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Shakespeare in Yosemite: Interview with Cymbeline & Celia

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Aug 10, 2021 at 06:45 PM in Project News

While filming Imogen in the Wild, Shakespeare in Yosemite’s research assistant Monica Perales interviewed the cast and crew about their experience adapting Cymbeline. The following interview has Monica in conversation with Dennis Lee Brown (mayor Cymbeline, in this adaptation) and Rachel Battisti (Celia, Cymbeline's assistant). 

Shakespeare in Yosemite: Interview with Cymbeline & Celia

Monica Perales: What is your experience acting in Shakespeare, and what draws you to these plays? 

Rachel Battisti: I've been in a lot of Shakespeare, specifically over the last seven years. I did random stuff in high school that I don't count, but I'm drawn to it because it means so many different things to so many different people, and people from everywhere can watch a Shakespeare show and find things to relate to. It doesn't matter who you are. There's stuff in Shakespeare for you. And I think it's almost like a universal language.

Dennis Lee Brown: Well sort of like Rachel, I did a little bit in high school. That was my introduction and then I did some in college. I went to college a long time ago. I graduated from college in 1979. So for a long time, I didn't do Shakespeare at all. I did do Gilbert and Sullivan, however, and I grew up in the Christian church with the King James Bible, so I was kind of familiar with the language.

Last year, Sean approached me about doing King Lear, and I was terrified because I hadn't done a lot of Shakespeare for a long time. I felt like I had the voice for it because I'd studied voice a lot--singing voice. So I knew how to support my voice and how to make it big, so I took the role and learned the lines and found that this works for me. I like doing this. So here I am now doing Cymbeline.

MP: The next question is what is your personal experience with environmentalism and ecotheatre?

RB: I've been doing Shakespeare in Yosemite for the last few years, and it's always impressive to me how the ecothemes can be found in every single show. He [Shakespeare] is referencing nature and the mythologies around nature so often that it's almost impossible to separate yourself from the nature in the shows. It's different performing in nature! [I've been] living next to Yosemite and going there my whole life and living here in the Valley. You can see the degradation when people are not taking care of what everything is, when they're not taking care of our home. I think it's important.

DLB: I'm going to go back to a story from long ago. There was a time when we had an Air Force Base. It's called Castle Air Force Base. I remember there was a rocket fuel plant wanting to build a plant in Merced County, and our concern was, “How are you going to dispose of the waste?” We had already had an incident with Kesterson, which is one of the wildlife refuges, and we had a lot of selenium and a lot of just toxic chemicals in the soil on the west side of the county, and we felt like we had our share of toxic spill in Merced County. The last thing we need is a rocket fuel plant coming in and creating even more havoc. It really got me in touch with really caring for the Earth.

And it was a success story, because that rocket fuel plant never got here because we just said, “Oh not in our county.” Then Castle closed and because of Castle closure, we got the UC, I think. We got the UC because losing Castle Air Force Base was a major hole. Even though we had Merced College, losing [the base] was a big thing. So getting the university was a big plus.

Also I had gone camping as a child and spent time in Yosemite and spent time in Northern California. I love John Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, and I love Humboldt County and the giant redwoods up there, but I lived in Sonora for about 24 years. Sonora's in the foothills here, and one reason I moved up there was to be close to the wilderness.

RB: May I add onto mine? I'm also a product of the 90s and of environmental cartoons that were marketed towards kids doing “Save the Environment” stuff like FernGully, Once Upon a Forest, and stuff like that. So I think it's just part of my DNA at this point to keep the environment safe.

MP: Next question: how does your character relate to or understand the environment in the play world, and how might this differ from other characters?

RB: My character is kind of just an administrative assistant, and I really don't say anything.

DLB: Yes, she's my administrative assistant. I mean he [Cymbeline] loved it when he was younger. He loved to take his kids out, he loved for them to be outdoors. But then he marries this woman after his wife has died, and she has a different idea--you know, she basically promotes her son, and I think it's about materialism for both mother and son. My character, he's so in love with his wife that he's also seduced by that, and I don't think it's truly him. But he did then begin his quest for money and for materialism. That's what happens. And so another character in the piece takes his sons, and we thought what a horrible thing. He kidnaps his sons, but you know in a way he's saving his sons from their father's gross materialism.

RB: I think Celia sees that in Cymbeline, because there's the scene towards the end, when I'm like, “By the way, your wife is a terrible person.”

DLB: So he comes full circle, and he says now we will do what's good for all. I think that was always in him, but he was seduced by something else. It's such a sad thing that's happening in our world now: being seduced by materialism and faster, bigger, more and without regard for the earth. One student of mine said to me years ago that if every country on this planet lived like we live in the United States, it would take eight planet earths to sustain that. 

MP: That's a pretty striking picture.

DLB: But see, it’s just like Cymbeline having to look at himself somewhere in this piece: we as a nation have to do the same thing. I don't know if we have the maturity to do so. I don't know if we have the soul. I don't know, and that's scary.

Shakespeare in Yosemite: Interview with Cymbeline & Celia

MP: Next question is how do you think ecotheatrical productions can impact environmental consciousness in the cast, crew, and or audience?

RB: I think it's the same as all those cartoons from the 90s. Like it's just a more grown-up way of talking about it, but still doing it through, basically, parables if you really think about it.

DLB: I think it's just by putting it out there, and hopefully people seeing the truth in it, that it will cause some kind of reaction. Unfortunately, for many, it's going to create a negative, which is too bad. They're going to just slough it off, but at least we put it out there. I think we've got to get the kids because the other folk, the old folk, I don't know. I think education needs to change, and I think we need to be really honest.

I remember I taught high school, and one of the teachers had all these sayings up on his wall and most of them were fine, just positive statements, but one of them said, "He who dies with the most toys wins." I said to the principal that has got to go. I don't want to just tell on another teacher but that kind of thinking - we can't have that. And so it's also speaking up, and it's being unpopular at times. Because you're not going to be popular when you speak up.

But getting back to how theatre, I think, as Rachel does, that [it's about bringing the message to] children. Taking some plays that talk about [how to be] eco-friendly, doing some of that stuff with kids, that's also fun. They're learning about theater, but they're also learning about the vital importance of taking care of the earth, managing it with integrity, and making sure that generations that come after us have the same environment.

MP: What do you hope viewers will take away from this performance?

RB: It's never too late to change your ways. Even if you found yourself lost, it's never too late, and it's never too late to say something. 

DLB: I would say the same thing because [Cymbeline], at least, has that turn so right at the end. Of course with theatre that's how it happens, but I would agree.

MP: We're almost done, I promise. What has been the biggest challenge?

RB: I haven't left my house in a really long time, and my body is not used to having to do things, so I injured my foot. I really haven't had many challenges because I haven't had very many filming days, and so it's been relatively easy on my brain.

DLB: Yeah, same here. I think the one challenge for me is I've done more stage acting, so stage acting as opposed to film, you know, it's different and doing things over and over, but I knew it was like that because I've done like television before and some film, so I knew that was going to happen, but still it was like, "Okay, let's do this again."

MP: What has been a highlight of your involvement in this production?

DLB: I think the cast and crew. I love working with these young people. Not that it makes me feel so young, but it kind of does! It's just good to stay on the edge, to always to be on cutting edge, to never be locked in the past but to be right fully present in the now, so it's nice for me that way.

RB: For me, I have been trapped in my house for a year away from the kids that I was working with before. My entire social life was theatre. I had no social life outside that, and being able to see Dennis again and Connie and Lisa and Andrew and.... It just reminds me that I'm not alone again, and I've missed them all so much. It also is really good to see that all of y'all have been safe and taking care of yourselves, and we can all feel comfortable around each other. Everybody cares. It's so nice to be around people who care. It feels good.

DLB: She said it!