At UCI, Portable Shakespeare Has Permanence

Photo courtesy of the Paul Kennedy/New Swan Shakespeare Festival

A view of the audience from the stage of the New Swan on the UC Irvine campus.

The 2019 New Swan Shakespeare Festival Season

‘The Merchant of Venice’
‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’

WHEN: 8 p.m. through Aug. 31

WHERE: UC Irvine, 249 Drama, Irvine

TICKETS: $18 to $71

INFO: newswanshakespeare.com, 949-824-2787

Shakespeare in the summer is a longstanding tradition in England and North America.

Some seasons are famous: New York’s Shakespeare in the Park and Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Others are more modest in scope, but no less enthusiastically supported by local audiences.

For decades, Orange County has enjoyed a wealth of Shakespearean options during the warm-weather months. One of the most unusual can be found at the University of California, Irvine.

Almost a decade ago, UC Irvine theater professor Eli Simon was possessed by a dream to build a temporary theater on campus for a summer season of Shakespeare. In 2012, thanks to a lot of second-hand seats, some salvaged wood and steel, and the ingenuity of UCI set designer Keith Bangs, that dream became a reality: the New Swan Theater, a nautilus-shaped venue designed to fit temporarily in the university’s main plaza near the library.

Photo courtesy of the Paul Kennedy/New Swan Shakespeare Festival

Hunter Ringsmith as Proteus singing to Julia in the 2019 production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the New Swan.

Simon wasn’t sure who would show up for his modest productions, or even if the project would last beyond one year. The response amazed him.

“That first season was only three weeks long and just three nights per week – very abbreviated compared to now,” Simon said. “We sold it out in three days. Everything just fell into place.”

The current season, the company’s eighth, is now in full swing. “Two Gentleman of Verona” plays through Aug. 30; “The Merchant of Venice” ends Aug. 31.

But while the season has expanded, the theater itself remains essentially unchanged, Simon said.

“It’s basically the same as 2012. We have installed new seats, and we are constantly working on it. It’s like owning an old ship, a wooden boat, so it needs constant maintenance.”

The 16-ton, 130-seat mini-Elizabethan-style theater is designed so that every seat is close to the action. Audience members look down on a small circular stage from a surrounding inclined ramp that holds the seats. When the New Swan Theater is not in use, it breaks down and is transported into storage elsewhere on campus. The annual routine of setting it up has become streamlined, though it’s by no means easy, according to Simon.

“We have a crew of about eight, and there are probably another four in the moving company. It takes them a couple of weeks to complete the project, but it only requires three days to move it into place. Then it has to be bolted together, and then they hang the lights, cables and sound system.”

The theater has occupied exactly the same spot every year, Simon said, which makes installation easier.

“We have permanent anchor holes. We fill those during the winter months but it goes right there every time; this is the only place it’s ever been installed. Other places have been interested in hosting it, but it hasn’t been practical to move it very far. It’s really meant for that one spot.”

After the season ends, the New Swan breaks down into portable modules.

“There’s a building near the production studio that it lives in during the off season. It fits in there like giant Legos. It breaks down into 15 towers. They’re put into the storage space like wedges of a pie.”

Unique in the Country

Simon thinks there are several reasons why his summer Shakespeare festival has established itself as an Orange County tradition.

“It really is something unique, and not only for Orange County. As far as I know, it’s unique in the country. It’s a great space for theater because it’s so intimate. It’s in the round. And we are able to stage plays much like how Shakespeare intended. We’ve been able to keep the level of artistry very high over the years. That matters to audiences as well.”

Photo courtesy of the Paul Kennedy/New Swan Shakespeare Festival

All seats in the New Swan theater are no more than four rows from the action.

Simon tends to use many of the same actors and other theater professionals from year to year, which keeps the quality high and eliminates the extra work of training people from scratch.

“That wasn’t something I set out to do, but part of making it work has been about keeping the special artists that we work well with and our audience enjoys seeing. We’ve had the same designers for years. (Kathryn) Wilson has been with us since day one. And a certain cadre of professional actors stay with us.”

The New Swan operates much like any other not-for-profit arts organization, despite its UCI affiliation, Simon said.

“It’s an independent operation, a professional theater company that runs with the support and encouragement of the university. We operate with two financial sources, ticket sales and donations. And everyone is paid, even our students. We do have interns on our crew backstage, but the actors are generally speaking professionals or in our acting program.”

Simon is proud that his organization is self-sufficient. “We’re able to finish in the black every year.” He doesn’t have any ambitious plans for the New Swan’s future, but he thinks it could grow a bit.

Photo courtesy of the Paul Kennedy/New Swan Shakespeare Festival

Meg Evans (left) and Hope Andrejack as Nerissa and Portia in the 2019 production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the New Swan.

“We’re performing as many shows as we can, and the only way we could expand the season is starting earlier or continuing past Labor Day. We could go into September.”

Simon has been teaching at UCI for more than three decades, but he has no plans to leave the university, or the New Swan, anytime soon, even though it means he hasn’t taken a proper summer vacation in years.

“I’m pretty happy here. It certainly is something surprising for me at this point in my career to be doing this. But it fits my lifestyle and ambitions pretty well. I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can.”

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.