Shakespeare at the Lake is back! The joint venture between Mendocino College and the Lake County Theatre Company will be moving forward with their 5th season though not in the same manner as originally envisioned. This year’s production, Romeo & Juliet, will be presented online.
Normally, Shakespeare at the Lake takes place at Library Park in Lakeport and Austin Park in Clearlake with beautiful Clear Lake as the back drop. However, nothing about 2020 has been normal. Theatres all over the world have gone dark due to COVID-19. Many theatres may never reopen. But, for one director, postponing was not an option.
When I asked the director, John Tomlinson, if he’d considered postponing the show. He joked that the performance class was already in the Mendocino College class schedule when the state began shutting down, and once it’s in the catalog it’s a done deal. He attended a show that was successfully presented online by an out-of-state theatre company and thought it could work for this production. He pitched it to the college administrators and was thrilled when they gave the him the green light to move forward with the online concept.
In fact, the college made the decision early on to pivot to online classes for ALL classes and that got the ball rolling. Auditions for the show were held in May via Zoom which created a unique opportunity for performers to audition who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity due to locale. One actress as far away as New Orleans auditioned. Ultimately, she wasn’t right for part, but an actor from Marin and another from Mendocino were cast in the show.
I asked Tomlinson why Romeo & Juliet? He said that the first few years he did comedy because it’s more accessible to modern audiences. But, he always told himself that if Shakespeare at the Lake made it to year five, he’d do a drama. He selected Romeo & Juliet because the story line is very familiar to audiences. He went on to say that with the “senseless polarity on every issue in the world right now the story is particularly relevant.” And, in fact, the more digital the production gets, the closer to modern times it becomes.
The posters bill the show as “An online performance,” but I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had visions in my mind of a typical Zoom meeting. Tomlinson calls the experience a “visually enhanced radio play.” The actors will perform as they have been rehearsing, separately, from their homes, but in one Zoom room. They will be assisted and the performance will be enhanced with sound effects by crew members running two sound boards and four computers. The tech crew members will be socially distanced from each other in a room on the college campus. Audience members will be sent a link to join virtually.
Visually, there will be a sort of abstract slide show to enhance the story telling and to give a sense of place. Because the planning for the show began last fall, the scenic design had already been done and the construction of the set and even a model of the set had already been completed before the shut down. The set, model, and photos of various locales in Lake County will all be a part of the visual experience.
However, in true radio play fashion, the audience will not see the performers nor will the performers see each other. The cast began rehearsals with their cameras on, but for the last few weeks they have turned them off to get used to what the actual performances will be like. Tomlinson said that turning off the cameras was actually freeing and less of a distraction. He himself found that he was distracted at times by his own video image and imagined that the actors might be, as well. Turning the cameras off let the actors not have to worry about how they looked on camera and focus more on delivery and the meaning of the lines.
I wondered if there were any obstacles along the way with this non-traditional situation. Tomlinson told me the downside was that there were no natural avenues for interaction to promote camaraderie and foster a group connection. Normally, the performers would have the opportunity to bond in person during rehearsal breaks. It’s what really “builds the feeling of a great ensemble.” To compensate, Tomlinson purposely left the Zoom sessions open at break times to allow the actors to chat. He also devoted a half hour session each week to just getting to know each other.
The upside of this unique process has been that he hasn’t had to focus on blocking (telling the actors where and when to move). This in turn has freed up time to focus on the language and intention which created a solid understanding for the cast and “increased the educational piece of this production.”
Another unexpected benefit of the online process was that he really couldn’t come to the table with a fully formed concept the way he normally does. This forced him to “consciously open” himself up to other people’s ideas and to collaborate more. He spent less time being impulsive and improvising (which he normally likes to do) and more time mulling over and really considering the suggestions of others.
Tomlinson has never presented a show in this manner before. When asked if he would consider doing it again, he said that he “would do it again if necessary.” He says there was only one “Ugh!” moment when he thought to himself, “Why can’t we just do this in person?” He has since come to see it as a “new and exciting” process and that all involved are moving forward with “grace and positiveity.”
Tomlinson says that throughout rehearsals the case and crew have been wonderful and supportive. The rehearsals and the production are providing an opportunity for them to connect and to be active doing what they love. Something that not everyone has been able to do during this time of social distancing. Tomlinson says, “If I could heal the whole world through theatre, I would.” For now, he’ll settle for giving 30 people a sense of purpose however temporary.
If you would like tickets to this free online performance of Romeo & Juliet, you must go to LCTC.US to get your ticket. Performances will be at 7pm on Friday, July 24th and 25th via Zoom.