With the support of the New California Arts Fund (NCAF), California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) will pursue a balance of extraordinary artistry and meaningful social impact, where engagement becomes central to their identity and defines their value proposition for sustained support among diverse communities.
Founded in 1974 as a collective of actors performing for free in the park, Cal Shakes now produces a mainstage summer season in the Orinda hill’s Siesta Valley, as well as year-around artistic engagement projects that take performances to unusual places, support deep artist/community collaborations, and celebrate the artist in everyone.
For more than a decade, Cal Shakes has been expanding their artistic engagement work through their Triangle Lab - an innovative collaboration between the theatre, community partners, and Bay Area community members to activate civic participation. In its founding, the Triangle Lab’s deliberate separation from the mainstage work gave them the space to take big risks, establish a fresh rapport with the community, and set the stage for building a vibrant 21st century theater that engages deeply with the needs, aspirations, and assets of the broad spectrum of Bay Area communities. In 2015, Cal Shakes welcomed new Artist Director, Eric Ting, to lead the organization and bring their ethos of art as a tool for social change to every facet of the company. The legacy of the Triangle Lab has lived on in Cal Shakes’ continued investment in community partnerships and civic dialogue.
This shift to becoming a theater with social impact at their core means that engaging communities of color and underserved communities is as fundamental an investment in their art as costumes and scenery. Over the past few years, they’ve laid the groundwork to become a culturally diverse organization and live their commitment to diversity every day - from commissioning an organizational assessment of their EDI work to date and providing training for staff and teaching artists in disability justice and cultural equity, to dramatically increasing artists of color on the main stage in addition to designers, directors, and staff. These conversations led them to create a season planning matrix to ensure they’re explicitly considering the implications of their choices of productions and artists, and they’ve begun inviting Bay Area arts colleagues to attend their EDI training sessions as well.
Goals for artists of color working on mainstage productions:
With xenophobic extremism roiling through our country, Cal Shakes was proud to launch a production exploring the presence of Islamophobia in Othello: Shakespeare’s stranger in a strange land who has compromised his identity to participate in his adopted community. In partnership with the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, Cal Shakes invited community members impacted by Islamophobia in the US to share their stories and contribute to their understanding of not just the character Othello, but the production as well. In a private story circle led by Assistant Director Denmo Ibrahim, participants discussed the personal impacts of Islamophobia, popular depictions of Muslim Americans, and how to challenge stereotypes and harmful depictions of Muslims, including what allies can do.
Othello went on to tour to 8 community sites throughout the Bay Area, including the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California.
Such multi-layered integration of community engagement is relatively new to Cal Shakes but a hallmark of what’s to come. Much of their success in making this transition has been from an investment in listening to and learning from their partners to inform future programming. They’ve begun to formalize that process through a sophisticated series of guidelines for partner engagement, their “Principles of Engagement.” Through all of these initiatives, they aim to build reciprocal relationships where Cal Shakes can be an advocate and amplifier for their stakeholders, and how they can help them make art on stage that rings true to their lives.