From required high school readings to Emma Stone singing “Pocketful of Sunshine,” the scarlet letter “A” lurks in the minds of many as a symbol of shame, sin and adultery. With over 170 years since Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” was published, it’s intriguing to imagine what controversial shape a modern scarlet letter “A” might take.
Written and directed by UC Berkeley student Joanna Castillo, “The Scarlet Letter” adapts the original novel into a story focused on reproductive rights. Running Nov. 10, 12 and 13 at Durham Studio Theater, the play invites audiences into an imaginative past to consider how one woman’s abortion might have ignited a path toward reproductive rights in the present.
“I decided to do this before the overturn of Roe v. Wade,” Castillo revealed in an interview with The Daily Californian, reflecting on writing her play adaptation. “I may have even decided to do this before there was a leak. It was very ironic. (The overturn) drove me to keep writing and really put in everything I had to show how the issues of reproductive rights and women’s rights have been going on since the 1600s, which is when the book takes place.”
“The Scarlet Letter” is the first mainstage production by UC Berkeley student club ANTI (Artistic Nerds 4 Theatre Inclusivity). As one of ANTI’s Vice Presidents of Production Management, Castillo is aligned with the goal of bringing together students, regardless of their major and experience, to enable creativity.
“Our mission is to create performance opportunities for students, by students,” Castillo explained. “As much as I love being a part of TDPS, there are very limited opportunities for us to be involved. Whether it’s on stage, backstage, designing or whatever it is, we want to create opportunities for people that aren’t necessarily given the spotlight to make art.”
Once the production and acting roles for “The Scarlet Letter” were filled, a collective interpretation of Castillo’s script surfaced. Welcoming the nuances that each team member offered, Castillo nurtured a synergetic environment where everybody could feel comfortable expressing their creative voice.
“I wanted it to be as collaborative as possible,” Castillo mused. “I made sure the cast knew that any suggestion they had, any modification to the script or the blocking, were welcome. As a director, I have veto power, but I really wanted to have communication and make it our show as opposed to just something that I wrote.”
Castillo understands that embracing change is a necessary part of creative collaboration. She cut parts of the script to fit the size of the cast, saying goodbye to minor characters. This helped her grow as a first-time director, acknowledging the adaptive nature of constructing art in order to navigate sudden setbacks.
“Through the rehearsal process, it has been very, very crazy in terms of casting,” Castillo said. “There were a lot of people that unfortunately had to drop the show for whatever reason. It taught me how to be crafty in making do with the people that you have.”
Craftiness and flexibility came in handy for Castillo and “The Scarlet Letter” team while working with a small budget. The burden of financial constraint was transformed into an opportunity to highlight the innovative talents of each student involved, on stage and backstage.
“Our costume designer Lee Garber-Patel has been able to make really great costume design decisions with such a limited budget — it’s amazing,” Castillo expressed. “And the lighting designer, Bryce van der Klomp, has been super helpful in terms of giving his honest opinion about how the lighting will affect the rest of the show.”
With just days away from opening night, audience members will soon be able to see what students are capable of when they’re given the space to collectively embody their inner artists. Along with artistic inclusivity, Castillo hopes that by foregrounding reproductive rights against the 1850 novel’s existing themes of bodily autonomy and gender dynamics, outlooks will expand.
“In Berkeley, specifically, a lot of people agree with each other,” Castillo recognized. “There are a lot of liberal people here, so it’s not necessarily the demographic that would benefit the most. But it’s good for everyone to consider different perspectives and think of things that have already existed in a different light.”
Whether audience members have read “The Scarlet Letter” or were unknowingly touched by its influence in a pop culture reference, Castillo is bringing long-standing issues to the stage, and she isn’t afraid to challenge anyone’s beliefs. Now, with Castillo and her team of artists in their places, it’s up to the play to speak for itself and spark a dialogue of its own.
“Theater, movies, all of that — it shouldn’t be for people that you agree with,” Castillo remarked. “It should be for people that don’t agree with you, something that can change their minds.”