Steinbeck Festival in Salinas is All About the Women

"I think you can look at a writer with different lenses and suddenly suddenly It opens up into something that is so intriguing and relevant to today’s world," says Susan Shillinglaw, director of the National Steinbeck Center. (Photo: Courtesy of the National Steinbeck Center)

The annual Steinbeck Festival this weekend focuses on “The Women Of Steinbeck's World.”

This focus goes well beyond the characters in John Steinbeck’s books -- like Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath or Juana in The Pearl -- to include real life women who influenced him, like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, photographer Dorothea Lange and the environmentalist Rachel Carson. Why Carson?

"Because Steinbeck said the book that he most wished that he’d written was Silent Spring," says Susan Shillinglaw, who directs the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas when she’s not teaching English at San Jose State.

Shillinglaw says she wouldn’t call Steinbeck a feminist, but, "He so admired strong, resolute women. He married three of them. He was very close to his sisters and his family. And fished with women, had women as companions, et cetera," she says.

John Steinbeck c. 1930
John Steinbeck c. 1930 (Photo: Courtesy of Sonya Noskowiak)

There will be lectures throughout the weekend, ranging from Shillinglaw's own on Steinbeck’s sisters, to UC Berkeley visiting scholar Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez talking about female fieldworkers and strike organizers.

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There are also local tours of Steinbeck landmarks, a home brew fest (he was said to love a good party) and a taco lunch.

But the highlight of the weekend happens Saturday night, with the West Coast premiere of an off-Broadway musical based on Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men.

New York arts journalist Ira Bilowit had Steinbeck’s blessing and suggestions, even though Bilowit's musical diverges fairly dramatically from the book by giving Curly’s wife -- she never had a name in the book -- more time on stage and a more sympathetic treatment.

Of Mice and Men debuted off-Broadway in 1958, but it closed after just six weeks. An unfortunately timed newspaper strike drastically reduced the amount of press the work might have received otherwise, and it died a quiet death. The musical wouldn’t be performed again until 2007, when it got a reading at York Theatre Company.

The cast of the original 1958 off-Broadway production of "Of Mice and Men" included Art Lund, Jo Sullivan, and Leo Penn (father of actor Sean Penn). The few reviews it did receive were very good, but it wasn’t enough to build up an audience when a newspaper strike hit New York City soon after the musical opened. The show closed after just six weeks.
The cast of the original 1958 off-Broadway production of "Of Mice and Men" included Art Lund, Jo Sullivan, and Leo Penn (father of actor Sean Penn). The few reviews it did receive were very good, but it wasn’t enough to build up an audience when a newspaper strike hit New York City soon after the musical opened. The show closed after just six weeks. (Photo: Courtesy of Western Stage)

When Bilowit died in 2016, his notes, drawings and photos of the production went to the National Steinbeck Center, and Western Stage got permission from the Steinbeck estate to do the staged reading of the work.

His stepdaughter and heir Waverly Scott Kaffaga is expected to attend, and if she likes it, the Stage just might get permission to stage a full production -- the first in 60 years -- four blocks from the house Steinbeck grew up in.

The 2018 Steinbeck Festival runs from May 4-6. For more information, click here.

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