Orange County is home to two Shakespeare companies – one that’s fairly well-known, one that isn’t.

The Shakespeare O.C. Connection

Eli Simon shares the distinction of running a Shakespeare company in Orange County with two others: Tom Bradac, who founded Shakespeare Orange County, and John Walcutt, who took Bradac’s place when Bradac stepped down in 2013.

Walcutt was getting up and running with SOC just as Simon was moving into his second year running New Swan. So the two began a friendship anchored by their love of Shakespeare.

That connection solidified after Shakespeare OC completed its 2018 season, when Walcutt announced the company was closing its doors at its Garden Grove location. (Shakespeare OC produced an additional season in 2019 at Santa Ana College, but was unable to secure a permanent residency at the college.)

Walcutt says he still has more work to do in stoking the fires of interest in Shakespeare in the hearts and minds of theater students in Orange County – and that Simon and New Swan can help him with that mission.

Simon said he and Walcutt “have a close relationship” that revolves around Walcutt’s theater students from Orange County School of the Arts. Each season, New Swan hosts students from Walcutt’s class for a free performance of the current show. Through Simon, UCI has also offered seminars that tie in with whichever play New Swan is producing.

And now that New Swan has tested the post-pandemic waters, it’s looking at the 2023 season to expand its involvement with some of the young people who’ll make up the Shakespeareans of tomorrow.

“Next season,” Simon noted, “we’re hoping that John will help us establish an apprentice program for high school students, much like he ran at Shakespeare OC.”

Walcutt sees the partnership as a way of “rebuilding our (SOC’s) program with New Swan and adapting it to their program. “I want to recover the apprenticeship program and young actor’s workshop we had at Shakespeare OC because it was such a successful and vital part of SOC” and can continue to be so with his students from OCSA, giving them a chance to work around theater professionals.

Pre-pandemic, Simon and Walcutt had created a program for 20 OCHA theater students to intern with New Swan. The duo are now looking to the future to make the program a reality.

Walcutt reports that OCSA recently hired three acting program graduates of UCI’s Master of Fine Arts program to teach at the school – perhaps a Shakespeare-like omen of future success for the once and now future heads of Orange County’s Shakespeare companies.

Shakespeare Orange County is the more well-established and has a history that stretches back to 1991 and saw its demise in 2018 (see the sidebar). SOC’s sibling is not only younger, it has labored, more or less, in obscurity. Many theater fans and even those devoted to Shakespeare have likely not heard of it.

That company is New Swan. This is a notable year on two counts: The company reopened after more than two years of pandemic-imposed closure, and it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary.

New Swan’s home base is on the University of California, Irvine campus, and its performing space is anything but conventional – a modular, spherical structure that weighs 16 tons, about the same weight as a small military tank. Design-wise, the theater is a miniature version of a classic Elizabethan theater-in-the-round venue.

At the start of summer, with each new season, the structure’s modular units are rolled out of storage, moved to Gateway Plaza, and assembled into a 135-seat theater. During the first week of September, the New Swan Theater is then dismantled and placed back into storage.

(This reporter will attest to the fact that the space is conducive to a theater-going experience that’s pleasingly intimate, yet where patrons aren’t crowded together.)

Let’s take a look at New Swan’s origins and the nuts-and-bolts of the singular New Swan Theater.

New Swan: The Company and the Physical Structure

New Swan’s public face – and its founding artistic director and managing producer – is Eli Simon, a 34-year member of UCI’s drama faculty who has served as the department’s chair and head of acting.

The Irvine company’s namesake is the original Swan Theater, built between 1594 and 1596 in the district of Southwark across the Thames River from the city of London. Simon notes that “the only existing painting of an Elizabethan theater is of the Swan. That’s how we know what it looked like.”

He said “there was never any debate that we should name our theater the Swan” and that the name then evolved into the New Swan.

The design and construction processes were, according to Simon, a collaboration between faculty members and UCI administrators.

“My colleagues and I were discussing the configuration for a ‘perfect’ Shakespearean space. We agreed that it should be in the round, like the Globe, that it should be intimate, and that it should be portable so it could be set up in summer and stored in winter.”

The theater was designed and built by Luke Cantarella and Keith Bangs, both working within the drama department at the time – Cantarella as head of scenic design, Bangs as production manager. Simon said the duo approached the project as though it were an elaborate set being designed and built for a production: “We built it in our scene shop kind of like a set; that’s what we know how to do.”

Bangs credits Robert Cohen, the founding drama department chair, with planting the seeds of New Swan. “He would say how great it would be to have an outdoor theater.”

Bangs said he and Cantarella decided early on that classic theaters like the Swan and the Globe would provide the inspiration and “that we would need to build it in sections so we could set it up fairly quickly and move it from the storage area to the park.”

Construction of the project from start to completion spanned 10 weeks. Bangs said a framework of steel was agreed upon from the start. “Part of the concept,” he said, “was that we would use contemporary materials and not try to make it look different from what it was, so we used pipe, and a lot of wood – composite board, chipboard, particle board and plywood, much of which was from recyclable materials.”

The theater consists of 16 modular units, each weighing a ton. Each spring, university staffers use jacks, levers and dollys to get the segments loaded onto professional moving company trucks for transport from on-campus storage to Gateway Plaza, an open-space park area roughly three-quarters of a mile away.

Assembling the New Swan

A series of still photos, arranged in time-lapse fashion, of the New Swan Theater being assembled.

The original site was on the grass in the middle of the park – but Bangs said “because of the weight, we were afraid that without engineering and foundation work, it would sink into grass.” So Simon and Bangs located the present site on a cement pad Bangs said has existed since the adjacent library was built.

Bangs said the professional engineering firms contracted by the university “were concerned with how it attached to the earth” – so he and Cantarella designed and built an anchor system which the engineers installed into the concrete slab used at the site. The assembled theater is more than structurally sound, and Bangs notes that it’s engineered to withstand a 100-mph wind event.

Simon touts the finished product, the theater itself, as “the centerpiece of our festival.”

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Funding the New Venture

With Shakespeare Orange County already on the scene, did O.C. really need a second theater company and venue devoted to the works of Shakespeare?

Simon relates that UCI’s drama department has “a top-rated set of graduate training programs” and that “most top schools have a professional theater attached to them. We didn’t, but we had always wanted such an enterprise.”

In 2011, the Chancellor’s office singled out the drama department’s faculty, staff and entire department as a department of excellence. The honor carried a cash award. Simon, who was then department chair, and his colleagues “decided to build a theater that could be an enduring investment” and that “most of the funds” came from the windfall.

To test its viability, the innovative structure was initially set up on the stage of the Claire Trevor Theatre, where Simon directed “The Merchant of Venice” during the 2011-2012 academic year.

Those involved “then thought to put the theater outside on the plaza that summer” (2012) for an outdoor remounting of the same production.

Simon brought in veteran Shakespeare director Beth Lopes to stage “The Comedy of Errors” so that audiences could see a comedy alongside “Merchant.” Simon said he and his colleagues first believed the structure would host a few Shakespeare productions “for a couple of seasons, and that we could then repurpose it for outdoor events.”

Public demand dictated a different course.

The inaugural season was a limited run that quickly sold out. The second season was expanded to five weeks and also sold out. The current format of a summer-long run was created in 2014.

At around the same time, the annual pairs of productions began to be referred to as the New Swan Shakespeare Festival. Also established then: The same ensemble is used for each set of two plays. Actors have a way to display both comedic and dramatic skills and patrons can appreciate their versatility.

Simon notes that “the entire company” of each show – directors, stage managers, actors, designers and crew – is drawn from the drama department’s students and faculty. Department alumni, some of whom are now members of Actors’ Equity Association (the professional actors’ union), are frequently invited to participate, as in the current productions of “Pericles” and “Comedy of Errors.”

Keeping the Swan Afloat During the Pandemic

When the pandemic forced worldwide closure of live theater, Simon decided to produce a summer 2020 show anyway. “There’s nothing like live theater, but we didn’t want to go completely dark. We were trying to stay productive and viable and to continue the art form in some way.”

His solution was to once again stage “Midsummer,” one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, “experimenting with the Zoom format,” delivering the show, aptly retitled “A Midsummer Night’s Zoom,” as a webcast.

New Swan’s Production History

Since its founding, New Swan has staged two productions of “The Comedy of Errors” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and one production of each of these Shakespeare plays: “As You Like It,” “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Twelfth Night,”  “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “A Winter’s Tale.”

During the pandemic, the original plays “A Midsummer Night’s Zoom” and “All the World’s a Stage” were created as experimental productions to bridge the gap from March 2020 to this summer.

Click here to see a capsule video of New Swan’s production history.

Simon said the technology aside, the show was “a full-on production of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ We used a lot of the same actors that had been in our 2018 production of ‘Midsummer’.”

Technical challenges were easier to surmount than logistical ones: “We couldn’t even gather the actors at that time” for rehearsals, “so everyone worked from home in front of their computers. It was a way of creating theater where the convention of gathering (in person) was set aside.”

At the same time, Lopes was assembling and directing a cast for a New Swan production of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” that would be staged whenever the theater reopened. Simon said the company produced a film, “The Pericles Project,” based on the play whose purpose was “to introduce our patrons to ‘Pericles’ and to prepare the company” for a full production.

The second consecutive dark summer (2021) brought “All the World’s a Stage,” devised by Simon and once again tapping digital technology.

“I thought it would be interesting to bring people to Shakespeare through computers,” he said, “so I reached out to actors living in different countries and asked them to perform a piece of their choosing in their native language.” The various actors, he said, “also talked to us about the challenges of translating Shakespeare from English into whatever and what that process meant to them.”

Also in 2021, the company commissioned a film “Wherein I See Myself” in which an all-Black cast performs Shakespeare monologues.

These online, pandemic-born New Swan projects are still available on the company’s YouTube channel.

Complementing the comedy of “Errrorrs” is the historic sweep of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” a Shakespeare work rarely produced, so rarely seen by audiences, directed at New Swan by Shakespeare veteran Beth Lopes. Credit: Photo courtesy of New Swan Theater Company/Paul Kennedy

After the pandemic-imposed hiatus, the theater reopened this July. This time, it’s Simon’s turn to direct “Comedy of Errors” – deliberately misspelled “The Comedy of Errrorrs” and transported to the disco-era 1970s. This season’s non-comedic offering is Lopes’ staging of “Pericles, the Prince of Tyre.”

Like “A Winter’s Tale,” it’s the second time New Swan has selected a rarely-produced Shakespeare work. Both shows give Orange County audiences a chance to see all-new outdoor productions of the Bard of Avon, New Swan style.

Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at emarchesewriter25@gmail.com.


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