The summer after her freshman year at UCI, Anita Abdinezhad volunteered as an usher at the campus’s celebrated New Swan Shakespeare Festival. Every evening for weeks, the drama and public health sciences major helped hundreds of attendees into the festival’s iconic open-air, mini-Elizabethan theater at Gateway Plaza. She remembers standing at the stage entrance, transfixed by the nightly performances under the stars.
“The theater itself was so breathtaking and special,” she says. “Being in the audience, I felt like the performers were telling stories directly to me. I wanted to be the one telling those stories one day.”
Abdinezhad graduated from UCI in June, and this summer she’ll be one of 14 actors to appear in “The Tempest” and “The Taming of the Shrew” as the New Swan festival returns for its sixth season, which runs from July 6 to Sept. 2.
Each year, artistic director and UCI Chancellor’s Professor of drama Eli Simon selects two plays – one comedy and one tragedy – to be performed by the same cast on alternating nights. This summer’s festival features dynamic interpretations of two of the Bard’s most ambitious works.
“Where in past years our shows have had a clear delineation between comedy and tragedy, both of this year’s shows are pretty genreless,” says associate artistic director Beth Lopes. “Each has very comedic elements and very serious elements, so it’s an interesting lineup.”
New Swan performances are usually set in more modern times, as Simon prefers “periods that illuminate the stories and themes and make them accessible to a wide range of audiences.” “The Taming of the Shrew,” directed by Lopes, unfolds in the mid-1980s, a time of “wretched excess,” she says, that enhances the love story between the lead characters.
“In our adaptation, Kate and Petruchio were teenagers during the punk revolution in the late 1970s, and they’re now living in a period defined by materialism and greed,” says Lopes, who earned an M.F.A. in theater directing at UCI. “The setting serves as a manifestation of their anger at being outsiders. They’re Sid and Nancy living in a ‘Miami Vice’ world.”
Simon directs “The Tempest,” which takes place, he says, “in the golden age of pirates, because that was a period of colonialism and conquest, large ships and still-to-be-discovered islands.” He adds, “We think our audiences will revel in these settings and, through them, gain access to the life of the plays.”
This year’s cast is composed almost entirely of current UCI students and alumni. Some are newcomers to the festival, such as Abdinezhad, who will star as Miranda in “Tempest” and Biondello in “Taming.” Others are veterans of the distinctive New Swan stage.
Thomas Varga graduated from UCI in June with an M.F.A. in acting and is appearing in the festival for the second time, this season as Caliban in “Tempest” and Hortensio in “Taming.” He has been in numerous Shakespeare productions but says the New Swan venue is unique.
“The stage is such a great teacher. It’s so intimate and set up in the way Shakespeare is meant to be performed, so it feels authentic and honest,” Varga says. “At the same time, it’s open-air, so the space is boundless; you really have to inhabit it. You can’t experience Shakespeare quite the same anywhere else.”
Current M.F.A. acting candidate Anica Garcia-DeGraff is making her New Swan debut as Spirit in “Tempest” and Curtis in “Taming.” She has only acted in Shakespeare works twice before and says that rehearsing for the New Swan productions has taught her “how to be bold and brave in performing.”
“This is a new world for me to play in, and it’s a blast,” Garcia-DeGraff says. “New Swan has been a journey already with getting to know myself and how I work.”
In addition to nightly shows, the festival has partnered with the UCI Shakespeare Center to bring a variety of free informational events to the public. Shakespeare Weekend, Aug. 12 and 13, will feature UCI faculty, distinguished visiting scholars and New Swan actors in immersive discussions before both plays. First Folio Fridays, on Aug. 11 and 25, allow participants to view and handle Langson Library’s rare first folio of Shakespeare’s plays. In “Shakespeare’s Fool,” on Aug. 21, Jason Feddy and his band put modern melodies to some of the Bard’s songs and speeches. And during Community Conversations, immediately after each Friday performance, audience members can ask the actors, director and artistic director questions about the theatrical process.
According to Simon, these interdisciplinary activities are designed to both enrich scholars’ understanding of Shakespeare and make his works more relatable for novices.
“The most notable discovery I have made over the past six years with New Swan is that everyone – actors, designers, directors and audiences – is bound together by their love of experiencing Shakespeare under the stars,” he says. “We are forging ties to the community, creating relationships with folks that might not otherwise visit our campus, and helping make the arts accessible to the public in a new and dynamic way.”
Lopes adds: “We’ve been blown away by how welcoming the community is of New Swan. It’s been very moving how much the community has rallied around this spectacle. There’s something so magical about seeing Shakespeare outdoors on a warm summer night.”
New Swan tickets can be purchased online. UCI students who arrive before showtime will, if any seats are available, get free admission, courtesy of Illuminations, the chancellor’s arts and culture initiative.