Late-night runs. Openly experimental rehearsal periods. Testing their limits and working outside the disciplines where they’re most comfortable. Piling projects upon projects.
That’s how Becca Wolff and Jacob Padron behaved when they were running the Yale Cabaret a few seasons ago as students at the Yale School of Drama. And that’s how they still operate.
Despite working in different cities—Padron is the Associate Producer of the famed Steppenwolf company in Chicago (where he is in charge of the company’s Garage space) and Wolff is the Artistic Director of the IAMA Theatre Company in Los Angeles, where she also works with the Rubicon Group—the erstwhile classmates have formed a new theater company, Tilted Field, involving a number of other recent Yale alums. Tilted Field Productions has a workshop up in L.A. right now, three other shows is development, and countless others in the works.
The Yale Cabaret is now over 40 years old, with regular periods of change, growth, new traditions and strongly-felt influences. For the last few years the Cabaret (which changes its artistic and managerial leadership every school year) has exhibited a particularly strong interest in new works, new presentational formats and new methods of developing and rehearsing shows. A lot of that can be traced back to Becca Wolff and Jacob Padron’s year at the helm. Padron, who was Managing Director to Wolff’s Artistic Director, remembers it well. “Something happened midyear—we knew we were encountering something very special. We knew we wanted to be committed to new work, and we decided we also wanted to encourage students to work outside their discipline.” At Wolff and Padron’s Cabaret, acting students became directors, directors could be designers, designers could act. “It was an exciting and very special season,” Padron says. “One night, sitting on the floor at the Cabaret, we said ‘Let’s continue this’”
That was the unofficial start of what is now Tilted Field Productions. “It was a slow burn,” the story continues. Padron graduated from Yale in 2007, Wolff a year later. He went off to work for three years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, while she finished school (her senior thesis was a production of Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers), did some shows in New York, then headed back to her California homeland.
The pair continued to talk about their goals, and in 2010 finally established Tilted Field. “We wanted to always point back to the Cabaret, and use the same collaborators. It’s an ensemble based company. What we decided,” Wolff says, was that the most important thing was to find ways to continue working with these people we’d developed a real relationship with. It’s a testament to where we come from, whether the [Drama] school or the Cabaret.”
Tilted Field now has four projects in active development, in several different cities. Furthest along is The Last Days of Mary Stuart. A workshop production of the “Romantic epic” royal rock opera began in mid-February at the Son of Semele space on Beverly Blvd. in L.A. The three-weekend workshop has three final performances this weekend: Friday and Saturday at 11 p.m. and Sunday at 8 p.m.
The script is original, with dialogue and lyrics by Wolff and music by Byron Kahr and John Nixon, whose band TONY plays live alongside the three-person cast of Charlotta Mohlin (as Mary), Meagan Prahl (Elizabeth) and Alex Knox, the Yale alum who created the mime-like show EYE, as Paulet. But The Last Days of Mary Stuart was inspired by a play by the same controversial 18th century playwright/philosopher/provocateur who’d penned The Robbers, Friedrich Schiller.
“There’s something Jacobean-tragedy about it,” Wolff says of the Schiller play. “The arguments are very beautifully worded. Great onstage conflicts.
“Over the years, this was a project developed on the back burner. Then I met a band, and thought of it as a rock musical.” Co-composer Kahr was actually at Yale Law School while Wolff was attending the School of Drama, while drummer Nixon, Wolff says, “as a kid, was a musical theater fiend.”
Grand foundations on which to build a new work. “The band did the score,” Wolff says, “I would bring in the lyrics, and they would tailor them to be more of a rock song. We originally tried to set a scene from the Schiller play, but it was not fun to sing. So we took the central theme from the scene and built a chorus around it. It’s down to ‘inspired by’ about the Schiller. It’s gone pretty far from that text at this point.
One of Wolff’s key projects at the Yale Cabaret also happened to be a musical—Bicycling for Ladies, a historical piece set in New Haven which examined some freedom and dangers which grew out of turn-of-the-century urban industrialization. The show, which featured a radical female Elm City bicyclist, was also given a staged reading atop New Haven’s East Rock during a city biking festival. Wolff’s collaborator on Bicycling for Ladies, playwright Dorothy Fortenberry, is providing dramaturgical help on Tilted Field projects. Another Yale School of Drama grad, Michael Locher, designed the set for Mary Stuart.
The workshop will be recorded, which certainly helps when other Tilted Field company members are living several states away. “Becca sent me mp3s of the songs as they were being done,” says Jacob Padron. “That was my entry into this work. I’m very focused on the marketing part of it.”
Other Tilted Field projects currently in development include a modern California-based adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, titled Species Native to California; The Orange Project, set designer Locher’s “visual adaptation of a novel by a celebrated Mexican author”; and Baby Loves Robot by Terea Avia Lim, who graduated in 2009 from the Yale School of Drama acting program (having blown a few minds as The Caretaker’s Wife in Ghost Sonata, Wang in Man = Man and Agave in The Bacchae).
The long-distance relationships at the core of Tilted Field don’t faze Wolff and Padron. “We want to become a national company, with a national presence. We’re L.A.-based, but the ensemble’s just spread out all over. We’re dedicated to the slow burn, committed to our structure.”
Considering that they’re modeling their company on one of the longest-running, versatile and consistently experimental small theaters in America, the Yale Cabaret, that commitment’s worthwhile.
Long may they tilt.