By examining the human condition through the ubiquitous themes of forbidden love, heartbreak, social conventions and parental approval, to name a few, the relevance and appeal of Shakespeare plays are timeless.
But are they ready for Zoom?
Two UCI faculty members believe they are. Through a creative collaboration, Eli Simon, Chancellor’s Professor of drama and artistic director of the New Swan Shakespeare Festival, and Julia Lupton, professor of English, are reimagining and re-envisioning one of the Bard’s most enduring and beloved works, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for live streaming and community interaction.
In the virtual world of “A Midsummer Night’s Zoom,” rather than traveling to the forest from Athens, the characters are Zooming in from various places. Upon arrival, and released from their online personas, they are transformed by woodland magic in fast and furious ways – fairies sprout wings, Bottom’s head becomes that of a donkey, and lovers are entranced. Traditional casting and themes have been expanded. African American actors are featured in leading roles and positions of power, and an unwavering look is taken at LGBTQ rights.
“We chose ‘Midsummer’ because we wanted to offer the campus and community a magical Shakespearean masterpiece during these stressful times,” Simon says. “In essence, we have changed many of our beloved ways of living because of restrictions that have been put in place to preserve our wellbeing. In much the same way, the lovers in ‘Midsummer’ have been told how they must behave and whom they are permitted to love. The restraints and isolations the characters suffer, represented in Zoom, reflect the feelings that we’ve all experienced being trapped by this pandemic. Once the characters find their way to the forest, they are released from the need to distance, and as our heroes find the freedom inherent in nature, they mature, express feelings and find the love they need and deserve.”
Directed by Simon, this year’s production features New Swan actors from the 2018 cast as well as new talent from the 2020 company. By assembling a team familiar with the play and with each other, Simon was able to focus on creating a compelling virtual experience. The actors will log in from all over the country. Editing will be done live so that their windows are moved around onscreen in much the same way as if they were on stage, with the Snap Camera app being used to alter their appearances.
“We’re making the most of the technology that’s available to us, and it’s a lot of fun,” Simon says. “If you’ve ever watched theater events online where performers are just sitting there speaking lines into the camera, rest assured, this will be nothing like that.”
Another nod to the electronic format is breaking up the five-act play into two one-hour performances over consecutive nights, followed by “talk-back” sessions featuring comments from guest scholars. Lupton will moderate and field audience questions. This arrangement, they believe, will make for a more enjoyable in-home experience for families as well as for those who may never have seen a Shakespeare play.
“We’re excited to experiment with this new way of creating live theater during the pandemic,” Lupton says. “At its heart, theater brings people together, and that’s what we’ve missed the most this summer – human contact in a shared space to share a great story.”
“Since we can’t gather in person, we’re gathering online, where we’re all safe and sound. If this works and if our audiences want more, we’ll create additional online Shakespearean events in the months to come,” Simon says.
Watch the performances here.