O, for a Zoom of fire: Reimagining Free Shakespeare in the Park

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.

Technical Difficulties/Opportunities

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.

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