UCI's New Swan Shakespeare Festival Brings On the Bard

Eli Simon wanted to build a theater. Like, a really cool theater. He had the money, thanks to funds from a department of excellence award (given to the UC Irvine drama department), as well as generous donors. He had the talent; he's been UC Irvine chancellor's professor of drama for 27 years, as well as a professional director and author. He had the idea for an intimate, outdoor, moveable, 15-ton, mini-Elizabethan theater.

But could he actually do it?

“Keith Bangs, the New Swan's production manager, and I were having one of our preliminary meetings at Pei Wei, [talking about] how do we move this 15-ton mini-Elizabethan theater, where should we set it down, will the Groundlings seats work, and so forth,” Simon recalls. “I opened my fortune cookie, and it said, 'Build your theater; the audience is waiting.'

“I nearly fell off my seat,” Simon continues. “We decided, right then and there, that we were being given a clear sign from the gods of fortune cookies and theater and that we should go forward with our crazy vision.”

The New Swan Theater is an eye-catching marvel currently stationed on the UCI campus just west of Langson Library. And it's home to the New Swan Shakespeare Festival, now in its fourth summer season. Under Simon's artistic direction, the festival offers two productions: Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth.

“It was born of the impulse to create an intimate space in which we could investigate and perform Shakespearean plays while remaining in very close contact with the audience,” Simon says. “It's really as simple as that. The New Swan Theater itself is the central element that makes our festival special.”

A three-level cylinder made of steel and wood, the theater seats up to 130 in five areas, including the floor (where the groundlings, i.e., the unsophisticated, rowdy, drunken rabble, who now swarm about downtown Fullerton on a weekend night, sat during Shakespeare's time—and I say this as a Fullerton resident and sometimes-bartender) and a balcony. The actors are seldom more than a few feet away from any seat.

The configuration creates an intense, immersive experience. And the way the company approaches its productions (last year's Twelfth Night and this year's Macbeth rank among the best local Shakespeare shows these jaded eyes have witnessed over the past 20 years) magnifies that experience. “We didn't want to produce declamatory, stuffy productions,” Simon says. “We wanted the audience to be able to sense the actors' brains whirring and to feel emotions as they arise. We wanted actors to be able to take their asides and thoughts directly to the audience, rather than throwing them out to some unknown place above the footlights. There's a synergy that is created in the New Swan Theater. The actors feel it, and so does the audience. My goal is to keep everyone happy in that space, whether you're onstage or you're in the house watching the action unfold. So far, it seems to be working.”

The combination of that aesthetic approach, along with the fact that the actors (professionals and students, most of whom are alums of the drama department or current graduate and undergraduate students) are trained in Shakespeare and manage to make nearly every line intelligible, makes the shows both entertaining and accessible, as well as remarkably true to the best thing about the Bard: his language. “We seek to tell the story as clearly as possible without resorting to theatrical tricks,” Simon says. “We set the plays—one tragedy and one comedy each year—in the time and place that makes most sense to us. If it needs to remain period, we'll leave it in Shakespeare's time, but most of our plays thus far have been modernized to the 20th century and beyond.”

Shakespeare's language is unaltered, but the plays are edited so that each act runs an hour or less. “In the long and short run, it's about the acting,” Simon says. “People find our actors understandable and compelling. I've figured out that a smaller, tighter, highly talented company is the way to go. Our actors appear in both shows. That keeps them challenged, and [many of our audience members] attend both shows to see the ways in which the company members shift from comedy to tragedy on successive nights. . . . It took me four months to cast the ensemble this year, and I was tearing my hair out for most of that period of time. It was worth the wait.”

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