April 1, 2020

Shakespeare Enthusiasts Keep Plays Alive Through Remote Technology

ZOOMING IN ON SHAKESPEARE: McCarter Theatre’s Shakespeare Community Reading Group usually meets in the main lobby. But staying at home has meant a transition for the participants, who now meet digitally via Zoom.

By Anne Levin

With the remainder of its season canceled and both halls dark, McCarter Theatre Center is anxious to keep the public engaged and ready to return once the COVID-19 crisis subsides. The Shakespeare Community Reading Group, which allows amateur actors to read aloud together the works of the celebrated playwright, seemed an ideal candidate for transitioning to remote technology.

Last week, they held their first gathering via Zoom. Seated in their living rooms and kitchens instead of around a table in the McCarter lobby, participants delivered a spirited reading of The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act I – Act III, Scene 3. McCarter’s Artistic Engagement Manager Paula Alekson, who oversees the program, said the reading got positive reviews from those who took part.

“The first Zoom meeting was an experiment for sure,” she said. “For that inaugural one, we mostly went out to people who are on the regular attendance list, just to say, ‘let’s try.’ People were so enthusiastic and excited, and comments I got afterward included so many expressions of thanks for making the opportunity possible. The next one is April 7, and I know we’ll have a big group.”

The reading group was started seven years ago by Karen Sisti, a Princeton University administrator with a love of Shakespeare. “It was a pre-existing group,” said Alekson. “She knew she wanted to always have Shakespeare be a part of her life. So she started with a bunch of friends. She wrote to me one day out of the blue, asking if they could use McCarter as a place to meet. I told her I couldn’t offer her space, but could invite her to partner with me, and then McCarter could give us the space. She was so up for it.”

The original group of 15 has grown to more than 215 on the mailing list. Pre COVID-19 days, the group would meet in the McCarter lobby on a Tuesday night, have coffee, and then do a round-robin reading of a play. It usually takes two meetings to get through a play, Alekson said.

Shakespeare appeals to people in for different reasons. “Part of it is just love of the language, and part is the challenge of it,” said Alekson. “Usually those drawn to the program have had a positive experience with Shakespeare, either in school or as part of their upbringing. Or maybe they saw a play or a movie, and got hooked on it. I also think it’s the stories themselves, and the surprising way something written over 400 years ago is timeless, and encompasses this universality of human emotion and human experience.”

For participant Jim Brittain, it’s about the words. “It’s certainly not the plots, because he stole most of them,” the former substance abuse counselor said of the playwright. “It’s really about the language, which is beautiful, and the characters, which are interesting and multi-faceted. The interactions are terrific. And the language is amazing. There is certainly not another writer in the English language, or anywhere, like Shakespeare.”

Fellow participant Sarah Staats agrees. “It’s about the poetry of his words, the intricate layers of plotting that you can not only hear, but can read along with, and the fun of mixing readers who know the works with those who are stumbling through,” she wrote in an email. “I love the theatre and live performance in general. Reading Shakespeare with a group of people sitting around a table in the lobby of McCarter Theatre just plain makes me feel good.”

ETS Assessment Developer Kristina Bobo, whose work involves literature and composition for college students, said it is much about the scenarios of Shakespeare’s plays as it is about the language. “The situations are accessible, reflective of things happening in people’s lives,” she said. “They make you think about the world around you.”

Participants come from varied backgrounds. “The group exposes me to people I would have no chance to meet otherwise,” said Bobo. “There are people who do acting, and those with no professional connection whatsoever to drama. Everybody comes with a different interest, and it’s nice to come together as one unit for a couple hours. Paula does a wonderful job making the space welcoming to everyone.”

Alekson stresses that the group is open to all. Registration is required. The next session is April 7 at 7 p.m. Visit mccarter.org for details and registration.

“What we’re trying to figure out at McCarter right now is how can we reach out to patrons and the community to bring light and entertainment and meaning to life while everyone’s trapped inside,” Alekson said.

Participants in the group have welcomed the transition to meeting online. “Social isolation is difficult,” said Brittain. “Doing this with Zoom was the first chance I’ve had to interact with other faces. To be able to do this with Shakespeare was a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to the next one.”