The New Swan Theater offers an intimate view of the stage from every seat. The festival is hosted in partnership with the UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

Under the stars, Shakespeare returns to UC Irvine

by TOM BERG

Each July, crews assemble a 15-ton, portable, mini-Elizabethan theater on the UC Irvine campus for a summer run of Shakespeare under the stars.

It’s called New Swan Shakespeare Festival, where professional actors and UC Irvine students present Shakespeare in front of packed houses five nights a week from July 3 through Aug. 31.

“The staging is always very precisely laid out so as not to obscure views from any vantage point,”

UCI Chancellor’s Professor of Drama Eli Simon says. “It’s so intimate that actors sense even the subtlest reactions from the audience. And the audience is close enough to sense the slightest shifts in the actors. Everyone loves that energy in the space.”

This summer, New Swan Shakespeare Festival, in collaboration with the UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts, presents “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “The Merchant of Venice.”

It takes only a week for the 130-seat theater to take shape. But the dream for this annual Shakespeare festival was four decades in the making.

The 130-seat New Swan Theater brings a modern interpretation to Shakespeare five nights a week at UC Irvine through Aug. 31.

“Robert Cohen, the first chair of the drama department, talked about creating a moveable outdoor Shakespearean theater even before I came here,” Simon says. “It was always envisioned as an important part of our arts mission.”

The two-play season has drawn full houses from the start, much to Simon’s delight.

“I really honestly didn’t know if anyone would show up. We sold out our first season in three days.”

The theater, now in its eighth season, has developed a dedicated following, and many regulars have favorite seats.

Some people like to sit in the King’s Chair, set onstage. Others prefer the higher seats because they like the view from above. “And kids love the groundlings seats,” Simon says. “You’re right next to the action.” 

Simon’s creative team often avoids a Shakespearean setting in favor of a different time period. 

“The Merchant of Venice” is set in the Italian Renaissance with a contemporary twist to the costumes. “Two Gentlemen of Verona” has a modern-day setting.

For tickets and information, visit NewSwanShakespeare.com or call 949-824-2787.