It’s time again for Shakespeare under the stars

New Swan Theater’s annual summer festival runs from July 15 through Sept. 9 at UC Irvine.

If you’re looking for some dreamy midsummer entertainment, check out the pop-up dramas at UC Irvine’s New Swan Theater.

From July to September every year, UCI students and professional actor alumni perform Shakespeare’s plays to packed audiences on a portable Elizabethan stage. The open-air playhouse-in-the-round is a miniature version of centuries-old theaters where Shakespeare first performed his plays, including the Globe, on the banks of the Thames in London, and the Swan Theatre, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

‘The greatest words ever penned’

This summer’s featured plays, five nights a week, are the cheerful comedy “As You Like It,” and “Julius Caesar,” a drama about a notoriously lethal political rivalry. There’s also “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised) (redone),” described as a “madcap farce” in which three actors attempt to perform parts of all 37 Shakespeare plays in just 97 minutes.

“It’s such an intimate setting; it makes it fun and interactive. In rehearsals, we’ve been working on directing some of our lines to audience members as if we’re talking directly to them.” – actor Shavonne Grandison

“These are the greatest words ever penned, and they couldn’t be more relevant today,” says Eli Simon, a faculty member of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts and the founding artistic director of the festival, now in its 11th season. “Shakespeare was incredibly insightful about the human condition – what motivated people to do what they do and the factors that made them who they are. Those things haven’t changed in the 400 years since he wrote them.”

At the same time, modern audiences’ attention spans have surely shortened over the centuries, which is why Simon’s team condenses Shakespeare’s plays, without changing the words, so that none runs more than two hours. “We take out what’s repetitious or obvious or not understandable to get to the essence of the story,” he says.

UC Irvine students and professional actor alumni perform Shakespeare’s classics every summer.

An intimate setting under the stars

The New Swan Theater is composed of 15 modular steel and wooden units, each weighing a ton, and assembled anew each year in just a few days. Its spiraled seating platforms accommodate 128 people, all of whom enjoy an unobstructed view of the stage, and none of whom are more than 10 feet away from the actors.

“It’s such an intimate setting; it makes it fun and interactive,” says Shavonne Grandison, a master’s-degree-in-acting candidate who will be playing Rosalind in “As You Like It” and two minor roles in “Julius Caesar.”

“In rehearsals, we’ve been working on directing some of our lines to audience members as if we’re talking directly to them,” she says.

In addition to the festival, which runs from July 15 to Sept. 9, UCI’s Shakespeare Center conducts other activities, including research, seminars and reading groups throughout the year.

Theatergoers should buy tickets soon, Simon warns, adding: “Right now there are still plenty of seats available, but they tend to sell out.”

As the poet wrote: “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”

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