OC’s best little theater

The New Swan Shakespeare Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary.

A curious, nautilus-shaped structure appears each summer at UC Irvine.

It’s called the New Swan Theater, where professional actors and UCI students share the small stage to present Shakespeare in front of packed houses five nights a week from July to September.

This year’s Shakespeare Festival features “The Comedy of Errors,” one of Shakespeare’s first works, and “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” one of his last – both sharing a theme of home and family reunion.

“I watched the theater be assembled for this season,” says returning cast member Meg Evans. “It’s incredible to see it transform the campus. There’s something spiritual about it.”

The in-the-round staging presents a few challenges, but the theater, now in its 10th season, feels familiar to actors and audiences.

“The staging is precisely laid out so as not to obscure views from any vantage point,” says artistic director Eli Simon, of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts. “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.”

It only takes a week for the 130-seat theater to take shape. But the dream of a summer Shakespeare venue was four decades in the making, says Simon, the Swan’s artistic director since the beginning.

New Swan Theater has been voted Best Theater/Playhouse in Orange County.

“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 the program.”

The theater has drawn full houses from its first show, much to Simon’s surprise.

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

The theater has developed a dedicated following, and many regulars have favorite seats.

Some people like the King’s Chair, one of the more comfortable seats, situated 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.”

Performances begin July 8.

For information, visit newswanshakespeare.com.


The New Swan Theater stands 18 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter, surrounding a 20-foot wide stage. Plywood slats create its artistic exterior and reflect sound inside the theater for better acoustics. Spiraled seating platforms accommodate 128 people. Above, 110 lights are controlled by computers. The theater can be assembled in just a few days.

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