UCI's drama department to present 'Shakespeare Under the Stars'

UC Irvine's drama department will soon realize a 40-year-old dream, when its inaugural season of "Shakespeare Under the Stars" opens next month at an open-air theater, which production staff and technical theater students built by hand.

The festival will feature contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" and "The Merchant of Venice" presented in the New Swan Theatre, a mini-Elizabethan theater in the round that can be dismantled and moved.

Drama professor and department chair Eli Simon, is leading the effort on behalf of UCI's Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

"Most top drama programs in the country have a summer Shakespeare festival or a professional theater that is part and parcel of their operation," Simon said in an interview. "The drama department at UC Irvine is one of the top 10 drama programs in the country. We just haven't had that."

"The idea of the festival is that it would serve as a training program by providing opportunities for professional alumni and students that are coming in to become professional."

This year, the department received funding for the first festival from The Focused Research Program in Medieval Studies and UCI.

"It looked to me, as chair of the department, that it was going to be now or never," Simon said. "We certainly had to jump a lot of hurdles and dive through a lot of hoops, but it looked like this was the year."

Finding the ideal venue for the festival was one of the most arduous tasks.

"We could have started a Shakespeare festival in any one of our indoor theaters," Simon said. "We didn't want to do that. We really wanted to create a special space for Shakespeare under the stars."

So, last fall, the UCI production staff set out to build the New Swan Theatre, the centerpiece of the festival, by hand. The project's material costs amounted to about $35,000 and the building supplies were mostly recycled materials.

Claire Trevor School of the Arts' production budget, private donations, and donations fromMicrosemi Corp.funded the eco-friendly construction.

After 10 weeks of welding the structure together, the team was left with 14 puzzle-like sections, each weighing a ton. According to Simon, it will only take a couple days to move the theater to Gateway Commons and bolt it together.

"There really is no bad seat in the theater, because it's so small," Simon said of the two-tier, 125 seat venue. "Every seat is close to the action. It creates a kind of intimacy between the actors and the audience that you can't experience anywhere else. Every seat is a good seat. I can guarantee that."

The festival will open with "The Comedy of Errors," set in the Wild West. Then, a remount of the January 2012 production of "The Merchant of Venice," will transport audiences back to 1935 pre-Fascist Italy.

The cast and production team are comprised of undergraduate and graduate students, department alumni, and faculty members — like acting professor Richard Brestoff, who will reprise his role of Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice."

The festivals first season will test "festival casting" — where actors playing roles do both shows.

"For the audience, if they come see both plays, they can kind of track how the actors transform from one role to another," Simon said.

The cast will hold open rehearsals during the month of July — "The Comedy of Errors" in the afternoon and "The Merchant of Venice" in the evening.

"We have a completely open door policy with this festival, so anybody that wants to watch rehearsals can contact the drama department or just drop by," Simon said. "We really want to make this a festival that encourages interest in theater, Shakespeare, and the arts. And, the best way to do that is to just open the doors."

The park environment offers opportunities for pre-show entertainment and picnics. Theatre goers are encouraged to bring their own food, or buy dinner from one of the on-site vendors.

On select nights, there will be talk backs with directors and actors and the university's Shakespearean scholars will serve as dramaturges for the festival, leading pre show and post show discussions.

"They're informative, or course. But generally, the pre show discussions will allow people to focus on what to listen for, what the theme might be, how certain scenes might interconnect, and what the directorial approach was," Simon said. "And the post show discussions will be an opportunity for the audience to ask questions, chat about what they saw, or for people to share their impressions."

To support the festival, members of the community can purchase $125 special event show seats, become honorary producers for $1,000 or name a seat in the theater for $300, or two for $500.

"If all goes well and there are clear indications of support, we will produce "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in season two and continue year after year," Simon said.

If You Go

What: "Shakespeare Under the Stars"

When: "The Comedy of Errors" will play at 8 p.m. Aug. 9 (sold out)*, 10*, 11, 23, 25, 26; "The Merchant of Venice" will play at 8 p.m. Aug. 16*, 17, 18, 19, 22, 24

Where: Gateway Commons near Aldrich Park, Irvine

Cost: $15 for adults, $9 for seniors, students, children, and groups of 10 or more

*$125 per seat

Tickets: Call (949) 824-2787.

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