TBA Online: News & Features: May 2020

All The World’s A Virtual Stage for SF Shakes’ King Lear

Wednesday, May 13, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Rotimi Agbabiaka

Summer’s approach typically heralds the arrival of the kind of theatre that allows audiences to enjoy live performance while soaking up the warmth of sunny days and the communion of an al fresco picnic. But with COVID-19 necessitating a ban on social gatherings, summer seasons across the country have been cancelled, deferring many a dream of coming together to experience theatre under the stars.

However, the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival is refusing to give up this summer’s dream and announced last week that it will move forward with its previously scheduled Free Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear, slated to run from July through September.

The production will now take place online, with live virtual performances, in a format that may defy conventional expectations of theatre but which SF Shakes hopes will continue to engage the various communities served by the company’s touring plays.


Rebecca Ennals. Photo by Jay Yamada.

“Our mission is not ‘to make theatre,’ our mission is to engage with our communities and create spaces in which our community can come together,” says SF Shakes artistic director Rebecca Ennals. “That’s what Free Shakespeare in the Park has always been about.”

In the era of social distancing, it seems that the only possible space for communities to safely and legally gather is online. When San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, SF Shakes had just completed its first day of rehearsal for a developmental workshop of King Lear. The rest of that development process was subsequently completed online as the company banished any thought of cancelling the production.

“It was never a question in my mind,” says Ennals. “I never said, ‘Oh dear, we’re going to have to cancel Free Shakespeare in the Park.’ It immediately occurred to me that it might have to take a very different shape and that it might not be in a park.”

The company’s practice of not producing in an indoor theatre proved beneficial. Without an auditorium to maintain, Ennals was free to commit to another nontraditional space.

And as shelter in place spawned an uptick in the use of videoconferencing software, Ennals soon joined the ranks of theatre folk who have increasingly embraced the technology’s potential for connection.

“We’ve got an interesting situation,” she observes. “We’re all extremely geographically, physically confined but using digital tools we’re not geographically confined at all. We can do things with people all over the world.”

From conducting rehearsals via Zoom to viewing streaming plays by companies in other countries, Ennals and her company members explored the possibilities of videoconferencing and observed the virtual adventures of other theatre artists. Ennals credits the digital proficiency of SF Shakes technical director Neal Ormond and the examples of theatre artists like Peter Kuo and Claudia Alick with helping the company envision the potential of a virtual King Lear.

The cast of King Lear.

SF Shake’s virtual production, which will feature a cast of ten, including Jessica Powell as a female King Lear, and a full cohort of designers under the direction of Elizabeth Carter, will require each company member to adapt their skills to a new medium. 

Ormond, who is also the scenic designer, is graphic designing virtual backgrounds and using open broadcasting software to make actors in separate video streams appear to be in the same location. Costumer Hyun Sook Kim will design remotely and ship clothing items to actors. Lighting designer John Bernard will work with performers to light themselves, using lighting instruments found in their homes. A hair and makeup designer is also being hired to prepare the actors for their closeups.

There are still many unknowns that will have to be figured out when online rehearsals begin in June. How, for example, to pull off the play’s monumental fight scenes with socially distant performers. And the company is still in talks with Actors’ Equity about what kind of contract to use for a virtual production. One of the benefits of a digital setting is the absence of scenery or transportation costs, which allows the company a greater focus on compensating artists.

“The beauty of it is that virtually the entire budget is going to pay to the artists,” says Ennals.

Ennals also envisions an expansion of the company’s community engagement—more opportunities for pre- and post-show discussions now that folks won’t need to scurry home on cold evenings; having the show’s dramaturg answer questions in the audience chat window; post-show virtual visits from actors; partnerships with local restaurants to provide meals for audiences’ at-home picnics; and the possibility of having local television stations broadcast the performance. 

She expresses impatience with the suggestion that such a production “isn’t really theatre,” dismissing calls to suspend theatrical activity until in-person gatherings are possible as “elitist.” For Ennals, the present moment provides lessons in how to improve theatre’s accessibility. 

“There’s certainly a feeling of loss of not getting to go to the park and sit down with your neighbors,” she says. “But how do we look at the silver linings and see what we could gain in terms of how people can engage?”

Rotimi Agbabiaka is is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. rotimionline.com