What's Happening

Shakespeare in Yosemite: Park Ranger Jamie Richards

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Sep 09, 2021 at 08:43 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. This sixth interview presents Monica in conversation with Jamie Richards, a Park Ranger at Yosemite National Park. Read on to hear about the history of Yosemite Park and the power of arts in conservation spaces!

Shakespeare in Yosemite: Park Ranger Jamie Richards

MP: What does it mean to be a park ranger for a national park? How do you see your involvement with Shakespeare in Yosemite connecting to ecological preservation?

JR: So, the US National Park Service has over 400 National Park units in our country, and there's a unit in every state across the United States plus some in our territories, so the role of the ranger slightly varies depending on what unit you're at. But at the end of the day, all of us perform the same mission and roles and responsibilities. We are there to to help educate and welcome people to their national parks, help people find their own meaning and dive deeper into the natural and cultural history and the stories of a place, and also help protect the park.

You know, national parks are here, not only for us today but for future generations and one of our responsibilities is to be good stewards. We want Yosemite National Park today to look the same for visitors coming in 2050 and a hundred years later. Landscape does change over time, but when you look at photos of Yosemite National Park from the eighteen hundreds and compare those two images that you see today, one of our goals is to preserve and protect the landscape of a park and the history of a park, so that people will enjoy this place as it currently is, as it has been, since it became a national park into the future.

MP: Awesome. What has been your involvement in this particular production of Shakespeare in Yosemite?

JR: So backing up before we get into that, you know, there's a long legacy of history between using the arts to tell stories and help protect national parks, and that's really especially true in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite National Park was established under President Abraham Lincoln and one of the things that helped the people make Yosemite a national park and protect this really sacred place was artists that came here, that documented what Yosemite looked like, that captured through their paintings through early photographs through written stories the grandeur and majesty of Yosemite National Park. People who came as the the first Western explorers into Yosemite and told the stories of the giant sequoia trees, larger and taller than buildings in New York City standing in Yosemite Valley and seeing the majestic granite cliffs towering over your head for people in London, and New York City, and Boston and Washington DC, they had no connection to the wild. Open space, that was Yosemite. That is Yosemite today. And it was through the power of art and artists coming that helped inspire our lawmakers. 

Abraham Lincoln never had the opportunity to come to Yosemite National Park in person, but through the written word and also the images that he saw during the middle of the Civil War - you have to think about how incredible this was. Gettysburg has already happened. At this point in time, we do not know if the United States is going to continue to stand and what the United States would look like at the end of the war. We are in the middle of the worst days of the U.S. Civil War and Abraham Lincoln took time to step away and say this place in the territory of California and the state of California is special enough that I'm going to take time away and I'm going to sign a law protecting Yosemite as a sacred place and he passed the Assembly Grant Act of 1864 and granted the area that was at that time just Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, those two sections of what is the park today. He granted those in the state of California to protect and manage for all people, for all time and that landmark piece of legislation is what laid the foundation for the establishment of Yellowstone and the establishment of the National Park System. Without the Yosemite Grant Act, we may not have national parks today and so understanding the connection between art and science and the protection of natural spaces has always been really important. 

Think about what happened in 2016, when we started to investigate creating Shakespeare in Yosemite: Paul and Katie contacted Yosemite National Park, contacted our office of public affairs. Scott Gediman and I are the Public Affairs Officers for Yosemite National Park; we are Park Rangers and we are also the public affairs specialist. One of the areas that we specialize in is the organization and coordination of all special events that happen in Yosemite National Park. So Paul and Katie approached Yosemite National Park, and the request came to Scott and me in 2016 to try to do something in 2017, and as we were talking with Dr. Brokaw about her vision, we were really inspired and excited about the opportunity to bring live theater back to Yosemite National Park. There had been a long history of live theater in Yosemite in the 1930s and 40s and to be able to bring a taste of that back and to help people connect with their National Park and connect with the stories of John Muir, and other historical figures that are really important in the park and Shakespeare, and to roll all these things together is really special.

MP: Thank you for that. So what has been your involvement? Has it changed in this particular production now that we've had to sort of adjust and shift into a pandemic approach in terms of having to film and find locations and things like that?

JR: In the last several years, 2017 through 2019, I was the primary liaison between Yosemite National and the Public Affairs Office and Dr. Brokaw. Scott and I teamed up on a lot of things, but I really became kind of the point person from our office that had the frequent phone calls with Dr. Brokaw to line things up. I opened up all the physical spaces and opened up the theater at Lower River Amphitheatre and was kind of the National Park Service’s behind-the-scenes person that helped with logistics. 

Shifting to 2020, with the pandemic, we had to cancel Shakespeare in Yosemite for 2020. As the pandemic was just ramping up, we had to cancel our Earth Day Festival, which has always been kind of coordinated hand-in-hand with Shakespeare in Yosemite. So we were looking at, “How do we roll this out?” 

One of the things that we identified and shared with Paul and Katie was the fact that Yosemite National Park and the National Park Service honors National Park week in mid-April around the week of Earth Day. Conveniently, Shakespeare's birthday and John Muir's birthday also line up in that same timeframe, so we have always incorporated Shakespeare in Yosemite as one of the featured activities that's part of Yosemite National Park's Earth Day week; it's kind of like the end cap to our Earth Day Festival. In 2020, we canceled Earth Day. We canceled all public events. 

When Dr. Brokaw called me earlier this year and started to explore the ideas to safely do Shakespeare in Yosemite for 2021, she proposed the idea that they were looking at doing a film production, and would the national park support it? And would they be able to come up and film in Yosemite? So, Scott and I had a conversation with Park leadership and had a conversation to see, logistically, based on the Park Service's COVID rules, based on our filming rules, what we could do to put this all together. We came up with the plan, and it seems to have worked out beautifully.

Shakespeare in Yosemite: Park Ranger Jamie Richards

MP: How do you see this current partnership tying in with the different efforts in Yosemite around preservation, ecological education, and all?

JR: Yosemite National Park has a very strong relationship with UC Merced, which is one of the things that allows this program to happen. The Park Service and UC Merced have a very strong partnership in many different aspects. We have the Yosemite Leadership Program, which means students on campus at UC Merced operate the Yosemite Center on campus and then they also are park rangers in the summer and they get job experience. Also, when they finish their degrees and they have that experience, they're able to compete for jobs in Yosemite National Park, and pretty much immediately go from a student role to a career role inside the National Park Service. It's a really special program. That's one of the features we have with UC Merced.

We do a lot of research and other activities with UC Merced. We partner with UC Merced in order to bring youth particularly from the Central Valley, from places that it's harder for us to have strong connections with; we use our connections with UC Merced to bring school groups to the park, and that's really coordinated very closely with the assembly leadership program. 

So all of our science and research work that we do at UC Merced, all of our preservation and education outreach, they all serve the mission of the National Park Service: not only working to protect and share the stories of Yosemite within the park, but going out into our communities and bringing the park to the people. 

By transitioning to Shakespeare in Yosemite in the past, UC Merced students would be brought up to Yosemite National Park, too. For many of them, it's their first experience coming to Yosemite, which is always a really special experience. Nothing replaces a visit to your National Park! One of the things we're really excited about is introducing people, particularly young people, to the great outdoors, to their national parks, to the stories, and the people that inspired those stories, so people can understand the natural part that's way out there in the mountains that I've never been to before, has a personal connection with me in some way and it's not my job to tell you what the story is. It's my job to ask questions and help you find something that you connect with. Find something that inspires you. 

One of the stories that's really powerful—and our education and outreach program really does a great job with Shelton Johnson—is telling the story of African Americans here in Yosemite National Park. The Buffalo Soldier story [is important] for a lot of people, particularly young people of color who felt that national parks were not a place for them. They didn't see people that look like them or that had stories that connected with their family, and Shelton has helped break down some barriers and tell that story. With Shakespeare in Yosemite, Shelton is a key figure that has always been very supportive and part of the production. So we have a diverse cast. We have diverse Rangers that come out and are involved in the program, and it's all to help people find connections to their national park.

MP: You've already touched on this next question, but I'll ask it just in case you have anything else you'd like to add to it: there has been a pretty significant history of performances in Yosemite. What does having theatre in Yosemite mean for the public? Why theatre in the park?

JR: Art of all aspects is really critical, and it helps people connect with places in deeper ways. I was always very connected to live theatre. I find theater to be something that draws me in, that helps me find a deeper meaning behind a story or a place, so whether it's attending one of our art center classes, and going out, and doing clean air, painting, or watercolor, or whether it's going on one of the Ansel Adams photo workshops, or whether it's coming to the park and participating in, if you are a UC Merced student, who's never had the chance to be in Yosemite before, or—I love the story of Devon, someone from inner-city New York, who's never been to a national park before participating in Shakespeare in Yosemite, a live theatre project right in a national park in a wild space. 

When you can draw the bridge between preservation, conservation, and art, it opens conversations, and it opens the door for people. To find something that inspires them, you can be in Florida, you can be in New York City, you can love Shakespeare, you can be almost universally anywhere in the world and you can see a Shakespeare in Yosemite production and see that there's something really special here. So yes, Yosemite National Park has had a long history of live theatre, definitely in the 1930s until the 1950s. Live theatre did stop for a period of time, and the Curry Village Amphitheater was where most of our live theatre productions were focused. Really, I didn't know a lot of the story until Dr. Brokaw helped uncover some of the early history, and we started to look into it and found Shakespeare in Yosemite is not a new thing. We are bringing back something that had been here and were rekindling a long legacy of art in Yosemite.

MP: How do you think ecotheatrical productions can impact environmental consciousness in the public?

JR: It’s just like the written word, just like going to a Ranger-led interpretive program, attending an eco-production of a play—and it doesn't have to be Shakespeare—it could be any kind of a play. I think it's really exciting that we have a new trend that's happening, not only in the United States but around the world, where people are reimagining how to tell stories, particularly very well-known stories. [They are] working to tell a story that’s set in the local place and helping to incorporate messages that connect with those universal themes of, “what is it that drives human emotion? what is it that drives people to come to a place to come learn about a story?” 

So, ecotheatre, I think, is really exciting to see how it's developing. I'm excited to see how it continues to evolve as we move forward. We're kind of in the early days of using ecotheatre to tell stories and to help people think about places in new ways.

MP: How does Shakespeare in Yosemite fit in with the park’s goals for ecological education? Can you speak about those goals?

JR: So many of our goals have remained consistent over time. We work to help people of all ages, all backgrounds who come to Yosemite National Park to learn about the ecological features, the historical features of Yosemite. What makes Yosemite special? And how do we continue to protect and preserve this place for all people, for all time? Now, that is part of our core mission. How do we serve the mission of the National Park Service to preserve and protect natural and cultural places across the United States? Ecotheatre helps us do that. It helps a new audience—a different audience that connects with Yosemite in a new and different way—to think a little bit more deeply about the place that they're in.

The story of Imogen in the Wild [will be interesting] for a lot of people who might never have read Cymbeline. I had not rediscovered Cymbeline for quite a few years until Dr. Brokaw gave me the idea, and said we're going to do it simple this year, and we're going to reimagine what Cymbeline looks like. I hadn't read Cymbeline since high school, so this was an opportunity for not only people like me who love Shakespeare and who love Yosemite to think about the world we're in a little bit differently, but people who are very well versed in Shakespeare or people who have never read or seen a Shakespeare play. 

This is a brand new thing that will help people maybe stop and think about the connection between the city and the wild, or the connection between a young woman and her family. There are a lot of really important stories and messages that we share in Imogen in the Wild that will help people look at Yosemite in a new way, and maybe look at the stories of John Muir, and look at the early history of this place and how it connects to them.

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

JR: I'm very excited that Imogen in the Wild is a film because it allows people from more places across the country to tap into this really cool program that we've been doing for the last several years. Shakespeare in Yosemite is special, and I definitely look forward to having live theater in Yosemite again—however, it's a very narrow group of cool people that actually will get to see that production, so by having a film version that is out there, there's going to be a lot more people across the United States and across the world that they're going to be able to take a few minutes and view this film, and experience Yosemite National Park. That's super exciting!

As far as what I look forward to people connecting with in Imogen in the Wild: it’s bringing people who really didn't think Yosemite was a place for them, perhaps a lot of people who are very passionate about art who will be able to view Imogen in the Wild and just stop and say, ‘hey! Yosemite National Park is a place for me, and protecting the wild is something I care about.’ I'm hoping some of those universal themes will carry over into and inspire people to come to their national park or go out and enjoy their local parks. 

I think it's really important that we've kept “The Wild” [in the film] a very generic place. Your wild can be your backyard, your wild can be your city or your county park, your state park, the places that you love. We never specifically say The Wild is Yosemite, and that is intentional. We never say the city is a place in California. It's a universal theme, so that this story can carry over whether you're in England or whether you're in Florida or New York or Boston. People that are more experienced with more urban areas might be able to view Imogen in the Wild and just think a little bit more deeply about their connection with the wild places in their life.

Shakespeare in Yosemite: Park Ranger Jamie Richards

MP: What has been a highlight of having this partnership and of your involvement with this particular production?

JR: So I think the partnership with UC Merced and developing the relationship with Katie Brokaw has been really valuable, and also with Kim Gardener and other leadership at UC Merced. It has strengthened the bond between Yosemite National Park and UC Merced. 

As far as this production, one of the things that I actually loved was going out scouting with Katie and particularly finding areas [in which to film]. Katie came to us and she said, “I need a cave. We need a cave scene. Do you have a cave?” Scott and I got to be the scouting agents for this particular production, and we went out in the field, which was really fun because normally we just go to the Lower River Amphitheatre or the Curry River Amphitheater. We opened the door and we just let the actors do their thing. This was fun because we got to go out in the fields and find locations that told the story in a physical way. I kind of love that we found this really cool cave location that was perfect for the production, and then we also were able to find a location that had a great view of Half Dome and the mountain. We're going to send you to climb—this is not just any random mountain we're going to go climb, this is Half Dome, one of the most famous mountains in the world. Being able to go out into the field was really rewarding.

MP: Awesome. Do you have any other thoughts that you'd like to share, or maybe even an attempt to answer a question you wish I would have asked?

JR: Dr. Brokaw has been a pleasure to work with over the last several years. UC Merced has been a wonderful partner with Yosemite National Park, and I'm really proud to be part of this team and part of this production. While my role as far as the actual production is pretty minor, being able to support this role and to support it from the park service side is incredibly rewarding.

MP: Thank you so much! I'm so grateful for being able to see your passion, and being able to take a look at what this looks like from the park service side.

JR: One of the things I think was really rewarding for us this year was being able to have a ranger scene that had no connection to Shakespeare. We worked with Dr. Brokaw, and she came up with a really creative way to involve the rangers of Yosemite National Park, the people that have chosen to live and make their lives in this place.

To incorporate this into the play, and give us some opportunities to participate actively in the production was not only super rewarding for our staff, as everyone who participated was super excited to be there, but we're able to show a pretty wide breadth of diversity in our ranger programming. We have Shelton Johnson, who's one of the most famous park rangers in the United States out there. We were able to bring in some new rangers who have never participated in Shakespeare in Yosemite before. One of our rangers is a Native woman, and to have her part of this production was really special. I just think it's really great that we and the ranger staff were able to showcase and share our vision and our love for Yosemite National Park and for live theater by participating in Shakespeare in Yosemite.