Thursday, February 6, 2014

Spinning Into Butter: The Director

Photo: Rotary Club of Eureka
Cassandra Hesseltine is directing at HSU for the first time since she was a student here. “I grew up in Orange County and fell in love with science and the environment. I only applied to HSU. I loved theatre, too, and I had great teachers in high school, but I didn’t think I could make a living at it.” She laughed.

 After graduating in psychology with a theatre minor, she applied theatre as therapy in working with at-risk teenagers in Eureka. Her career has been in theatre and film ever since, in southern California and the Bay Area as well as in Humboldt. She is currently Film Commissioner for Humboldt-Del Norte.

 The topic of racial attitudes at the center of Spinning Into Butter is a major reason she decided to direct it. “I look white but I’m half Mexican,” she said. “That’s not why I was offered this play—I don’t think anyone knew. But being half Mexican has given me certain experiences while being half white has given me others. I’ve drawn on both for this play. If I had the view of just one or the other I don’t think I would have taken this on.”

 “For me, growing up in Orange County and looking white but being half Mexican, there’s a lot of little things that ring true for me in this play, like hearing things that people don’t realize are prejudice. I’d hear a white friend say, ‘oh, those dirty Mexicans,’ and I’d say ‘what about me?’ ‘Oh, I don’t mean you—you’re not one of them.’ It’s those things that people don’t realize are just as hurtful.”

 She also recalls an experience from the other perspective. When she was a producer for a film company in the Bay Area, she was in the back seat of a car driven by the owner of the company. Beside him was his wife, also a producer. They are both black. A police officer pulled them over for making an illegal left turn. Her boss “started emptying his pockets while his wife cried, because he’d never been stopped and not been arrested. But then the officer saw me in the back seat and let us go.”

 “I had these experiences in L.A. and Orange County, San Francisco and Oakland, and now I seem to be this white woman in Humboldt directing this play. But I bring all that to the table.”

“The play treats racism in a more current way. I’ve been calling it 'micro-prejudices' as opposed to the macro, the traditional racism that we think of from the 50s and 60s. I read an article about this that supports the idea that racism and prejudices are still with us but in a different way. They’re not as blatant but they are forms of prejudice, without maybe even realizing it. This play does shine a light on that—more on an upper class white culture where there are still issues with 'minorities' which are no longer a minority. It’s a snapshot of that, and suggests that we’ve switched to a different way of how we’re functioning with each other.”

 In some ways however the subject was not as daunting as the play itself. “It’s about a sensitive subject, and one that might be hard for us to take in. It’s not a love story or a murder mystery, or anything else than audiences are used to. Plus all the action is in one room. The challenge is to bring it all alive, because the subject deserves it, the students who are working so hard on it deserve it, and the audience deserves it.”

 “So we’ve been working on ways that the actors tell the story with their movements as well as the words. What’s been great is that the actors have been warm and receptive to my concerns and my attempts to pull them all into the same reality in the same place. They all have their own tool bags and ways to do things, but they are allowing me to get us all to talk the same language.”

 In working on the play they found variety in the characters themselves. “There’s definitely all facets of people represented in these seven characters. All except one are white, but there are age differences, and you can see how each generation is dealing with this new reality. There are socio-economic differences, and you can see how they affect the characters’ beliefs and how they got them. They are complex individuals and so are their relationships.”

 “Everyone is taking this very seriously and respectfully,” she adds. Perhaps with the help of her psychology background, she has also been sensitive to what the actors may face as a result of the attitudes of their characters. There are no overt racial slurs but there are lines that “are hard to hear” and therefore hard to say.

She anticipated problems that might arise and discussed them with the student actors. They've talked about the emotional impact of facing an audience while saying particular lines, and the possibility that some people won't completely separate the actors from the characters they played, once they're back in their normal student lives.

 In the end the play is meant to inspire honest discussion. “We’re not here to point fingers at anyone. Our job is to present the play well, so that people really watch it, and maybe self-reflect. They might look at things in a way they might not have looked at them before.”

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