Free Shakespeare at Home - reflections on summer 2020

This summer, Free Shakespeare in the Park had a new name -- Free Shakespeare at Home. Back in March when it became apparent that Free Shakespeare in the Park would at best be delayed and at worst cancelled, an innovative concept was advanced that would allow us to deliver a free and professional Shakespeare production to the communities of the Bay Area, as we've done for the past 38 years. King Lear was performed by individual artists, acting in front of green screens in their homes, from all parts of the Bay Area, including San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Fairfax, San Jose, and Los Altos - plus one actor who was in New York! Their live performances were transmitted via Zoom, to our tech director's home studio. The individual digital streams were then composited in real time onto digital scenic backgrounds and broadcast to the audience, creating the thrill of viewing a live, ensemble performance on our YouTube channel, Facebook Live, and Twitch.

King Lear art & GloucesterIt was no small effort to make this happen. We were one of the first companies to be approved for a full, virtual Actors' Equity contract. Considerable negotiation was needed to resolve the question of whether the production was defined as theatre or film. Additionally,  director Elizabeth Carter had to rethink the issue of scale, as the production moved from a grand public venue (the park) to the intimate space created by the cameras of conference call technology. Since each actor was performing solo, entrances, exits, and gestures had to be done with great precision in order to be captured and composited in an effective fashion to create the ensemble performance.

Tech director Neal Ormond kept track of the action and made scene changes using 2 computers, 4 screens, an iPad and and an iPhone. In all, there were 32 computers used in total by the cast, crew, and director to run the show!

Over the course of 11 weekends and 23 broadcasts, the show was seen by nearly 9000 viewers. For the first time in Festival history, the show could be seen outside of the Bay Area. In addition to all parts of  California, viewership included Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia. Internationally, the show was seen in France, England, Ireland, and Malaysia. There were also 10 weekly post-show Q&A sessions with cast and crew that engaged over 500 fans with first-hand information about the process and performances.

Feedback from viewers was overwhelmingly positive, with weekly comments that expressed appreciation and admiration for developing this new technique.

We are deeply thankful for the continued support of our civic partners - City of Cupertino, City of Redwood City, and City of San Francisco - as well as our corporate, foundation, and individual donors whose generosity contributed to keeping the show running, even during the pandemic. Without their support we may have very well needed to post a 'season cancelled' notice.

The talented cast, crew, and director of King Lear are to be commended for their willingness to explore and adapt to this new medium, which due to its exacting nature required nearly 3 times the amount of time typically needed to stage a scene. (Download the King Lear program.)

And of course, we are most appreciative of you, our audience - without you it wouldn't be theatre. We look forward to seeing you back in the park in 2021!

If you're a theatremaker (or know one) who may be interested in more information about the experience and knowledge that we gained producing a virtual play in the midst of a pandemic, sign up to receive information about our upcoming webinar series, Making Virtual Theatre . The series will cover essential categories of virtual production that include directing, acting, designing, and broadcasting.