By Jan Janes/Courtesy of Gavilan College
Well before the official class starts, students drift into the theater. Some, hours before.
One student studies on the steps. Another places a boombox on stage, selects music and starts to dance. Two pair off, trying a new step. Others mingle and talk on stage.
At 6:30 p.m. the students form a circle and lead one another in physical warm-ups.
“Yes, let’s…” is the command, and every minute it changes: climb trees, run from zombies, dance the salsa, chase one another, play strip poker.
“No, no! There’s a photographer here tonight!” a voice booms from the wings.
“Yes let’s all applaud Dr. John!” is the final group command. Clapping, the students depart the stage and take seats in the audience.
John Lawton Haehl, director of Gavilan College Theater Arts program since 2006, walks to the edge of the stage. He offers a recap of the week and the structure for the night.
A tardy student, running in from the wings, stops to plant a chocolate milkshake in his hand. “I’ve got lots more!” waving a cardboard box to the others before sitting down.
Actors Workshop, Thursday evening, begins.
Any student can enroll in Theater 13. Every student who takes the class has a role in the production, sometimes more than one. This spring, the class is deep in preparation for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a classic Shakespeare comedy.
“It’s all about getting them out of themselves,” said Dr. John, as he is affectionately known to his students, “so they can get into their roles, their characters.”
As part of the learning process, Lawton Haehl invites accomplished Shakespeare artists to work with the students.
Randall Stuart brings more than two decades of acting in Shakespeare classics in the two-week workshop he presents. In his career focusing on the characters of jester, clown and fool, Stuart performed with ACT, Berkeley Rep, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Oregon Shakespeare and others. His training with the students is every bit as droll and demanding as the roles they are learning.
“I teach this at the MFA level and find the Gavilan students eager and keen,” said Stuart. “This college is one of my favorites.”
Samantha Cardoza, in her second semester at Gavilan, plays Pease Blossom, the Faerie Queen’s main servant. “I’m still trying to figure out the relationship with Puck. Is he a colleague or a rival?” She doesn’t know because of the multiple feuds. Plus, everyone is always sneaking around the forest.
Cardoza professes a lifelong love of theater and threatened to run away to join the circus. As a dancer, she would love to perform in a production with Cirque de Soleil.
Jimmie Lopez, in his fifth production at Gavilan, is moving beyond background characters. Cast as Puck, a key role, Lopez wanted to test expanded roles. “Actors like to challenge themselves, see what we can do.”
Katya Blandino, cast as Titania, Queen of the Faeries, emphasized the ensemble nature of the group.
“Dr. John is very inclusive,” she said. “The cast can make their preferences known and audition for a few roles.”
A nursing student, Blandino sees the empathy and understanding developed in theater also applicable to working with patients.
“I’m interested in the character of Titania because she is ancient, and not human,” said Blandino. “Something connected to tempestuous forces of nature. Even though I am young, I try to bring magic and an older feeling to her.”
David Pequeño, in his first semester at Gavilan, portrays Lysander, one of the four lovers. As A Midsummer Night’s Dream unfolds, love is very complicated. And comedic. Pequeño considered himself shy, did not like to be in front of groups, but pushed himself to do it.
“Everyone in the ensemble is welcoming, an amazing group of people,” he said.
He revealed he was a bit afraid of Stuart initially, because of the intensity and newness of performing. “I discovered a big boost to my confidence, and an emphasis on opening up my voice more,” he said. “I’m a big goofball, too!” He described A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a beautiful show for any, every age.
“After table reads with the cast, we reworked it to include heightened physical language,” said Stuart. “It will be understandable to all audience members, all the way to the back row.”
Stuart returns again to work with the cast after spring break. He directs the activities of Cerimon House in Portland, a center for civic and community conversations, plays, works with writers, and hosts a contemplative walking labyrinth. The group saved a former Masonic lodge from the wrecking ball, and the renovated building is named for a character in Pericles.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed in the Gavilan College Theater at 8 p.m. on May 4, 5, 11 and 12. Also on May 12, the cast will perform a Mother’s Day matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets, single and family pack, are available at the Gavilan Bookstore and at BookSmart in Morgan Hill.