UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts – with leadership from drama professor and chair Eli Simon – will present the inaugural season of “Shakespeare Under the Stars” this summer. The festival will feature contemporary versions of “The Comedy of Errors” and “The Merchant of Venice” staged in the New Swan, an open-air, mini-Elizabethan theater to be situated in Gateway Commons near Aldrich Park.
The uniquely designed venue has two-tier seating for 125 people, providing an intimate setting guaranteed to please Bard lovers. Funds from the CTSA’s production budget, private donations and a generous contribution from Microsemi Corp. enabled construction. The park locale offers opportunities for preshow entertainment and picnics. Theatergoers may bring their own food or buy dinner from an on-site vendor.
Simon recently discussed his vision for “Shakespeare Under the Stars.”
Q. How long has this been on your wish list for the campus?
A. We’ve wanted to start a summer Shakespeare festival at UCI for more than two decades. That said, we didn’t want to house it in one of our indoor theaters. We knew it belonged under the stars, as close to Aldrich Park as possible. We also wanted an intimate theater; every seat at the New Swan is close to the action. This connection between performers and watchers creates an atmosphere of palpable excitement.
Q. How will the festival benefit the community? Do you expect it to become a yearly tradition?
A. We believe the impact on the campus and community will be profoundly positive. Shakespeare’s theater served the people – not the cultural elite. We wish to share our plays with the widest cross section of the community possible. We’ll be reaching out to staff, faculty and students at UCI as well as to adults and children throughout Orange County. Shakespeare festivals around the country are beloved gathering places for people with a passion for great literature, powerful productions and exciting performances. Interestingly, most of these festivals – Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Illinois, to name just a few – were launched at universities with strong drama programs. Our department is one of the top 10 in the nation, so a festival in Irvine is truly warranted. And yes, we plan to make this an annual summer event.
Q. The productions will be contemporary versions of Shakespeare plays? No Elizabethan costumes?
A. This summer’s performances are not set in Elizabethan times, and we trust that our audiences will embrace our artistic visions. “The Comedy of Errors” is set in the Wild West – a perfect locale for a fun-loving and free-spirited romp. “The Merchant of Venice” takes place in prefascist Italy, just as Mussolini is rising to power. This mid-1930s setting emphasizes the inescapable anti-Semitism of the world. We believe that these productions will be evocative, intelligent and relevant for modern audiences of all ages.
Q. How did you choose which plays to do?
A. First, I looked at what I thought our audiences would like to see. “Merchant” is the most watched play in Shakespeare’s canon. It’s true: There are more productions of “Merchant” than, for example, “Romeo and Juliet” or “King Lear.” “The Comedy of Errors” is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. This is a strong pair of shows for an inaugural season. We’re also testing “festival casting,” wherein most of our actors will be featured in both plays. This makes it interesting for our audience to see the plays side by side and witness the actors’ transformations. Our actors are very excited to get started with rehearsals. This year, our company of actors, directors, designers and stage managers are either current graduate or undergraduate students, department alumni or faculty. We feature Richard Brestoff, professor of acting, in the role of Shylock. We staged “Merchant” in January, and Richard was scintillating in the role.
Q. How can people support the new theater/festival?
A. It’s an exciting time for folks to join the New Swan family. To begin, come to the shows! On Aug. 10, we’re hosting a New Swan party with Swan artists. [Tickets to this event are $125.] Donors can name seats [one for $300, two for $500]. For $1,000, you can be an honorary producer of either play. We’re also looking for anyone who wants to underwrite professional actors by helping us with their funding and/or housing. And we’d be happy to rename the theater itself. Our doors are wide open to those who want to get on board at the ground floor, and we’ve already received considerable support from members of the academic and professional communities. Rehearsals are open, we’re offering pre- and postshow discussions of both plays, and we’ll be having many exciting celebratory events with New Swan artists and patrons. All systems are go, and we look forward to welcoming our audiences at the New Swan Shakespeare Festival in August!
“The Comedy of Errors” will be presented Aug. 9, 10, 11, 23, 25 and 26; “The Merchant of Venice” takes the stage Aug. 16, 17, 18, 19, 22 and 24. All performances begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $9 for seniors, children, students and groups of 10 or more. They’re available through at the Arts Box Office, online or by calling 949-824-2787.