At the end of summer comes UC Irvine’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Zoom’
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night; four nights will quickly dream away the time — for four nights, UC Irvine’s New Swan Shakespeare Theater will draw its audience into the bard’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” albeit unconventionally.
Where there isn’t a stage, there is Zoom; the production pivots from traditional theater in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed the theater down in March as state officials discouraged public gatherings to decrease the spread of the virus that has now taken more than 12,000 lives in California alone as of Wednesday.
The theater has held the New Swan Shakespeare Festival every summer since 2012, but had to cancel this year.
“We were all just sort of in shock in the spring as we had to cancel the festival and so much else was changing in all of our lives,” said Julia Lupton, a professor of English. “We just assumed that we wouldn’t have any kind of festival and then, as June came, I think we just felt this need to have our actors work together to be back in some kind of shared creative and collaborative space together."
“Also, [we wanted] to create something for the campus. Nothing is happening this summer on campus, or very little. Yet, the Swan has been part of the campus rhythm for eight years,” Lupton said.
“Even if they never attend a performance, it creates this excitement and a sense of time and place,” Lupton said. “We just really couldn’t imagine a summer without New Swan.”
Rehearsals began on Aug. 13 and 10 of its cast members were a part of the 2018 cast for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” produced by Eli Simon, a chancellor’s professor of drama and artistic director of the New Swan Shakespeare Festival. Four new actors from the 2020 company were cast as part of this year’s production.
“A lot of the actors that we’re working with were in that production and knew their lines and knew [Simon’s] vision. So, we could really focus in the two weeks of rehearsal on how to adjust and how to transform that vision,” Lupton said.
The play, called “A Midsummer Night’s Zoom,” draws upon Shakespeare’s classic while deviating from traditional casting and expanding its narrative to include LGBTQ characters. The role of Lysander was altered to be Lysandra, who remains in love with Hermia. The production makes use of Zoom as a platform and actors would call in from their homes. Zoom windows serve as staging.
Virtual backgrounds would be applied through the platform and an app called Snap Camera would alter the way that actors would appear on-screen. Initially, the team had thought to use Skype.
“There isn’t any way to gather a group of 14 actors in a space right now and rehearse safely and they need to be in proximity with one another so we can create that illusion on Zoom, whereas we actually can’t create it live,” Simon said. He added that actors could have recorded themselves individually, but that it would not work because actors needed to share a space — even if it was an online one.
The show is split into two parts. The first half plays on Wednesday and Friday. The second half plays on Thursday and Saturday. All parts begin playing on the theater’s YouTube at 6 p.m.
A live chat and “talk-back” sessions with audiences will accompany each show. The session will be moderated by Lupton.
Once the run of the production is completed, the complete show will be edited and made available for viewing.
“We really felt that this would be a rough time to produce a tragedy or a history play where generally speaking a lot of people die. We’re dealing with a lot of death right now in America and a lot of sadness,” Simon said. “Personally, I wanted to offer an uplifting production. So, when you look to Shakespeare’s canon, you will likely choose a comedy if you want that kind of uplift.”
“This is probably Shakespeare’s most popular comedy and we found that our audiences loved it in 2018. We put our own spin on it and we thought it would be an appropriate piece to bring back and revive in this form,” Simon said.
Lupton said that she felt the play had a “social media feel to it,” particularly in the way that the four lovers — Lysandra, Demetrius, Hermia and Helena — become confused about their desires and how their attachments are influenced by invisible forces like the Internet.
“When I teach the play, students often really respond to it as really relevant to their own lives in terms of rumor, paranoia, misinformation, fake news and catfishing — all of that, so I feel like it translates to the Zoom screen actually very nicely,” Lupton said.
“We’re all trapped right now online in these little boxes. Zoom in this production represents what was Athens, which is a place in which ... their love is prescribed by the ruling class,” Simon said. “They find release, they find love, they find their meaning in the forest when they escape Zoom.”
“There are ways in which this play really is well suited for a Zoom production in ways that maybe other Shakespeare plays would be more of a stretch,” he added.
Lupton said that she felt the play was suited to summer and was beloved by families, young people and Shakespeare lovers.
“It’s like a familiar friend for many of us and we hope for a lot of people it’ll be an exciting first Shakespeare, first introduction to the wit and the sex and the humor and the magic and the zaniness of this wonderful comedy,” Lupton said.
If YOU GO
What: “A Midsummer Night’s Zoom”
Where: On the New Swan Shakespeare Theater’s YouTube page at youtube.com/channel/UCxj0RiW6AT_D_awNp3EtukA
When: Part 1 on Wednesday, Friday, 6 p.m., and Part 2 on Thursday, Saturday, 6 p.m.
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