like, ‘Well, the other people have the hard stuff to do. I’ll be back here being the clown again if anyone needs me,’” she says. But just because this season will get more laughs, she doesn’t think audiences will find it any less powerful.

“It’s going to be a very funny, funny season,” says Gallagher. “But I have to say, I’m in two plays that have comic elements, but they are deeply beautiful, human plays. The Tempest is soaring. Twelfth Night is heartbreaking. I think people are going to have really vivid and full experiences seeing both of them. And, of course, The Formula—oh my god.”

Cracking ‘The Formula’

Oh my god, indeed. Chetkovich’s play is a landmark moment for the company; it’s the first time they’ve produced the work of a local playwright. It helps, of course, that The Formula is inspired by Shakespeare’s most beloved play (or, at the very least, most performed play in the 21st century), A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Chetkovich’s romantic comedy of errors updates Puck’s love-power flower to a scientifically designed potion created by a young researcher named Suzy who is studying the neuroscience of attraction. Just as Puck mistakenly doses Lysander instead of Demetrius, Suzy lets her untested designer love drug loose at her own wedding.

But beyond echoes of the Bard, there’s also something deeper that The Formula shares with SCS, and it comes through when Ellen Maguire—who has been collaborating with Chetkovich throughout the play’s development, and is directing this premiere production—talks about it. Her explanation of why they chose Allie Pratt for the lead role of Suzy, for instance, echoes Gallagher and Ryan’s philosophy of comedy.

“She clicked with the material,” says Maguire of Pratt, “clicked with us professionally and creatively. She understood how to play this comedy for real, with high stakes. That’s one of the things Kathy and I always talk about, you know? We like comedy played with the seriousness of a drama—with really high stakes. The characters don’t know they’re being funny. So, I never ask the actor to play a line for its humor; I’m asking them to play it for real. ‘What do you want? Go after what you want. You want to educate your daughter on the perils of marriage? Let me see you do it.’ And the actor might say, ‘But it’s on the eve of her wedding!’ And I say, ‘The character doesn’t care. The character thinks she’s doing her daughter a favor. Go for it.’ And that’s how we elicit the truth of the play.”

Getting to that truth was a collaborative process, says Chetkovich.

“Ellen and I have been working on this together for a very long time,” she says. “I had a draft that I showed [her] after we met and realized we were on the same page in a bunch of ways. And that draft changed quite a bit over the course of the writing. One thing I found really helpful in working with Ellen on revising and revising is she kept pushing me to let the characters make real and big mistakes, and let them really hurt each other. I think my natural inclination is not to hurt people—and I was thinking, you know, it’s a comedy. But that was really critical to get to the point where in pursuing what they needed and wanted—the characters were going to make big mistakes. And I think it makes it both a more human story, and funnier.”

The two began working together when they both lived in New York City, after Maguire happened to pick up Chetkovich’s book of short stories, Friendly Fire, at a mutual friend’s house. She was already enthralled with it when the friend told her that they would be meeting the author at a party they were both going to the next day.

“I went to this party, and really clicked with Kathy,” says Maguire. “She asked me to direct a short play that she had written, and we really enjoyed doing that. And then she came to me and said, ‘I have this idea for Midsummer Night’s Dream; you’re very familiar with it; how would you feel about working on this with me?’ And I, being a smart person, made the right choice and said, ‘Yes, of course.’”

“There was a certain shared aesthetic,” says Chetkovich, “and I had a sense of, ‘Obviously this is a very smart director, and somebody who gets comedy the way I get comedy.’ I feel like comedy’s so ephemeral—you get it on the same wavelength, or you don’t.”

Into the Woods

They continued to work on The Formula until a staged reading in 2015 that Maguire says “really coalesced everything.” But even more important was the reading produced by SCS in 2019.

“Kathy moved from New York City to Santa Cruz,” says Maguire. “I came out to visit her, and I met Mike Ryan. I pitched him The Formula at one of those picnic tables overlooking Monterey Bay outside the Grove, and he was intrigued and read it, and then asked if we would come do the reading.”

That reading drew 400 people to the Grove, and paved the way for this season’s production.

“When we came to Santa Cruz, it was really this lovely feeling of the right setting for this play, for starters,” says Maguire. “The climax of the play takes place in the woods at night, and here we were in the woods at night, which I found so magical and moving to be able to do that. And then the actors just, you know, they got the play, they got the sense of humor. We’re in this magical setting, we’re in Kathy’s hometown, and we have this really beautiful audience ready to laugh.”

After that, it was just a matter of a few phone calls to strike a deal to bring The Formula to the SCS stage as a full-blown production. Covid got in the way of Ryan’s original plan to produce it in 2021; he wanted to wait until the company’s productions were back to full strength. But he knew the play was a natural for them—and the perfect choice for their first world premiere.

“One thing that’s really cool about it is that while it references Shakespeare, it also calls into question some of the things that Shakespeare might propose to us,” says Ryan. “Specifically, that there’s this romantic notion of ‘the one’—the person of our destiny that we’re supposed to marry or be with. So many of Shakespeare’s comedies, in particular, sort of have a pre-established marriage order. I know a director who has worked for the festival who says that Shakespeare’s comedies are really about reaffirming the social order, and about reaffirming the institution of marriage in particular. Then this play, while it explores marriage—and doesn’t necessarily have only cynical things to say about it— definitely asks questions about if there is such a thing as the one right person for us in the world.”

Ensuring there was time to get everything right on a play representing multiple firsts for SCS, an extra two weeks of rehearsal was allotted this summer for The Formula, with Maguire and Chetkovich on hand to work with the cast. For actor Dion Graham, who audiences may know from his roles on TV series like The Wire and Madam Secretary, it was a unique introduction to the world of Santa Cruz Shakespeare. In his whole stage career, he says, he’s only been in one other production that devoted as much time to rehearsals as SCS has to The Formula, and that was at London’s Royal National Theatre. Playing the role of Jack, Suzy’s father, Graham has been thrilled with the process of developing his character.

“We had two weeks before the rest of the company got here, to just focus on The Formula and what we were doing, and exploring this world,” he says. “Ellen is a terrific leader, just a really open and nurturing collaborator. And Kathryn is great, of course, and this is an incredible piece that she wrote, which is funny and warm and hilarious, and also rich with the warp and woof of life—it’s not just yucks. I was joking with someone the other day that it seems in this part of our process, our play, in our telling of it, can range within scenes and within characters from very Marx Brothers-ish to Chekovian.”

“That was a real gift,” says Lorenzo Roberts, who plays the character of Dean in The Formula, of the expanded schedule. “Because it is super rare to have this much time—essentially six weeks of rehearsal. We had two weeks alone, eight hours a day, at the Grove—at the actual space—sitting on the stage with each other, just talking about the language, workshopping the play, helping Kathy figure out what moments she needed to change, what language needed to change, how it’s going to fit with this specific ensemble of actors.”  

Deeper Things

Roberts is also playing Duke Orsino in director Paul Mullins’ take on Twelfth Night. Last year, he was in a very different kind of Shakespeare production for SCS, playing the lead role in RII—which boiled the historical epic Richard II down into an intimate and fast-moving three-person play thick with political intrigue and paranoia. So has it been a challenge to shift gears for the romance and comedy of Twelfth Night?

After thrilling audiences as the doomed King Richard II in last year’s “RII,” Lorenzo Roberts shows his comic chops this summer in “The Formula” and “Twelfth Night.” PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

“It is, because it’s a big show, too,” says Roberts. “There’s like 15 of us. And Paul Mullins, the great Paul Mullins, has so much energy. It’s such a joy, but it is like, ‘Whoa, I haven’t done that in a second.’ RII was much more intense and psychological. This is like, ‘Put your big clown hair on, and your nose, and go.’ Let’s fly, you know. Leaning into that, I think there is trust in being with one or two people, but there’s a lot of trust in building an ensemble, too. And Paul has been great about building an ensemble.”

“My approach,” says Mullins, is that I’m hoping—you know, within reason—that everybody feels they have responsibility and input. That it matters, that it’s not an autocratic society; hopefully, it’s more of a group of people working together. I hope that it feels more like a collaborative effort than, ‘That’s what he said to do.’ That’s what I’m trying to avoid as much as I can.”

Mullins says Twelfth Night is pretty much in a class of its own among Shakespeare’s plays, when it comes to comedy and clowning.

Twelfth Night is such a great play—such the best play—for many reasons, but one of them is that there’s a lot of talk about madness and foolishness and fools,” he says. “So, I think that ‘the’ clown in Twelfth Night is actually spread out among a whole lot of people, even people that you wouldn’t think. There are some of those elements in all of them—foolishness, extremity of behavior. That’s true of so many of the characters in the play—some are, you know, silly, nutty. Some are not; some are very serious. There’s an undercurrent all the way through the play; that’s part of the beauty of it. There’s a sense of sadness, of melancholy, of loss, and there are very funny things that are put right up alongside things that are much deeper.”

Interestingly enough, Miriam Laube, who is directing The Tempest this summer, also has a special fondness for Twelfth Night—one of her favorite roles she’s ever played was Olivia in a production of it at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she made her mark over 16 seasons in the company. But Laube thinks The Tempest has its own unique rewards.

“Paul says that he thinks [Twelfth Night] is Shakespeare’s best-written play, and there is something to that; Twelfth Night is sort of a perfect play,” says Laube. “The Tempest was one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and he was wrestling with forgiveness at the end. And I think that’s what makes this play beautiful. It’s this coming to terms with your life, with mortality, looking back on it and going, ‘What do I need to change to move on,’ and forgiveness is a huge part of that.”

One of the most intriguing elements of this production is that it gender-switches the character of Prospero, who is being played by Laura Gordon.

“It doesn’t change the story,” says Laube. “But it changes the dynamics, right? The difference between fathers and daughters is different than mothers and daughters. I think about the relationship between mothers and daughters as a very fierce love. Not always simple, but quite beautiful. In this play, when Prospero is sent off in the boat, and the queen of Naples hopes that she’s going to die, and they’re not supposed to have food and water, that’s intense, right? And we have that in the world today—immigrants setting off on boats without anything. And what does a mother do? We’ve seen it in the recent school shooting where there was one mother who said, ‘I’m going in, I don’t care what you say, my children are in there.’ So that kind of fierceness between Prospero and her daughter, and that her daughter helps keep her alive. All this is true with fathers and daughters, but it takes on a different dynamic when it’s a mother.”

These kinds of insights are part of what keeps bringing Patty Gallagher, who’s being directed by both Laube and Mullins this summer, back to SCS, whether she’s stepping into the shoes of one of history’s most trailblazing feminist orators, or just clowning around.

“The directors give us these things that are so rich and so beautiful,” says Gallagher. “You have to keep returning to the lessons that they give you; like every day after the show is over, you have to say, ‘What went right? What can I do better tomorrow? How do I need to rethink that moment? Or what do I need to take into my head and my heart?’ You just have to meet them, and always be reaching toward what your directors have given you, and try to make it better every night.”

Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s summer season—featuring ‘The Formula,’ ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Twelfth Night’—runs July 10-Aug. 28. This year also features the return of the Fringe Show, an intern production of ‘Just Deserts’ by Carol Lashof, Aug. 17 and Aug. 23. There will also be two staged readings, Aug. 2 and Aug. 9. For a full schedule, a list of all related events and to buy tickets, go to santacruzshakespeare.org.

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