When the pandemic hit a year ago, SF Shakes pivoted rapidly to online platforms for the safety of audiences, artists, and staff. Not only did Free Shakespeare in the Park become a trailblazing live virtual experience, but education programs also shifted to the virtual sphere. Our initial pivot is chronicled in this blog; you can read about our mainstage transition to YouTube and about how our Saturday program for teens switched to Zoom mid-course in response to public health mandates.
One year later, SF Shakes continues to offer Zoom-based performance programs for kids and teens … and we’ve decided to retain them even as the case numbers of Covid in the Bay Area are beginning to dip and something resembling normalcy is visible on the horizon. The Atlantic reports that cautious public health experts “generally agreed that at some point between June and September, the combination of widespread vaccinations and warmer weather would likely make many activities much safer, including having friends and family over indoors, taking public transit, being in a workplace, dining inside restaurants, and traveling domestically” (The Most Likely Timeline for a Return to Normal, Feb 22, 2021).
In the here and now, however, parents across the country– and especially in California where schools have been slow to reopen– worry over the effects that prolonged Zoom school may have on their children’s development. An October report by the Pew Research Center identifies five areas of concern for parents of children learning via Zoom:
Even as normalcy shines visible in the distance and many parents pine for their kids’ return to in-person school, SF Shakes will continue to develop cutting-edge online programs that build on the successes we’ve enjoyed since March last year. We talked to veteran teaching artist Amy Lizardo to discuss her experiences teaching virtually for SF Shakes. In the course of this conversation, Amy addresses the concerns many parents have about increased screen time. One takeaway from this chat to note is that virtual Shakespeare education at SF Shakes may resemble Zoom school, but it is NOT Zoom school. In fact, it may be just the thing for your kid.
Meet Amy Lizardo
Any parent wondering if a virtual Shakespeare program is right for their child should hear Amy discuss student engagement, socialization, body movement, and screen time. In the course of this interview, you’ll learn that while a virtual Shakespeare program entails more structured Zoom time for kids, the nature of the work and play undoes some of the negative aspects associated with Zoom schooling.
At this point in the pandemic it’s really easy to adopt a negative attitude towards Zoom since it mediates the thing most of us miss the most, direct human contact. At the same time, however, for many theatre companies like SF Shakes, Zoom has become an essential stage and teaching tool. Indeed, SF Shakes is currently offering a webinar to other theatre makers around the globe on the elements of making virtual theatre with Zoom at the center of the curriculum. Engagement techniques developed by SF Shakes over the past year turns Zoom into an innovative tool for communication. Teaching Artists at SF Shakes have been developing and assigning performance-based exercises that take advantage of its unique features. In this segment, Amy talks about some of the ways she has adapted to teaching performance on Zoom.
As a theatre company that believes in the power of live performance to build community, SF Shakes eagerly looks forward to the day we can gather in person to watch a show shoulder to shoulder, to take to the stage to kiss, fight, and save the day. But until that time, we will continue to provide public art and performance instruction in the safest way possible. For now that means a socially-distanced Shakespeare.
Amy Lizardo is an actor, singer, and teacher. She is also an acting company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has worked with Bay-Area theaters like Marin Shakespeare Theatre, California Shakespeare Theatre, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Amy teaches in all SF Shakes education programs including after-school enrichment programs and Bay Area Shakespeare Camps.
It is very easy to forget that a boy actor played Juliet on Shakespeare’s stage in large part because the modern film history of Romeo and Juliet has been relentlessly heterosexual. Moreover, these film versions are often instrumental in the teaching of this popular tragedy in middle and high school. Gen Xers may recall the abundance of cod pieces and flashes of nudity in Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet– a scandal in English class! Zefferelli’s 1968 work set the tone for the rest of the century by thoroughly eroticizing the young couple. Zefferelli’s film dominated Shakespeare class until …
Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes does little to acknowledge the queerness of the Elizabethan stage despite Harold Perrineau’s flamboyant Mercutio, one of the high points of this film. Perrineau’s drag-inspired Queen Mab speech only serves to cordon off the young lovers in a safe straight space, free from the wild queerness and blackness of Mercutio who (spoiler alert) must die.
Even John Madden’s delightful realization of Stoppard and Norman’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) shies away from the question of queerness. While this fictional biopic does an excellent job of showing the practice of employing boys to represent women on the Renaissance stage, the film’s quest for “true love” demands that the boy actor who plays Juliet cede his role to Gwyneth Paltrow so that she and Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare/Romeo can perform heteronormative true love for the audience at the Rose Theatre. Judy Dench’s Queen Elizabeth declares the love on stage to be true, thereby reinforcing the notion that the best boy for the role of Juliet is a woman.
“Judy Dench’s Queen Elizabeth declares the love on stage to be true, thereby reinforcing the notion that the best boy for the role of Juliet is a woman.”
Raise your hand if you had to watch one of those films in middle or high school, or even college. You’re forgiven, then, if you forget that there was a boy actor beneath the character of Juliet because the modern cinematic performance history of this play is, by and large, straight (and white– let’s not get started on Natalie Wood as Maria in Westside Story (1961) or Claire Danes’ ambiguous Latinx identity in Romeo + Juliet).
While there exists many ways in which live stage productions have challenged and continue to challenge the dominant heteronormative through line of Romeo and Juliet in popular culture, there are few ways to bring the important artistic work of those productions into the classroom, especially when it’s so much easier for an English teacher to pop in a DVD of Romeo + Juliet, for example.
Meet the Director and Artists of Takes on Shakes: Romeo and Juliet
Enter: Takes on Shakes, a brand new on-demand video teaching tool that challenges the assumptions we inherit from mass market media and received wisdom. Each episode of the program consists of an interactive video designed for a diverse array of students and a written curriculum for teachers. The program is well suited for distance learning since it can be deployed in a virtual classroom as easily as in an in-person one. Read more about Takes on Shakes here. One of the goals of the program is to make Shakespeare more inclusive by wrestling with Shakespeare and his legacy. Available now, the first installment of Takes on Shakes offers three “takes” on the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet using diverse artists and settings for each iteration– that is, three different Juliets, three different Romeos, and three different settings.
“What’s it like to look at the play with trans people, with queer people, with no expectations of what the gender of the character is supposed to be, and ask, does the play hold up?”
Takes on Shakes:Romeo and Juliet is directed by Bay-Area gender queer drag artist, Chris Steele. Director Steele approaches the balcony scene with a kind of giddy freedom by asking, “What’s it like to look at the play with trans people, with queer people, with no expectations of what the gender of the character is supposed to be, and ask, does the play hold up?” In Steele’s’ directorial vision, the answer is yes. Steele carefully crafted takes of the balcony scene that challenge heteronormative assumptions about the work and to let students know that queer identity has always been a part of the arts and of Shakespeare. Crucial for the students who may experience this episode of Takes on Shakes is Steele’s belief that the young people at the center of Romeo and Juliet are not the problem; the problem is the world around them. Watch an interview with Steele below to learn more about their vision for an inclusive Romeo and Juliet.
“…young people at the center of Romeo and Juliet are not the problem; the problem is the world around them.”
Take One: Renaissance Contexts
After an introductory scene of a somewhat exaggerated staging of what you may typically expect the balcony scene to look like, Director Steele casts Ron Chapman as Romeo and Charlie Lavaroni as Juliet. In casting Charlie as Juliet, Steele aligns this take with the historical practice of casting boys as women on Shakespeare’s stage.
Take Two: Women in Men’s Clothing
Take Two draws inspiration from the nineteenth century, a time when famous female actors took to the stage to play male roles from Shakespeare in what feels like both a reflection and a reversal of the historical practices of Shakespeare’s stage. This take features Bidalia Albanese as Romeo and Carolina Morones as Juliet.
Take 3: Modern Contexts
In Take Three, the balcony is replaced by the smartphone, which mediates a nighttime encounter at a distance. Romeo is played by non-binary artist Akaina Ghosh, who also happens to be the director of the next episode of Takes on Shakes exploring A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And Juliet is played by Danielle Ferrer.
Joshua Waterstone plays a baseline version of Romeo … and the Nurse.
Visit the Takes on Shakes page of our website to learn more about this program. Episode 2: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is already available. We are working hard to cover school curriculum favorites. If you would like to request a play for the next episode, please leave a comment.
SF Shakes Office HQ is located in the Bayview Neighborhood of San Francisco. We’re shining a light on our independent neighborhood eateries during the San Francisco run of Free Shakespeare at Home: King Lear. If you live in the City, please consider supporting these small businesses so they can be around long after this pandemic is over. Thank you!
Ever since we announced that SF Shakes would move forward with a virtual production of King Lear, there have been quite a few questions about how exactly a live-streamed, virtual production would work. Well, today, your resident nerdy literary interns will endeavor to explain as best we can, starting with a creative dramatization of the process.
A Day In the Life of a Virtual Theater Actor
You tap your fingers against your leg, gauging if your camera is in the same place or if the dog had knocked it askew during the night. You can’t tell, which means you have to dig out your measuring tape again. At this point, you should really just stop putting it away. The large greenscreen on its tripod stands is pushed back against the wall and softboxes and umbrella lights fill the rest of the tiny room. You have managed to place everything with just enough room to make a dramatic exit to the left before you have to crouch down out of view and crawl back to the other side for your next entrance. One familiar thing is the scattering of blue tape on the floor marking your positions, though the additional tape on the walls to mark sightlines is a new experience.
Measurements all once again to specifications, you open your laptop. Mentally running through your tech checklist, you open Zoom, adjusting your audio and camera settings. Soon your screen fills with boxes full of greenscreens and familiar faces, a smile stretches across your face. Time to work.
Reciting your line, you stare at the empty wall in front of you, adjusting your body movements to hopefully keep them all in the camera angle. “How’s my sightline?”
“Look a bit higher and a smidgen downstage,” Elizabeth, the director, explains. You move slowly. “Perfect.”
Another piece of painter’s tape is added to your wall. Smoothing the tape you feel the hollowness of the empty room around you. You miss the energy of the actors you work with. Regardless, it doesn’t squash your excitement and anticipation of creating something special–even with a pandemic affecting the country. This is something new and exciting, a challenge you are determine to rise up and face.
Your scene is done, and you are curious to see how the blocking for the next one will go. You aren’t in the next scene at all, so you don’t have to worry about your camera being in the composite layer, so you sink down in front of your computer to watch. Lear, the Fool, and Kent appear on scree; Neal, the Technical Director, layers each of their camera images together. The scene starts and the three actors act all alone in their separate spaces. Technology provides the illusion that they are together, each movement perfectly placed to mimic touch and interaction. It is immensely reassuring to watch and see the scene come to life, to see the illusion being created.
Soon it will all come together, Neal, will create the composite of images, taking the individual camera feeds and layering them together, incorporating backgrounds over the greenscreens and sending them out to be streamed live to YouTube for all the world to see. Together with ingenuity and tech, they would create a 100% remote performance of King Lear. Your parents have never been able to travel to witness one of your performances before and now they would get the chance to watch you from the comfort of their living rooms. You grin with excitement for the challenges and long hours of tedious adjustments to come. Your camera has to be perfectly placed, your audio correct, your lighting just right, your movements perfectly timed; it’s a lot to keep track of. This is going to be fun.
This is a new medium that brings with it many new challenges, but we are nevertheless excited to share this experience with you! Here is a brief explanation of the process of how we bring our actors from their individual locations to be streamed live to you in your homes.
It starts with all thirteen of our actors at home in front of their green screen setups which look something like the diagram below (though several of our actors have to adjust this according to their individual environments).
Before hopping on Zoom for rehearsal, they each also have to check their camera, green screen, and lighting and positioned exactly in their specified places (accurate to ½”) in their space. Nearly a dozen video and audio software settings need to be set, and all external light needs to be blocked out (as do children and pets!)
Next, we head to Zoom, where a sea of green screens awaits. Here, the actors turn on their cameras in a specific order. This ensures that the image of each actor is in the same location every time.
Since none of our actors are in the same space (some are cities away from each other), their interactions are quite different. A large chunk of rehearsal time is dedicated to creating accurate sightlines so it seems as though everyone is looking at their scene partners and making eye-contact while, in reality, everyone is acting in their individual space. This new medium has resulted in the actors having to be highly adaptive, learning to perform a complex dance with their partners in another space, and rely on sound cues for timing. Some scenes, like fights, have music with heavy rhythms to help keep time.
From Zoom, Neal, our Technical Director, uses software to capture the images of each actor (this is why the order is so important) before using a compositing technology to crop and layer the images, creating a virtual space with layers and an illusion of a unified, 3-D space.
To do so, we use specialized broadcasting software that allows us to take the combined images of our actors and stream it live on YouTube for you, our lovely audience!
We know that this can be a lot to take in, especially because it is so far and away from what we know as live theatre. So, as I’m sure many of you would like to know, what exactly does this mean for the SF Shakes you know and love?
Well, the most obvious is that due to the pandemic we can no longer participate in some of those awesome Free Shakes traditions; no picnics with friends, no outdoor stage, and setting (though you can get creative and make your own!), and (of course) no actual park. However, never fear! Our engagement team is working hard to try and bring a sense of normalcy and togetherness, through this new virtual medium. We can all still be a community that enjoys theater and talks about Shakespeare, even when so many of us are so far apart.
In addition, there’s a new disconnect between the actors and the audience. Normally, the performance feeds off of audience engagement (laughs, gasps of shock, etc.). In this new (virtual) space, however, our actors don’t have this interaction, which could affect the overall energy of the show. More than ever we will need active participation from our audience—you can engage in the live chat showing SF Shakes your support and love. We have the chance to create a great virtual community during our live performances!
We also have the rare opportunity to explore technology in ways we have never before been able to. We want to be clear, Lear will still be performed and streamed live, but because we are virtual, we can do some pretty interesting things. For one, we can change “camera views”. This means we can have multiple different composites of different groups of actors, creating the illusion of a different camera angle. This allows specific characters to be the main focus with other actors being off screening. We can easily shift camera to show those actors for their reactions and lines, a bit like you see in movies. This helps with overcrowding in our virtual space. We can also change scenery with a click of a button to a wide range of virtual backgrounds.
Suffice to say we are all in a new space with new rules and we are excited to explore it and share what we have created with you!
Upon her retirement, King Lear decides to divide the kingdom among her daughters so that she might “unburdened crawl towards death.” Lear makes her daughters earn their inheritance by performing declarations of flattery. Cunning Goneril and Regan play along, win their portions, and are married off to the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall respectively. However, Cordelia, the youngest and most beloved daughter, refuses to speak such false flattery. This enrages Lear resulting in Cordelia’s marriage to the King of France, disinherited and banished from the country. In a moment of bravery, the Earl of Kent, Lear’s trusted and faithful advisor, condemns Lear’s rash decisions and is exiled for his trouble, but returns to court disguised as Caius, a servant loyal to Lear.
Lear declares she will retain her rank in name only and will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, maintaining a retinue of only 100 men; but Lear’s retirement does not go as planned as Goneril and Regan begin to exert power over her in humiliating ways. This forces Lear to comprehend her diminished state of power and respect. Lear’s court Fool berates her for her foolishness.
“Sharper than a serpent’s tooth”
In a closely related subplot, more conflict arises from the question of inheritance. The Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund resents his illegitimate status and plots to gain his father’s fortune by framing his virtuous older brother Edgar. Edmund falsifies a letter from his brother, detailing Edgar’s wishes to usurp their father. Faking an attack from Edgar, Edmund forces his older brother into hiding. Gloucester falls for the ploy and proclaims his legitimate son an outlaw and grants his inheritance to cunning Edmund.
At Gloucester’s home, Kent disguised as Caius is placed in the stocks by Regan and Cornwall for a quarrel with Goneril’s servant, Oswald. Upon her arrival at the estate, Lear flies into a rage at this appalling treatment of her servant. Lear expects Regan to side with her against Goneril, but Regan is just as disdainful of her mother’s behavior. Both daughters declare they will not allow Lear to retain more than twenty-five men. Cursing her daughters, Lear rushes out into the storm accompanied by faithful Kent and her wise but mocking Fool. Gloucester denounces the treatment of the King by Goneril and Regan and goes out in search of her to inform her of Cordelia’s imminent arrival with an invading army from France intended to restore Lear’s position.
The play reaches its highpoint in the midst of the storm as Lear suffers a complete breakdown. Having lost all her power and familial relationships, she begins to comprehend her own failures and experience some of her first moments of empathy.
Edmund betrays his father, revealing Gloucester’s knowledge of an impending invasion to reinstate Lear. Gloucester is declared a traitor and has his eyes gouged out. A servant reacts to such gruesome torture and attacks Cornwall, giving her a mortal wound. Regan informs Gloucester that he trusted in the wrong son and was betrayed by Edmund. Edgar, who in exile has donned the disguise of Tom o’ Bedlam, eventually finds his blinded father wandering outside. Gloucester begs Tom to lead him to a nearby cliff so he can end his life. Tom simulates leading his father to the cliff, and then, pretending to be someone new, swears his father has miraculously survived the fall.
Albany becomes aware of the family’s ever-increasing corruption and he and Goneril fight. Regan, newly widowed, and Goneril, finding her husband cowardly, both set their lustful sights on the bastard Edmund.
Still recovering from her emotional breakdown in the storm, Lear finds herself in the care of Cordelia, newly arrived from France. Lear begins to regain her senses and begs for forgiveness. The reunion is short-lived as Cordelia and Lear are quickly taken prisoner by the sisters’ armies. Edmund orders the King and Cordelia killed.
Goneril’s pursuit of Edmund is divulged and Albany charges them both with treason. Regan, who has also declared her intent to marry Edmund, falls ill and is escorted off stage. Edmund demands a trial by combat and fights a disguised Edgar. Edgar deals Edmund a fatal wound before removing his disguise. He reveals the fate of their father who died from joy and grief upon learning of Edgar’s true identity. Regan’s illness and subsequent death is reported to be the result of her sister poisoning her, and Goneril commits suicide. Just before death, Edmund reveals his execution orders for Cordelia and Lear. His warning comes too late, and Lear stumbles on stage carrying the corpse of Cordelia. Lear, overwhelmed by all that has happened and filled with grief, dies. Kent, determined to follow Lear even to the grave, declines the request to lead the country, leaving Edgar alone to offer hope.
We still preform Shakespeare’s plays becasue they contiunue to offer incredibnly insight into human behavior. This has allowed artists and directors to adapt his plays to meet their historical needs. Indeed, since it was first written King Lear has undergone numerous adaptations each unique, special and impactful in their own ways while still retaining the heart of Shakespeare. And yet, rarely do these adaptations take the form of casting a woman in the titular role. This summer, SF Shakes is adressing our unique historical moment by casting Jessica Powell as King Lear—not Queen Lear. The question is how will a female Lear address the play’s concerns of age, power, and familial relationships from a female perspective?
Interview by Arin Roberson, SF Shakes Literary Intern, 2020. Arin recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in English and a Minor in Celtic Studies. She loves nothing more than reading anything she can get her hands on, and playing outdoors with her Australian Shepherd, Tilly.
SF Shakes: What made you feel ready to take on King Lear?
Jessica Powell: Nothing makes me feel ready to take on King Lear. I don’t know if anybody ever feels ready to take on King Lear. It’s just a massive, gorgeous, role and the character changes so much over the course of the play. Part of me also says it is time. I don’t know how much more time I have on this earth or when the roles run out. So yes, there is this kind of surge of energy in saying yes, now. Do this now.
SF Shakes: What are the things you feel you bring to this role as a woman that a male Lear does not possess?
Jessica: Well the stakes are so much higher for both Lear as a woman and for Jessica. Everything is heightened—the emotion, the challenges, the expectations. I think having achieved power and keeping it are more challenging for a woman. Then there is the relationship with the daughters, who after all did come out of her body. Lear says “but yet thou art my flesh.” It’s a whole different thing for a man to say that versus a woman saying that. When she says, but you are my child, how…you are my own flesh, you came out of my own body, I carried you for nine months and I am cursing you, I hope you never have a child or if you do that you experience what I am experiencing from you right now it’s just so much stronger.
I was thinking also [laughs] about the whole interruption from Kent in the beginning. He tries to stop Lear from doing what she’s doing and how angrily she blows up at him. The phrase that came to me today was “Do not mansplain!” It’s bad enough this man calls me “thou,” which you know, to use that pronoun is disrespectful, but that he tried to do it to a woman is like that’s just…you don’t do that.
SF Shakes: Has your history as an actor prepared you for this role?
Jessica: No. [laughs] No, no. I played Goneril a long time ago. And that gave me quite a lot of insight into the whole Lear world, the whole Lear family.
SF Shakes: Do you think having played Goneril adds some new illumination to Lear?
Jessica: Oh yes! Because fortunately in the production that I did, Goneril had good reason to be just totally fed up with Lear. The King and the soldiers were jerks. So, it was really pretty easy to say, “Not only sir, this your all-licensed fool, but other of your insolent retinue, Do hourly carp and quarrel; breaking forth In rank and not-to-be-endured riots. Sir” [sighs heavily in frustration and then breaks character and laughs] It’s just this whole I can’t bear it. But then, of course, you have to deal with the moment where she says oh absolutely, take his eyes out. You go woah, woah, because she definitely gets far harder and more evil as the play goes on, and you have to deal with that. I remember standing next to my pastor at the time and saying, “What makes a person do that.” And we simultaneously said, “abuse.” So that was kind of an interesting insight. Now clearly that’s not going to be the case here, but there is emotional abuse; it doesn’t just have to be sexual abuse, it can be physical, it can be emotional and I do think that Lear does not know her daughters and has not been a good parent. You could look at the relationship with her daughters. She really has no concept of their character and experiences. And how could she? How could she have a concept of who they are and still be surprised when Cordelia says no, I can’t say what you expect me to say.
SF Shakes: You’ve touched I think upon this already, but what are some of the challenges of playing Lear?
Jessica: Well just physically. Physically, vocally, and mentally trying to memorize the lines. Sometimes it’s easy; it seems like when you have the extended speeches that sort of makes sense, but in the small parts where it’s like in the trial scene where just small exchanges, [laughs] You know it’s all these little kind of repetitive things that are hard. Emotionally of course it’s really challenging because on the one hand, you’ve got Lear saying [with authority] “Call my people together get the horses ready.” [whispered] “I’m going mad. I’m going mad” There’s that, well where does the madness start? How does it progress? You don’t want to peak too early. So that’s a challenge and yet you have this scene right in the beginning where she’s furious with Cordelia and then Kent. So, there is that in finding not just the emotional progression of the character, but what exactly is going on in her mind as she’s saying these different things. How much does she reveal and to whom?
SF Shakes: Do you find Lear to be a character who redeems herself?
Jessica: There certainly is redemption at the end of Lear, where there is this forgiveness. Lear asks for forgiveness and Cordelia forgives Lear. There’s the acknowledgment of suffering and the apology. Some people think that in the last scene Lear is still very selfish when she goes off to prison with Cordelia and says oh now I’ve got you all to myself. I don’t know if that’s an interpretation that I want to play with. I do think there is definitely growth in the acknowledgment when she wakes up in Cordelia’s camp and she says “I am a very foolish, fond, old woman”; I don’t really know how I got here, I think I know you, I’m not sure. I am just really broken. Strangely enough, I do think this play ends on a hopeful note. Things have been resolved, the bad guys are gone, and a lot of people are dead, but most of them are the bad people. And Lear, depending on the interpretation you want to give, Lear dies in hope that Cordelia actually is still alive, and I love that line where she says, thinking that she sees a breath, “if it’s true it makes every fault, every sin, every bad thing in my life, it redeems it.” It’s like the end of Pericles. At the end, Pericles is a broken man in rags, won’t cut his hair, won’t speak, won’t eat, thinks that not only his wife but his daughter are dead. And then it turns out that his daughter is actually there on the ship and she’s speaking with him. And little by little he gets to understand who she is and he keeps saying tell me more, stop, stop, tell me more, stop, stop because the joy is so overwhelming that it is unbearable. And maybe something like that happens to Lear at the end “Oh look, look.” And then she dies. Not everybody interprets it that way, but I think she dies in hope.
SF Shakes: Do you have any personal thoughts on how you interpret Lear’s character?
Jessica: I have been thinking about the concept of nature and natural. Those words are used so much. And I think the very concept of it is challenged and then changes so that Lear has a changing definition of what is natural. I mean at the beginning I think Lear thinks well, it’s natural that I am king and therefore can command and you should all obey me and I get to have a hundred people following me around and then she starts to see different things. She sees Tom and thinks, no this is actually the natural person and I’ve got too much on. She wonders what makes her daughters so evil. About Regan, she says, “Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?” I think Lear has a different idea from the beginning to the end of what is natural.
SF Shakes: Are there any particular actors or interpretations of Lear that you find inspiring?
Jessica: I saw just a little snippet of a Lear from the Stratford Festival. I don’t think the entire thing is available, but it looked really enticing. I think what struck me in just the little bit that I saw was how far you can go, how invested you can be in each phrase. The wonderful Patsy Rodenburg, in Speaking Shakespeare, says, “Shakespeare characters speak to survive.” So there’s nothing wasted– everything you say, you’ve got to find what’s behind it. And I was really moved by Harriet Walter as Prospero in an all-women Tempest that takes place in a prison. The investment that she put into that character is really inspiring.
SF Shakes: Do you have a favorite line and why?
Jessica: [laughs] Oh there’s so many, so many. These days I love “Get thee glass eyes and, like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.” Or I love the line “O, I have ta’en too little care of this” and especially this past week which has just been so bruising. You know I think for any white person the responsibility, the privilege that we did not earn, that has to weigh on us. And so there’s all that. Those really are two of my favorite lines, that and “A dog’s obeyed in office,” because it’s just so [laughs] correct right now.
Jessica Powell is a Bay Area actor, most recently seen as Momo in The Humans for TheStage (San Jose). She played Helicanus, The Bawd, et al. in SF Shakes’ Pericles (2008). Other roles include Volumnia (Coriolanus), Georgia O’Keeffe (A Conversation with GeorgiaO’Keeffe); Sister Aloysius (Doubt), and Elizabeth I (Mary Stuart), all for Pacific Rep.; Claire (Uncanny Valley), Polly (Other Desert Cities), Hannah, et al. (Angels in America), Aunt Eller(Oklahoma!), Mrs. Roswell (Ice Glen), Kate (All My Sons), Countess of Roussillon (All’s Well That End’s Well), Aemilia (A Comedy of Errors), Mame (Mame), Lee Green (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife), The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz – twice!), Mrs. Higgins (My Fair Lady), Joanne (Company) Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Margrethe (Copenhagen), and Ethel Thayer (On Golden Pond). Jessica co-founded Symmetry Theatre Company and has been an Actors’ Equity member since 1989.
In the prologue to Henry V, the chorus invokes a “muse of fire” by asking the audience to use their “imaginary forces” to see kings, armies, horses, and the battlefields of France, all within the bounds of Shakespeare’s wooden O, the Globe Theatre.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confined two mighty monarchies, Whose high uprearèd and abutting fronts The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder. Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts. Into a thousand parts divide one man, And make imaginary puissance. Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth, For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times, Turning th’ accomplishment of many years Into an hourglass…
One wonders what the Bard would have thought of cramming those armies, horses and all, not onto a simple wooden stage, but into a small virtual box on Zoom. Three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, some theatre companies, closed for a twenty-first-century plague, are asking audiences to reimagine the in-person nature of theatre itself. A new type of theatrical production is emerging – in the digital realm.
When shelter-in-place orders abruptly hobbled the performing arts sector, leading to almost universal cancellations and closures, SF Shakes’ staff immediately began to wonder what the 38-year-old tradition of Free Shakespeare in the Park might have to look like. The mission of the company is all about access and community; the performances are free and presented in familiar local parks. Families and pets are welcome, everyone brings their own blankets, chairs, and picnics, and the relaxed environment encourages community members to share a collective experience. The most important thing, we felt, was to continue to pursue the mission above all– to bring people together to watch a compelling and relevant story, especially in a time when humanity is already having a collective, once-in-a-lifetime experience. If it couldn’t be in person, it would need to be done in the way everything was being done: with livestreaming technology. Distance-bridging technologies such as Zoom and YouTube would need to be our techno-muses and the stage upon which we lay our scene. These tools both mediate our art and give shape to our imaginative capacities. At the same time, however, they pose some obvious limitations. Livestreaming a play in which all the actors, production staff, and audience members are sheltered in place in their respective homes presents an enormous set of challenges and opportunities that ask us to re-think our ideas of what theatre can be.
We hope to present here some of the ideas that SF Shakes and its extended family have been exploring since the onset of shelter in place. They have been voiced by our Artistic Director, Rebecca Ennals, who has been committed to the notion that the show must go online from the very beginning of this crisis (read a TBA interview with Ennals here: “All The World’s A Virtual Stage for SF Shakes’ King Lear”), and also by the artists and friends of SF Shakes on two special occasions.
The first was the script workshop of King Lear that began on March 11, three days before California’s shelter-in-place directive. Under the direction of Elizabeth Carter and with Ennals as script adaptor, the actors gathered to read the script aloud and suggest and incorporate cuts and minor alterations such as pronoun adjustments (our Lear is female). Recognizing that this work could be completed online, after the first in-person meeting, workshops transitioned to Zoom. On the last day of the workshop, some friends and board members of the Festival were invited to Zoom in, watch and listen to the whole play, and offer their thoughts on their experience as spectators. The lessons learned during this process continue to shape our approach to a livestreamed online production.
The second occasion was the Festival’s annual April gala. Normally held at Marines’ Memorial Hotel in downtown San Francisco, the gala was hosted online with resounding success, as guests met together in a massive Zoom room dressed in their best party attire. A highlight of the celebration was the revelation of the cast of King Lear by director Elizabeth Carter. Once all of the artists were introduced, they engaged in a vigorous discussion about the challenges and possibilities involved in moving from a literal wooden platform in a park to a virtual platform.
Any stage production is subject to technical difficulties, and a livestreamed production is no different. In the age of Zoom, who hasn’t experienced an interruption caused by an unstable internet connection—or worse, the boot of a failed connection? And at least once a day, we probably all forget to turn our mics on… or off. Fumbling to unmute herself, Melissa Ortiz, the actor who plays Regan in this year’s King Lear, noted that on Zoom, as an actor, “you’re in charge of your own tech. That’s very different and very fun, I think.” In our Zoom reading, actors—not technicians—had to mute/unmute themselves, and turn on/off their cameras. Even now, as our expanding tech capabilities put those basic tasks into the hands of the stage manager and technical director, actors must still light themselves and be their own makeup artists, property masters, and costumers. To address these challenges, Lighting Designer John Bernard has created an instructional video to train actors about the basics of lighting, and he’ll also travel virtually to their homes to check their set-ups. Meanwhile, instead of budgeting for lumber and steel, the company will provide green screens, cameras, mics, and even update actors’ internet access so that each actor has a fully functioning performances studio. “One of the things I am concerned with,” says Director Carter, “is just making sure people are seen and heard and have a strong internet connection.” To be sure, our audiences will have additional demands. Helene Kocher, a friend of SF Shakes who watched the script workshop observed afterwards, “I think with a bit more work it could feel more like a play than individual actors in separate distant places. Each actor needs to have a background that is not their office/kitchen/living room.” Bringing distanced actors together seamlessly is the responsibility of Neal Ormond, Technical Director for SF Shakes and the Scenic and Graphic Designer for King Lear.
At this time of year, Ormond would normally be working around the clock designing and crafting a sturdy set that can be transported and re-assembled at park sites. He’d also be scheduling transport and assembly crews, dressing room trailers, security fencing, portable toilets, and all of the other things required to stage a play at multiple outdoor venues. Instead, he has dedicated himself to mastering the streaming technology. He is part of a larger community on the cutting edge of virtual performing arts pushing the limits of the Zoom box, using Open Broadcasting Software to make sure a performance on Zoom doesn’t look like a teleconferenced staff meeting. Ormond’s work is cut out for him as Carter and her actors begin to explore adapting basic stage directions: how do you exchange a kiss on a virtual stage? Fight? Eavesdrop? Pass a letter from one actor to another? Or get your eyes gouged out, as happens in one of Lear’s most disturbing scenes? As Ennals enthusiastically explains: “We are pioneers. We are making this up as we go, people!”
The Feedback Loop
On gala night, Cassidy Brown, the actor who plays the Earl of Kent in Lear, addressed a hurdle all actors in virtual space will face: “I find the challenge I am looking forward to and terrified of is the challenge of not literally being able to get direct feedback from your fellow actor. We’re going to have to find out how to affect each other in a way that is different. We can’t really look at each other. We can’t make eye contact because we don’t know the angles [on Zoom]. So, just figuring out how to contact each other is a challenge I look forward to solving.” Actor Ortiz distilled this issue into a pithy fact: “to look into someone’s eye is to look into the camera. We have to pretend we can see someone that we can’t actually face head on, which is fun!” As Brown noted, the connection is not only between actors, but between the actors and the audience. David Everett Moore, who plays the Duke of Albany and Oswald, examined this dilemma: “We won’t be able to have interaction with the audience. This is a symbiotic relationship. [The audience’s] energy feeds us and we take that and give it back to you. There’s a great loop, so trying to figure out what that loop looks like is going to be really interesting.”
Technology can address some of these concerns. Live electronic chat, a feature native to online conferencing and broadcasting platforms such as YouTube, provides one possible answer. Actual chatting during a live performance in the park could be an annoyance, but in the context of a livestreamed performance, it could be a great tool that allows the audience to express their reactions to the performance as well as engage with their fellow audience members. Indeed, before Carter announced the cast of Lear on gala night, she focused our attention on this need: “We don’t hear applause, so if you would like to put some comments or excitement in chat or whoops and hollers or fabulous emojis, please do that because we love to see that. Anything you can do to let us know how thrilled you are is really wonderful.”
The desire for human connection, whether it be between actors, between actors and audience, or between community members raises the larger question of engagement. As mentioned before, SF Shakes is a community-serving organization with the mission of connecting and engaging people through live theatre. Our livestream of Lear will be free – as all of our park production have always been. Even as live-streaming removes geographic barriers, we hope to localize performances in much the same way we usually tour the various communities of the Bay Area. That means promoting local restaurants and other businesses, inviting local musicians to provide pre-show entertainment, and using our platform to draw attention to and support for the most vulnerable in each city and county, for Pleasanton, Cupertino, Redwood City, and San Francisco. And while anyone regardless of location is welcome at any of our free livestreams, involving our civic partners in the promotion and production of localized livestreams is part of our dedication to community-based art. Ennals adds, “Even as we return to in-person performances in the future, I hope we’ll keep streaming – this crisis has really highlighted access inequities for folks who, under normal circumstances, are unable to attend a park performance. We hope that we’ll hear from many folks who are able to join us for the very first time.”
A Play by Any Other Name
On gala night, SF Shakes Board Chair Cynthia Francis asked the actors a million-dollar question: “Does it feel like stage theatre via new technology or like you are now TV and movie actors?” The director’s response: “It’s a combination of theatre and radio play—so much has to be in the text, and so much has to be in the words.” This sentiment was echoed by some of the guests invited to the script workshop in March, where the Zoom platform provided a close-up view of each actor. Director Carter acknowledges this advantage: “one of the things I noticed during the reading is that there were scenes that were extremely moving. One of the things this format gives us, which is different from being on stage, is that we are so close. You can see everybody’s eyes moving and the expressions on their face. So, there is something really intimate with this format.” “Close-ups are a gift with Zoom and performance,” declares Stage Manager Karen Schleifer who attended the script workshops. Board Member Craig Moody agrees: “I watched the whole thing from my easy chair and thought it was terrific in every respect. The pictures of the actors were for the most part sharp and clear and the option of having the person speaking occupying the whole screen was very satisfactory. I could see the value of doing readings of many full plays this way, even in ‘normal’ times, especially Shakespeare where words are such a huge part of the experience.” Shakespeare’s words uttered in this format still retain the power to move us as evinced by Board Member Michael Wong’s response to watching the script workshop:
This reading — and this experience — are extraordinary. And in light of contemporary circumstances, many of the lines take on a new resonance. Some that come to mind are Lear’s comments about human needs, and what distinguishes humans from animals. It makes us think: when our health and our way of life is under threat, what is necessary merely to survive, and what do we need to be “human,” much less enjoy the “king”-like life we once enjoyed only days prior?
We have no doubts that a livestreamed King Lear will move you. It feels like no accident that SF Shakes will be performing a play composed in 1606 while plague ravished London. In the face of pestilence and isolation, the artist’s job is to tell the stories that unite us and remind us of our resilient humanity. Whether our stage is a wooden O or a virtual box, your imaginary forces will still be the essential ingredient we need to create this story – together.
Robyn Grahn is a Resident Artist and Teaching Artist for SF Shakes. She was in the middle of teaching Upstart Crows—a Bay Area Shakespeare Camp for teens that meets on Saturdays—when public health measures turned her in-person performance camp into a distance learning experiment.
SF Shakes: Your Saturday Upstart Crows Camp began meeting in January. Your camp was working towards a performance of Much Ado for family and friends at a culminating performance on April 11. But, then, social distancing measures forced you to stop meeting in person on March 21. Instead of canceling the camp, you opted to migrate online using the Zoom platform. Can you talk a little about that transition?
Robin Grahn: At first, I thought we’d just have to go online for just one session before everything returned to normal. [laughs] It was a little nerve-wracking to try to figure out a class that would keep the students’ attention. Also, we had been doing a lot of ensemble work. And it was a focus of this course.
SF Shakes: Can you explain what ensemble work is?
Robyn Grahn: That means doing a lot of watching one another, getting close to one another, reading each other’s body language and not using text, but rather using the interaction with each other on stage to build acting skills. I’ve had to suddenly switch that up so that the focus is now more one-on-one, and more text based.
SF Shakes:You mentioned that you were worried about whether the students would stay with you. What are you finding?
So, the students are definitely with me. This is an extraordinary group that is willing to be “in it.” Most of my students have been in Upstart Crows Camp before, so they know what they are working towards, and that dedication has been really beneficial. They’ve really come through, especially when it comes to migrating ensemble exercises to Zoom. They’ve been really good about experimenting with games. They surprised me with the one-word story game, for example.
SF Shakes: Can you explain what the on-word story game is?
Robyn Grahn: With the one-word story game, we sit in a circle– or, in this case, we decide the sequence of campers on Zoom and then we come up with a story by each person adding one single word as we go through. It’s difficult because, obviously I may have a story in my head that doesn’t match the story in anyone else’s head, much less the collaborative story unfolding in the course of the exercise.
SF Shakes: It sounds like one-word story can be a metaphor for all of the uncertainty in the world right now. You can’t anticipate how the story evolves. You have a vision for the story, but the story has a life of its own.
Robyn Grahn: [Laughs] Oh yeah.
SF Shakes: Can you tell me what has come to replace your ensemble work?
Robyn Grahn: Experiment. It’s become about seeing what works and what doesn’t, and what we present on a screen. It’s still about story, but now that story is located on the screen; each square of the Zoom grid takes on importance as it contributes to story. There’s less emphasis on costumes and scenery and props. It’s about getting the most out of that Zoom box on screen.
SF Shakes: Do campers contribute to the experimenting?
Robyn Grahn: Oh, definitely! During our second Zoom meeting we brainstormed the possibilities under the new circumstances. For example, they came up with the idea of doing a podcast complete with Foley sound effects and things like that. But, for the time being, we are really trying to push the limits of Zoom. For example, one student tried his hand at scene blocking by walking away from his computer camera to simulate hiding. So, certainly one of things we are experimenting with is creating depth, you know foreground and background. Another thing that is wonderful is that the campers are making great use of their individual spaces: one of our campers Zooms from his bedroom, so he’s imagining ways of using the bed as part of his toolset. A bed can be a hiding place, or a thinking place, for example.
SF Shakes: That brings me to the next question: by now we are familiar with seeing screenshots of Zoom meetings that look like heads in squares—that famous Brady Bunch grid. How do you address that? Are you working with heads mostly, or is the body involved too?
Robyn Grahn: We’ll be getting into that a lot more. Frame manipulation will be key in telling our story and showing the relationships between characters. You know, a soliloquy scene might demand an extreme closeup. Other scenes might call for distance. We are constantly playing with this. There are no rules. The students are willing to play and that has been a great resource.
SF Shakes: Have you discovered any surprising tips or tricks you can apply on Zoom that might be helpful for anyone using it for teaching art and performance?
Robyn Grahn: Games work surprisingly well. They’re mostly a carry-over from what we’ve been doing in in-person meetings, but with adaptation. For example, we play a “who’s the chief?” game in which one person starts a clapping rhythm and everyone else has to follow them as they change rhythms. The game is great for developing awareness skills that are essential on stage—you know, understanding who is animating a scene at any one time. Under normal circumstances, students who have left the room have to come back and determine who’s the chief based on what they are hearing. Obviously, we had to change that a little. So, it’s now become a game of mirror, where one person leads with gestures instead of sound. Zoom lets me place campers in a “waiting room” and when they return to the main conversation, they have to guess who the leader is based on vision.
SF Shakes: So, you create multiple virtual spaces using Zoom functions?
Robyn Grahn: Exactly.
SF Shakes: Is there an offline component?
Robyn Grahn: Yes, for example, there’s a masquerade in Much Ado, so I sent a link on how to make papier-mâché masks for the campers to craft on their own, but I also hosted a special mask-making session for any students who needed help or who just wanted to create masks together.
SF Shakes Upstart Crows is really about building up to a final performance. How do you manage expectations or disappointments knowing that social distancing rules mean there can be no in-person final performance?
Robyn Grahn: The biggest disappointments probably already happened during our first Zoom when it became clear that we probably would not meet again in person. But now the campers seem to be managing their own expectations in amazing ways. They seem very aware that what we ultimately create won’t be a fleeting one-time performance, but rather something more permanent given the Zoom recording function. It’ll be something more akin to film-making and they are adapting as actors.
If anything, they are—and I am—getting a good education in how to do this kind of thing for ourselves. And I mentioned this to them in the beginning: this will be a chance to learn how to present and produce yourself for something like social media or auditions. This is an education in finding good lighting, in presenting yourself for a camera and in constructing effective personas.
SF Shakes: I know you are teaching teens, but what if you were teaching much younger campers?
Robyn Grahn: What we’ve learned—especially recently—is that the internet is a valid way of expressing your creativity and values. There’s a hungry audience out there. Also, when it comes to younger campers, what I’ve learned is that our tried-and-true theater games translate really well to the online environment: they help with listening, with confidence, with creation.
SF Shakes: Zoom has a text chat function. Does that play a role in your teaching?
Robyn Grahn: Not so much. Text chat is a different skill set. Chat is about writing while acting is about using your heart and body. It’s not that one skill set is better than the other, but I really want to transport my campers to a different learning place and theater is that place—it keeps the experience special and distinct from say doing their schoolwork on line, if you know what I mean. There’s a use for text chat, but mainly to give a few examples of say, iambic pentameter, but my sessions don’t live in text chat, they really live in the realm of voice and in the immediacy of performance.
SF Shakes: Any final revelations about this experience?
Robyn Grahn: Yes, this has really opened a door for new forms of collaboration. I was really moved by how my campers put their heads together to work around the restrictions of social distancing. In a sense they became more social.
Robyn Grahn is a Resident Artist and Teaching Artist for SF Shakes. She has performed in two seasons of Shakespeare on Tour, SF Shakes’ educational program that takes Shakespeare plays into schools throughout California. She is also the Engagement Coordinator for SF Shakes, helping our organization connect with community in alliance with our partner organizations serving people experiencing homelessness.
Hey. Here we are. All of us. It’s been a couple of weeks of shelter-in-place here in California – two weeks of wildly shifting emotions, of rapidly acquired hobbies, of anxiety, of connection, of pressing a giant pause button on our lives and finding out how that feels. For some. For others, our first responders, medical professionals, food, farm, and grocery workers, delivery folks, and sanitation workers, it’s anything but a pause, and those of us living our suddenly quiet and tightly inscribed lives think of them often.
It’s also a heartbreaking time for artists and culture workers. We depend on live, in-person, real-time interactions between humans. So many of us have been thrown suddenly out of work, seen dream roles disappear as shows are cancelled, locked the doors of museums and theatres and concert halls that are nothing without the people who inhabit them. Many are struggling with unemployment claims, relief applications, and access to health care, not to mention keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table.
But in some ways, it’s also a hopeful time for the arts. Many have noted that during this time, folks have turned to culture for solace, for laughter, and for connection. Online concerts and readings, great performances suddenly made available, education opportunities from favorite artists… these things have been bright points of light on our ever-present screens.
Many of us have also taken comfort in nature – we can still get outdoors, within our 6’ bubbles. Some have noted – doesn’t the sky seem bluer? Aren’t the animals, even in urban settings, emboldened by our absence? Without the noise of traffic and airplanes, does the birdsong seem especially clear and sweet? Our parks are oases of sanity, places to take deep breaths and appreciate the planet we often treat so poorly.
I have been thinking of London in 1606, where Shakespeare wrote King Lear under quarantine, and Mexico City in 1695, where Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, herself infected with plague, finished the brilliant work which we are only now fully exploring and appreciating. It is an astonishing coincidence that these two writers and these works were exactly what we were exploring in the month of March, as we moved so rapidly from in-person rehearsals to little boxes on our screens. We found great joy in working on these plays, even remotely – we learned that no matter what, we must continue to make plays together, in whatever form we can.
SF Shakes exists at the intersection of art, nature, community, and access. This is who we are, and who we’ve always been. We don’t know when we can come together again in person as a community, in nature, to enjoy a live presentation for free in the park. What we do know is that engagement, the exchange between artists and community, between neighbors who sit beside each other to break bread, laugh, and cry at our shared human experiences, is our mission just as it has always been. We can’t be with you in person right now. But we ARE still here, and we are still committed to offering Free Shakespeare, either in your park or in your living room, featuring the brilliant actors you have always enjoyed seeing on stage. Your children can still attend Bay Area Shakespeare Camp in its new distance-learning format, with the great teaching artists who have always been the core of our company. We hope that as we explore new ways of engaging with the ever-flexible, ever-relevant words of William Shakespeare, you will join us. Humanity, and theatre, have made it through this before, and we will again.
And now for the inevitable request – which you are hearing from every cultural organization you support. We need you more than ever. We need to connect with you, we need your ideas, we need to know what would bring you joy and comfort, and we need you to support us with whatever financial resources you can. At this time, we still have artists on the payroll, and we have not let any staff go. We are a lean and frugal organization and we know how to work with very limited resources. 2020 will be an even leaner, harder year for us, but we will do what we can to stay together and make art – and we cannot do it without your support.
Thank you. Be well. Stay safe. See you soon –
Artistic Director, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival