Two months after original performance date, Shakespeare in the Park goes virtual

Riverside Theater’s annual summer series had to shift to a virtual format due to COVID-19. Instead of a full-out performance of 'The Winter’s Tale', the actors will perform a reading of the play via Zoom.

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Madison Lotenschtein, Arts Editor


In Lower City Park, there stands a miniature, Elizabethan-style amphitheater, which has served as an outdoor stage for Riverside Theater’s free “Shakespeare in the Park” performances since 2000. But just as Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre shut down as the Bubonic Plague raged through Europe, COVID-19 has forced Iowa City’s Riverside actors to leave the amphitheater vacant this summer.

Riverside decided that this year’s play, The Winter’s Tale, will be performed as a reading online.

The reading will be held over a Zoom on Aug. 9, with all participants tuning in from their homes. In a typical year, 1,800 to 2,500 people would gather to watch the performances within the span of two to three weeks, Producing Artistic Director Adam Knight said.

Originally scheduled for June, Riverside continually postponed The Winter’s Tale until its virtual format was solidified. However, Knight plans to return to the park with a full performance of the play next year, along with another play that has yet to be determined. Instead of its traditional three weeks of performances, Knight added that next summer there will be six weeks of Shakespeare.

“It’s important to us to preserve the kind of employment that we give to actors, and to do something bold and ambitious when it’s safe to do so, when we can all gather again,” he said.

While Shakespeare’s plays do not lend themselves to easily conform to the idea of social distancing — including large, often crowded casts — the language of his works does aid the virtual platform that Knight and the actors are working with, he said.

“The text and the language is so rich, and that’s something I think is really going to come out in this format,” Knight said. “Actors would receive pages the week before the show, and they would only learn their parts and only learn their cue line. So there is something very Elizabethan about this whole approach, which is kind of coming together in a very short process, creating a show.”

Katy Hahn, who plays the role of Queen Hermione, said that the cast has been working on their roles separately, and cast members are only having one rehearsal before the reading since they have been with the play for a while. But virtual readings come with their own unique territory, where an actor can’t decide whether or not to look at the person on the screen or the camera, she said: that is the question.

“You don’t really get to have real eye contact when you’re on a video conferencing platform,” Hahn said. “In person it’s ‘I’m looking at you in the eyes, you’re looking at me in the eyes, and we’re connected in that moment… Sometimes we do things to create that illusion of eye contact, but we’re going to be fighting against the limitations of technology.”

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The Winter’s Tale revolves around King Leontes and Queen Hermione, where all is sunny in the garden until the king accuses his nine-month pregnant wife of committing adultery with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, said Martin Andrews, who plays the part of King Leontes.

The plot thickens, but the play’s themes consist of subjects like the blindness of power, power versus powerlessness, and jealousy, he added.

“It’s very much a play about a woman who is subjected to the whims of a man’s power, and the dangers that happen when that occurs,” Andrews said.

Both Knight and Hahn said that The Winter’s Tale holds truths to the world’s present-day situation; whether it be through the act of decision-making, a country that has lost its way, or through acts of forgiveness and healing.

When the play was last performed in Iowa City, the flood of 2008 left the outdoor amphitheater submerged in water. Andrews said he could remember wading through hip-deep water to clear the props and costumes off of the stage.

“It’s funny that this play is also happening right now, and we’re returning to a time where we’re improvising, we’re adjusting, we’re adapting, and keeping the show going on,” he said.

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