Shakespeare Organizations during COVID-19: Undiscovered Shakespeare: The Wars of the Roses

photo of Sean Kellen

Tell us a bit about Undiscovered Shakespeare: The Wars of the Roses. What can someone who tunes in expect to see?

Undiscovered Shakespeare is a free series of live readings and discussions of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, broadcast through a Zoom webinar. The series meets every Wednesday evening (PST) for ten weeks, between July 1 and September 2. Each broadcast begins with a dramatic reading of approximately one-third of a play by ten professional actors (four from Actors’ Equity). After a brief intermission, the broadcasts continue with a discussion of the play that is led by a visiting scholar. Members of the audience are able to pose questions and make comments to the scholar as well as to the directors, the cast, and the dramaturgs. The tenth broadcast will be a dramatic reading of the entirety of Richard III with no discussion afterwards. All are welcome to drop in and drop out as time permits!

Could you tell us a bit about the project’s conception and the collaboration between Santa Cruz Shakespeare, UCSC Shakespeare Workshop, and The Humanities Institute?

UCSC Shakespeare Workshop is a research center of The Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz that I founded when I joined the Literature faculty here in 2012. SW works closely with Santa Cruz Shakespeare during the summers to create public programs that enrich the experience of attending the plays in the SCS season. When the pandemic made it impossible for SCS to perform in summer 2020, Mike Ryan (the Artistic Director at SCS) and I decided that we had to do something to keep our large community of Bardophiles together, and to support actors and directors who would not otherwise have work. We felt strongly that the pandemic was an opportunity to educate people about plays in Shakespeare’s repertoire that they would likely never read or see on the stage. The three parts of Henry VI and Richard III fit that bill. So we resolved to expand our regular, in-person summer program, Weekend with Shakespeare, into a ten-week series. SCS won an NEH “Exploring the Human Endeavor” grant to support the project on the creative side. SW provided funding for a dramaturg, planned the scholarly visitors and discussions, and, with the staff at THI, partnered with the University’s Office of Special Events to promote the series and host it on the University’s Zoom platform.

This series focuses on plays that reflect a similar division to what we currently see happening today. What are the goals of the project?

The main goal of the program is to show how extraordinary the marriage of production and scholarship can be. In the process, we also aim to meet a need that the pandemic makes it difficult to satisfy. I am committed to the idea that public universities should be cultural institutions. Mike, for his part, is committed to the idea that professional theaters have an educational mission. In our community, Shakespeare’s works are a public commons where people with diverse experiences and backgrounds meet and explore topics of shared concern with each other. The condition of possibility for our work together is our community’s expectation that in Shakespeare’s plays, they will find perspectives on themselves to which they would otherwise be blind. This year especially, our humanities and our theater had to be there for them. Last week, I was so happy to read this comment from an audience member: “Thanks for taking the chance to fill in one of the gaps COVID has gouged out of our lives.”

Was it initially intended to be online-only? What impact, if any, has COVID-19 had on the series?

Yes. US was always intended to be online. It’s a brainchild with a pandemic for a midwife.(See #2.) Happily, none of the people directly involved with project have been ill. We are all very glad to be able to share the experience of live theater and lively discussion with large audiences without jeopardizing anybody’s safety.

You’ve had a fantastic turnout—about 500 people joined the first session! Could you tell us a bit about the feedback from participants?

Yes, we have had more than 500 unique sign-ons for the first two broadcasts, which means that at least that many people are tuning in, assuming that one sign-on equals one viewer. But if we assume that there is more than one person watching the screen behind each sign-on, then the size of the audience is likely much higher. The interest—in Henry VI! on Zoom! at dinner time!—has been a total, thrilling surprise. Mike and I were hoping for an audience of maybe 100 to 150. The audience response during the discussions has also been terrific. Most people tuning in stay for the full ninety minutes to two hours. The discussion is lively and focuses both on questions of interpretation and history and on matters of rehearsal and performance. So far, the most frequent topics of discussion have been what Shakespeare is doing with his sources in these plays and how the actors and directors are adapting their work to the webinar format. I hope that anyone who is curious about Undiscovered Shakespeare will register for the webinar and see how they like it.

Is there a moment or lesson in any of these plays that especially spoke to you?

I believe that everyone in the project would answer this question in a different way, appropriately so. I myself have been reflecting on the causes of the crisis that befalls English society in these plays. It seems to me that it is not sufficient to say that the root of the problem in the first tetralogy is that England has an inexperienced and ineffective king. There is more at stake here than the nature of monarchy or the competence of any particular king. If we open ourselves to the possibility that Shakespeare is capable of speaking to us as well as about the past, we can see that by casting human history in the mold of tragedy, he gives us the picture of a society where there is no consensus about the common good–a society where personal ambition has so completely displaced the common good from attention, that neither elites nor commoners can discern a difference between those concepts. It’s a sobering vision and, for me, it brings our bewildering circumstances into sharp focus.