Disbelief: A Cassandra Tale is the first in-person performance in two years

Three cast members at a rehearsal of Disbelief which opens at the Laney College Theater on April 13 (source: Michael Torres)

April 7, 2022

By David Rowe, Associate Editor 

The Laney Theater Arts Program is emerging from the pandemic and will perform an in-person production of Disbelief: A Cassandra Tale by local playwright Garrett Jon Groenveld on April 13, 14, and 15 at 7pm. There is a $15 suggested donation and masks are required. 

Promotional poster for Disbelief designed by one of Torres’ students (source Michael Torres)

Professor Michael Torres, Chair of the Theater Arts Department, will be directing the play, which combines Greek mythology with challenges faced by women in modern society.  

Disbelief debuted in 2020 in a Zoom performance by the Playground, a San Francisco community theater group. Torres portrayed the Greek god Apollo and thought it would be a good play for his students to work on. According to Greek mythology, Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy. When she refused to sleep with him, Apollo issued a curse so no one would believe her prophecies.

Groenveld, in a 2020 interview with Playground, explained he was inspired by the 2016 Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton and was struck by “parallels between Mrs. Clinton and Cassandra – a woman who told the truth who, even when she was proven to be true, was not believed.” Groenveld was also inspired by the #MeToo movement, which he incorporated into the play. 

Torres, in a Zoom interview with The Citizen, describes the play as a “retelling of the myth” and points out that “when you examine the original mythology, it’s really the beginning of rape culture” which then persisted for the next 2,000 years. Torres cautions that Disbelief is “intended for mature audiences” and “contains references to sexual assault and violence.”

Michael Torres (front), Chair of the Laney Theater Arts Department, will also be directing his students in Disbelief (Source: Michael Torres)

Torres points out that eight of the 27 scenes in the play were shot on video. This enabled his students to develop their acting skills both in front of a camera and on stage where “they have to be bigger, broader, and use more gestures,” he observed. 

Posters created by Torres’ students promote the play as “a Fusion Theater Project.”  Torres explains that the “fusion” name was suggested by his wife, Jackie Graves, an English professor at Laney, to describe the collaboration between their two departments. Since then, Torres has established “cross pollination” relationships with a number of other Laney departments, including photography, media, music, cosmetology, and even culinary arts. He also has made professional theater companies throughout the East Bay aware of the talent at Laney. 

Actor being photographed in front of a green screen for the upcoming production of Disbelief (Source: Michael Torres)

Torres proudly points out that four students working on Disbelief have already been hired for summer positions by local theater companies. The actress portraying Hecuba (Cassandra’s mother), for example, was selected to play Cordelia in an upcoming adaptation of King Lear. Two other students landed positions with Cal Shakes as a props manager and carpenter. The fourth student will be working as a costume assistant with the Aurora Theater Company in Berkeley. 

Torres points out that these students earn up to $20 per hour for these positions. Therefore, in addition to gaining valuable professional experience, “the money they make will be more than what they paid to take classes at Laney.”

The Laney Theater Arts Department also continues to offer the Toni K Weingarten Youth in Theatre Scholarship to San Francisco State every year. “That’s a complete two year free ride,” Torres explains. “They pay nothing. They don’t even pay for transportation or food.” The scholarship provides “educational expenses for a transfer student from Laney College to complete their Junior and Senior Year” in the State College Theater and Arts department. Torres will present the scholarships award that’s up to $25,000 to two Theater Arts students at the end of this semester. 

Once the Disbelief performances are completed, Torres is ready to jump into his next project.  He has been cast in The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin at the San Francisco Playhouse on Union Square, which opens on May 4 and runs through June 18.