The pop-up New Swan Theater is modeled after Elizabethan stages where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.
The pop-up New Swan Theater is modeled after Elizabethan stages where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. Steve Zylius / UCI

The New Swan Shakespeare Festival’s midsummer night’s dream is returning to UCI for its 11th season.

From July to September every year, UCI students and professional actor alumni bring a selection of William Shakespeare’s plays to packed audiences on a portable Elizabethan stage located at Gateway Commons overlooking Aldrich Park. The open-air theater-in-the-round is a miniature version of centuries-old venues where Shakespeare first presented his works, including the Globe, on the banks of the Thames in London, and the Swan Theatre, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

‘The greatest plays ever penned’

This summer’s featured plays, five nights a week, are the cheerful comedy “As You Like It” and “Julius Caesar,” a drama about a notoriously lethal political rivalry. There’s also “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised) (redone),” described as a “madcap farce” in which three actors attempt to perform parts of all 37 Shakespeare works in just 97 minutes.

“These are the among the greatest plays ever penned, and they have withstood the test of time,” says Eli Simon, Chancellor’s Professor of drama and founding artistic director of the festival. “Shakespeare was incredibly insightful about the human condition – what motivated people to take action and the myriad factors that shaped their personalities. These kinds of insights are as relevant today as they were 400 years ago, when Shakespeare penned them.”

At the same time, audiences’ attention spans have shortened over the centuries, which is why Simon’s team condenses Shakespeare’s plays, without changing the words, so that none runs more than two hours. “We take out what’s repetitious or obvious or not understandable to get to the essence of the story,” he says.

An intimate setting under the stars

The New Swan Theater is composed of 15 modular steel and wooden units assembled anew each year in just a few days. Its spiraled seating platforms accommodate 135 people, all of whom enjoy unobstructed views of the stage and none of whom are more than 15 feet away from the actors.

“It’s such an intimate setting; it makes it fun and interactive,” says Shavonne Grandison, a graduate student in drama who’s playing Rosalind in “As You Like It” and two minor roles in “Julius Caesar.”

“In rehearsals, we’ve been working on directing some of our lines to audience members as if we’re talking directly to them,” she says.

In addition to the festival, which runs from July 15 to Sept. 9, UCI’s New Swan Shakespeare Center conducts such activities as research, seminars and reading groups throughout the year.

As the Bard of Avon wrote: “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”