Dinner and a show with California Shakespeare Theater
Canvasing the Bay Area for an optimal come-out-of-Covid date night, one option shouts for attention: California Shakespeare Theater’s “Season of Shared Light” that in 2021 flings open the venue’s sweeping golden Orinda Hills backdrop and the broad outdoor Bruns Amphitheater to community groups, performing artists and cultural organizations from across the Bay Area and beyond.
Customarily known as Cal Shakes, the theater company—now in its 47th season—is nationally recognized for innovative and contemporary storytelling rooted in classical theater’s traditions and literature, high-quality production values, an extensive commitment to education demonstrated through year-round programming and a popular summer conservatory, and deep investment in community outreach initiatives that uphold the organization’s mission and principles including equity, diversity, authenticity and the redress of social injustice, especially for underserved people and communities. Prior to the pandemic, the Cal Shakes summer season routinely produced and presented four plays by the resident company.
But this year, Artistic Director Eric Ting stated in a press release issued in early February that a decision was made to suspend the usual four-show schedule. Reflecting on the devastating impact Covid has had on artists and art organizations and the worldwide movement for racial equity following the murder in May 2020 of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Ting said Cal Shakes was compelled to “respond to these recent crises with compassion and humility.” A choice was made to offer service to the community by sharing the open-air venue with other artists and organizations.
As of early summer, Season of Shared Light includes live, in-person productions from Destiny Arts, Bandaloop, West Edge Opera, GRAMMY® Award-winning male vocal ensemble Chanticleer and others. A Measure for Measure Concert Series from Paper Moon Presents brings, among other shows, not-to-miss legendary blues musician Taj Mahal with opening act Gaby Moreno to the Bruns (July 2) and Rebirth Brass Band with two evenings of live music with the New Orleans-based band (July 3 and 4).
After waiting for months to learn the state and county guidelines with regards to Covid-19 precautions as vaccination rates increase and live gatherings expand, Cal Shakes on May 24 announced a new adaptation of The Winter’s Tale (directed by Artistic Director Eric Ting in an adaptation by Ting and Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly) will be presented Sept. 1–26. Described as “Shakespeare’s exquisite reflection of our current moment,” the organization promises its return to the stage will present “a story split between tragedy and comedy, between loss and healing, it’s the hope we need.”
Of course, no night out is complete without food and beverages. Cal Shakes has long been a place where the merry tryptic of watching a live performance, eating and drinking combine into a duet of sensory eye-and-ear and hand-to-mouth pleasures. Enjoying a meal or snack prior to the show—at picnic tables or while seated on toppled and smoothly-polished tree trunks scattered throughout the venue’s eucalyptus-filled grove—is encouraged. If you’ve forgotten or have little interest in bringing a home-made basket of treats, nearby restaurants or the venue’s cafe—more on those in a moment—offer multiple tempting items for purchase. Moreover, the audience can enjoy gustatory pleasure and liquid imbibing in their seats during the production. To jump in with a personal anecdote, I recall my teenage son’s post-show midsummer night’s dream came not so much from Shakespeare as it did from watching our seat neighbors wield forks like Elizabethan swords while consuming an entire Safeway-bought chocolate layer cake during the production.
Under the Bruns Plaza’s pistachio trees and sparkling string lights, patrons find ADA-accessible seating at cafe tables. The menu features sandwiches—tri-tip, chicken salad and sausage combos—and spinach wraps, along with Caesar and Asian Chicken salads and a Charcuterie box with cured meats, cheese, olives, pickles and crackers. Desserts circle around bars, cookies and ice cream, while beverages include the expected sodas and waters, bottled beer, wine by the glass or bottle, plus the infamous Peet’s Coffee & Tea . If you don’t already know about the participatory Peet’s shout-out at every show, you’ll be welcome to join the club.
The nearby cities of Orinda and Lafayette, and even the town of Moraga just five miles beyond Orinda, offer multiple take-out options representing almost any world cuisine. And there’s more than one grocery store in each location in the event that mention of a chocolate layer cake has your taste buds buzzing.
Worried about Covid-19 precautions? Cal Shakes is closely watching and following all safety protocols set by the California Department of Public Health, Contra Costa County, Actors’ Equity Association, United Scenic Artists, and Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. Masks must be worn at all times except when eating or drinking, and capacity is reduced both in the amphitheater and in Plaza restrooms to maintain social-distancing guidelines. No cash is accepted at the cafe, to optimize touch-free transactions. Cal Shakes actors work in pods for the duration of rehearsal and performances so that they can remain unmasked during the show. All staff and visitors will be screened for symptoms prior to entry; select events require proof of vaccination or negative Covid test, so check the website or presenting organization periodically for updates.
Worried about parking, mobility or a lack of wheels for transport? No worries: Limited paved spots are available in a designated parking lot, and a much larger unpaved grass and dirt field is also available for parking. There is onsite security during the show, but note that Cal Shakes cannot be responsible for any theft or damage to your vehicle. There is a paved area with reserved spots for vehicles with disability placards. A golf cart makes frequent trips up and down the hill leading from the parking lot to the box office and to the theater. Conveniently, Cal Shakes is located close to BART and offers a free shuttle—with a wheelchair ramp—from the Orinda BART station to the Bruns Amphitheater. Service begins two hours before every performance and resumes immediately after each show. The shuttle runs a loop every 20 minutes.
For more information and tickets, visit calshakes.org.