New Swan production of “The Comedy of Errrorrs” at the New Swan Shakespeare Festival.
The spectacular New Swan Theater borders Aldrich Park between UC Irvine Libraries’ Gateway Study Center and Langson Library. Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

At the edge of Aldrich Park sits a colorful, circular structure that this summer will become a locus for Shakespeare enthusiasts.

Built in 2012, the New Swan Theater fulfilled the drama department’s dream of building an outdoor venue for William Shakespeare’s plays and an Anteater company. Perennially sold out, it will commence its 11th live season next month, with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays from July 9 to Aug. 31.

Each year, the New Swan Shakespeare Festival presents one comedy and one drama. For 2024, the offerings are “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” directed by Eli Simon; and “Measure for Measure,” directed by Beth Lopes. A single ensemble of students, alumni and guest artists appears in each.

UC Irvine’s festival is the only one of its kind in the University of California system, with productions showing that Shakespeare’s works remain relevant through their use of period and contemporary settings.

The New Swan Theater itself is a portable, mini-Elizabethan playhouse modeled after the Globe Theatre in London. The open-air structure weighs 15 tons and provides tiered seating for 135 people. Its idyllic location at the edge of Aldrich Park makes it the centerpiece of the festival, and its intimacy helps forge a bond between the cast and the audience.

Actress Annelise Hermsen, who graduated from UC Irvine in 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in drama, is returning this summer for her third year. She’s played featured roles in New Swan’s productions of “As You Like It,” “Julius Caesar,” “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” and “The Comedy of Errrorrs.”

“What makes this theater so special is how intimate it is,” Hermsen says. “When we’re onstage talking about the sky or the stars or a storm, we look up and see it, and so does everyone in the audience. We feel so connected because we’re all seeing the same sky and feeling the same energy – the setting is like another player.”

The New Swan Shakespeare Festival is partnered with the New Swan Shakespeare Center, a specialized research program supported by UC Irvine’s Office of Research. It’s co-directed by Simon, Chancellor’s Professor of drama and founding artistic director of the festival, and Julia Lupton, Distinguished Professor of English.

The center offers ongoing educational and outreach events such as Educators Day, when teachers learn effective strategies for teaching Shakespeare; First Folio Friday, when experts explain the importance of Shakespeare’s First Folio; and the UC Shakespeare Trial, where Shakespearean characters are tried by famous lawyers and the audience acts as the jury.​​

The goal of the festival and center is to celebrate the works of Shakespeare and share the brilliance of the Bard with the community.

“We aim to bring Shakespeare’s stories to life in a way that’s meaningful to folks of all walks of life,” Simon says. “While it’s been 400 years since these plays were written, their themes are still incredibly relevant, and they can touch people’s souls.”