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Pacific Humanities Scholars experience Shakespeare theater under the stars

Unique among honors programs across the nation, the Pacific Humanities Scholars program enables students to explore the humanities both in and outside the classroom. In October, they took this experience a bit further and travelled to the East Bay in northern California, to watch Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale” in the big outdoors.

Commonly known as Cal-Shakes, the Burns Amphitheater is nestled in Siesta Valley near Orinda and uses its natural surroundings as an integral part of the plays performed there. The trip was a substitute for the Scholars’ annual excursion to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland which was not possible because of the COVID restrictions. 

Two Humanities Scholars, Maddie Tawa ’22 (English and Japanese double-major) and Jami McClenahan ’23 (Media X major) shared their experience with us.

Jami:  We loaded on the bus at Pacific’s Burns Tower and drove to Orinda. We were a mix of 40 people from different Humanities Scholars cohorts and even some students who are not with the Scholars. It was really interesting to get to meet other people in my program that I haven’t gotten to talk to before, or even just people at my college who aren’t necessarily in the program but enjoy the humanities as much as we do.

Maddie:  Having the opportunity to go to these types of things with a group is very comforting and allows you to feel a bit more grounded, I think. Also, in terms of resources, it’s more difficult to get to places like Cal-Shakes, especially for the first- and second-year students. So, that was a great chance for students to get off campus and just enjoy more social or enrichment type of event.

Jami:  The entire venue is outside, so we had to hike up there. They had some seating areas, and we went up to a little picnic area and we had pizza before the play started. 

It was amazing to be able to go in a large group to a venue that was relatively safe, you know, outdoors where we’re not all cramped together. I think, even if there wasn’t a pandemic, it’s really innovative. Most times you go to see a play it’s a tight space and you get the backdrop on stage, but at Cal-Shakes the outdoors was the backdrop. I think that was really amazing and also how it was integrated into the play. 

Maddie:  Typically, indoor theaters tend to be the norm, but an outdoor theater is a lot of fun.  I think it added to the entire ambiance of the play because, instead of having to constantly change set pieces like backdrops, they really utilized lighting to highlight the trees that were just naturally there. It was very interesting to get to see how the actors and the stage directors took advantage of how the stage itself is placed in a canyon. They were also able to use sound, how it reflected off of the canyon and kind of projected a bit more than it normally would.

Maddie: The play itself was quite a bit of fun. The first half was very somber, very much in the tradition of a Shakespearean tragedy. Then the second half of the play after the intermission was very goofy, just kind of silly and comedic. It was very interesting to see that juxtaposition because you’re ready to go back into a very dark play and then all of a sudden, they’re just messing around for the next hour. It was so much fun to get to see it. After talking to some of the other people who attended, they all thought that the second part was really boosted by the fact that the first half was just extremely dark and kind of sad.

I’ve never seen “A Winter’s Tale,” so I have no context for it, but it was very fun to get to see that.  Afterwards, you get to talk with all the Scholars about what they thought about it because it was a very different interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.

Jami: I think the part that really stuck with me was the speech the creative director of the theatre gave before the play. He talked about how they’ve been really struggling throughout the pandemic. And the fact that we were all there and being able to participate now really meant a lot to them. I think that stuck with me the most because it put everything in perspective. We think of theater like, ‘oh well, that can wait until the pandemic’s over,’ but it is really important to a lot of people. And the fact that we’re now able to go and support them and enjoy ourselves for a few hours, I think it’s just really amazing. 

We can talk about humanities as much as we want, but until you actually experience it, you don’t get that actual impact. Just being able to witness people who care so much about their craft and care so much about putting on a good performance and providing that experience for us, there’s a lot of weight to that.

Maddie:  I think, being able to have that immersive theater experience allows students to become more aware of the creative content, as well as potentially draw connections between that and whatever text they’re reading in their classrooms. Especially, it’s more about building a community because the Humanities Scholars program, while it does offer academic opportunities, is also about providing grounded, humanities-based support for students in the program. And so, events like this help us get more involved in the arts as well as build a community within said arts.

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