San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's yearly late-summer offerings of free shows in local parks are a beloved tradition — a chance to picnic in the golden late-afternoon sunshine and early evening twilight, surrounded by the beauty of nature, while enjoying engaging takes on classic dramas. This summer, of course, is different.
But Artistic Director Rebecca Ennals and the entire San Francisco Shakespeare Festival (SF Shakes) crew are still bringing free Shakespeare to the people, with their production of "King Lear" streaming live each weekend via YouTube. Peninsula fans who normally catch shows on the lush grounds of Redwood City's Sequoia High School will find a banner on the campus fence letting them know that Free Shakespeare in the Park is now Free Shakespeare at Home.
"We miss being outside; we miss being in the park," Ennals said in a recent phone interview. (As is the current reality for many working parents, especially mothers, she kept an eye on her two young children at the same time.)
"I usually get quite a suntan and my hair starts getting lighter. This is the first year in many years where I'm pale and my hair is very dark," she said, laughing.
When live theater started shutting down in March, SF Shakes realized its summer plans may be in jeopardy, even with the open-air spaces of parks proving safer than indoor venues.
"People said, 'You're outside, surely you can do this,'" Ennals recalled. "From an audience perspective, I'm quite sure we could have been safe," she said, using masks and spreading out seating areas, "but the challenge is getting the cast and crew together in a way that's safe. The actors' union has not approved that."
The company quickly began experimenting with technological possibilities for "King Lear" with the goal of avoiding a production that "looked like a corporate meeting. The novelty of watching people on Zoom has really worn off by now," she said. Instead, the production utilizes tech that allows for capture of separate actors' videos into one picture, which is then broadcast live to YouTube.
"We're all in it together," she said. "People tend to forget the actors aren't in the same room. The actors aren't really seeing each other but it looks like they are."
Though everyone's mourning the loss of the annual outdoor tours, Ennals said there are "some really nice silver linings involved" with the virtual format. Dramaturgs are able to offer helpful tidbits throughout the performances, such as defining antiquated turns of phrase viewers may not be familiar with. Audiences can also watch the lengthy show in multiple sittings. And, of course, the performances will be accessible to folks anywhere, not only those who can make it out to a live event.
New flexibility from unions has also been a beneficial result.
"We ended up getting one of the first Actors Equity Association contracts in the country for virtual streaming," she said. "They had to work out jurisdiction from SAG (the Screen Actors Guild). This is for theater actors to perform live."
Normally, the cities of San Francisco, Redwood City and Cupertino each fund several weekends' of performances on location. Happily, this is continuing, with each city sponsoring a slew of performances despite widespread budget cuts, allowing SF Shakes to still offer the production free to viewers at home.
"The two South Bay cities really embraced the idea. We're really grateful for that," she said. Performances run now through Sept. 27, with shows at 7 p.m. on Saturdays and 4 p.m. on Sundays (with an additional performance at 4 p.m on Labor Day, Sept. 4).
"King Lear," the tragedy involving the downfall of a monarch attempting to divide a kingdom among three daughters, has themes that resonate strongly today, Ennals said.
"It's about society going through a really unusual time and an unusual struggle; something that's really throwing off the entire culture; that feels really relevant right now," she said. "There are uprisings staged in the production, there are people questioning what's going on with the leadership of the country."
The titular Lear is portrayed in this production by Jessica Powell. Director Elizabeth Carter chose to have a female Lear partly to explore the fraught dynamics of mother-daughter relationships and the intersection of gender, race and power.
"It does open your ears to some of the lines in a different way, to how women in politics have to enact patriarchy," Ennals said. "The way they have to 'masculinize' themselves in order to be taken seriously. Especially what white women have done to become white patriarchy in this culture."
While Powell's Lear is a white woman, her three daughters are biracial characters.
Opening a traditionally male role to female actors also offers an opportunity for an overlooked community of artists.
"Women over 50 get shut out of Shakespeare often. It's a whole unexplored pool of talent. Why limit yourself to some very narrow definitions of what a character should look like based on historical precedence?" Ennals said.
One of the most cherished parts of the annual Free Shakespeare in the Park events is the pre-performance "Green Show," a creative, often humorous mini-show that introduces audiences (especially kids) to the featured play in a fun, breezy way. This year, the Green Show, starring SF Shakes' college interns, is available in 15-minute video form, viewable at any time.
"We kept the spirit of it, the irreverence," Ennals said. "We get that there are words that are unfamiliar, there are things that need to be explained. We want to get rid of all the anxiety people have about watching Shakespeare."
One has to wonder, what would the Bard make of it all? While he couldn't have predicted the ability to livestream shows over the internet, he'd certainly have been no stranger to plagues — or gender-bending casting.
"I like to think Shakespeare would not be precious about what people would do with his plays," Ennals said. "He'd have no problem at all that we have a woman playing King Lear as a woman. We know that they did a lot of cutting and editing along the way. He wouldn't be surprised that we do the same."
More information is available at SFShakes.