Hamlet had a good attorney.

The charge was first-degree murder in the death of Polonius, so it behooved the prince to get L. Song Richardson on his side. She’s dean of the UCI School of Law, and her trial experience includes defending people against charges of everything from petty theft to aggravated triple murder.

The prosecutor was no slouch either. Richardson went up against the law school’s founding dean (now dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Law), Erwin Chemerinsky, who has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I don’t know how I got into this,” Richardson said in early spring as the April 11 trial date loomed, “but I’m looking forward to it. I have to keep my defense strategy top secret; I don’t want to give Erwin any extra advantage. Prosecutors already have all the advantages, you know.”

Julia Reinhard Lupton, UCI professor of English, may have a clearer idea how this all came about. She and colleagues from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts drafted the cast of “The Hamlet Trial,” one of about 100 projects funded this year by UCI Illuminations: The Chancellor’s Arts & Culture Initiative, which Lupton directs.

“The best lawyers use drama skills in court all the time, to tell a story in their own voice that the jury can understand,” Lupton says. “We were very fortunate to have two stars on board.”

Playing to a sold-out crowd of 750 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, the dramatized trial fulfilled Illuminations’ goals of interdisciplinary undergraduate education, community involvement and good entertainment.

The schools of humanities, arts and law collaborated on the production. U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford oversaw the proceedings, and audience members – many of them from the public at large – constituted the jury. Actors from UCI’s drama department performed soliloquies from “Hamlet” while votes were tallied.

And the verdict? “That it should come to this!” Hamlet was found not guilty.

‘Being True to Myself’

Now in its fourth year, Illuminations exposes Anteaters to aspects of the arts they might not otherwise have an opportunity to appreciate. Concerts, art exhibits, author lectures and theatrical shows held on campus are free to all undergraduates. Most of these are organized by professors and funded by Illuminations grants of up to $3,000. In this academic year alone, the initiative has served more than 9,000 ticket holders.

“It’s been so fun being able to bring together the students with the faculty and their research and the community,” Lupton says. “The campus events highlight the creativity and original art being created here at UCI.”

Bianca Nicole Petrescu, a senior majoring in psychology & social behavior, attended one such art exhibit, “Neuralscapes,” that she admits confused her at first. But then she had an insight.

“There were a bunch of watercolor paintings that resembled biological diagrams of neurological components of the human body,” Petrescu says. “The more I analyzed each piece, the more I realized that the artists’ motive was to turn science into art. In reality, our biological makeup is just nature’s art. The exhibit definitely had the potential to relate to people at UCI, since a majority are science majors.”

That’s part of what Chancellor Howard Gillman envisioned for Illuminations. “Making the arts a deeper and more pervasive part of the student experience reinforces the sheer joy of creation and discovery that is at the heart of all academic inquiry and expression,” he says. “We are highlighting the fundamental contributions made by the creative arts to our understanding of the world and our place in it, and that enables our students to grow in ways unavailable to them in any single field of study.”

The Illuminations Authors Series, another cornerstone of the initiative, has featured Emily St. John Mandel, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Colson Whitehead and Alice Sebold, among others.

“Many of the authors that we’ve had on campus have written books that are used in the UCI curriculum,” Lupton says. “When students are able to hear from the authors directly, it makes the experience of reading deeper and more meaningful.”

Joan Hyun-A Park, a senior majoring in psychology & social behavior, was most impressed by novelist Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give.

“Her opening speech and the inspiration for the novel were so emotionally driven and influential for today’s generation,” Park says. “Being true to myself is something I struggle with, but Thomas’ message taught me I should never be afraid to be who I am.”

Students also travel to premier local venues such as Segerstrom Center for the Arts and South Coast Repertory that are among Illuminations’ community partners.

Lily Li, a graduate student researcher in developmental & cell biology, found “Cambodian Rock Band” at the repertory “unexpectedly moving and eye-opening.”

“It made me think more about my relationship with my parents and introduced me to some really cool music and important history,” she says. “Illuminations makes it possible for me to see and experience so many things outside the sometimes narrow context of school.”

“Exactly!” Lupton says. “These venues and opportunities were always here, but students didn’t feel like they belonged to them. Now we open doors for them, and they can feel the arts at their fingertips, which enhances their lives.”

In some cases, it becomes their lives. Victoria Zepeda, a fourth-year drama major, immersed herself in the arts this year when she stepped up to direct the Brown Bag Theater Co.’s spring production, “Ni de Aquí, Ni de Allá” (“Neither Here, Nor There”).

The drama group, which gives voice to Latinx themes and actors, wrote an original script from interviews with UCI first-generation and “Dreamer” students and staged the play with Illuminations funding, says drama professor Lonnie Alcaraz, the theater company’s adviser.

“Nobody was coming forward to direct,” he recalls, “so Victoria decided she’d give it a try. And she has become a real force to be reckoned with.”

Zepeda laughs at the description but admits the job was demanding. She worked with drama student script writers Marco Antonio Miranda and Amilcar Jauregui, auditioned and directed actors, and collaborated with set designers. Finding and mining the student stories was also a challenge.

“In this political environment, students hesitated to come forward,” Zepeda says. “But what I’ve learned through all this is that we all have beautiful, valid stories.  Outreach through UCI’s Dreamers Resource Center and Cross-Cultural Center eventually yielded compelling tales that Zepeda hopes help create understanding.

“I want people to be able to see through a lot of the twisting that goes on in politics and the media. What many people see is not who we are as individuals. We may come from different countries or areas, but we can still relate with compassion.”

Zepeda and her undergraduate colleagues benefitted from graduate student mentors in staging the play. Kelly Musgrove, an M.F.A. candidate in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ stage management emphasis, did stints in the military and the corporate world before discovering her love of theater. She got involved with Brown Bag, she says, and “basically refused to leave.”

“This is great learning for undergrads, and it’s not all about the fun side of drama,” she says. “We work with numbers and facts in grant writing and learn to be better speakers, better managers and diplomats and how to talk to people with all different personalities. And we couldn’t do this without the funding we get from Illuminations.”

“Illuminations makes it possible for me to see and experience so many things outside the sometimes narrow context of school.”

Culinary Traditions

The Illuminations initiative seeks to open hearts and minds through the arts in other ways as well.

The Illuminations Student Rush program, which buys open seats for students just before showtime, provides chances to attend the New Swan Shakespeare Festival plays produced each summer at UCI. This year, the season will run from July 5 through Sept. 1 and feature “The Winter’s Tale” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The very popular Conversation Kitchen events, in which participants gather in the teaching kitchen at the Anteater Recreation Center and learn about food and cultural traditions in conflict zones around the world, will continue, with funding from Illuminations.

And after the successful staging of “The Hamlet Trial,” the smart money is on another Shakespearean courtroom showdown next year.

Says Lupton, “there’s a host of other nefarious characters waiting in the docket: Iago, Shylock, Lady Macbeth. … I can’t wait to see who’s up next.”

Originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of UCI Magazine.