"It's going to be wild," said Rebecca Ennals, artistic director for San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, which brings Free Shakespeare in the Park to Pleasanton each summer.
This year it will be Free Shakespeare in the Home via YouTube.
"The fascinating thing about watching this, once they get going, you start to forget they can't see each other," Ennals said.
Director Elizabeth Carter cast the 13 roles in "King Lear" before public performances began to be canceled. Jessica Powell stars in the title role, a white matriarch presiding over a multiracial family, as the tragedy unfolds of a nation disrupted by a vain and aging leader.
When staff realized the production must be online, it raised a lot of questions, Ennals recalled, such as whether it would be regulated by the Actors' Equity Association or the Screen Actors Guild. It turns out AEA gave SF Shakes one of the first contracts for this type of production in the country.
"What people should know is it does not look like a Zoom meeting," Ennals said. "That can be a fun way to listen to a play, but we wanted to do something different."
Enter Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), a streaming and recording program that lets cast members be brought virtually onto the set. The first item of business was to check out everyone's computers and Internet connections and provide some upgrades.
"Each actor is in their home studio, usually the corner of a tiny apartment, with a green screen, a lighting instrument and microphone," Ennals explained. "They are mostly standing there, with costume changes, makeup, blood -- because this is 'King Lear' -- and doing the acting alone in this tiny space."
Technical director Neal Ormond is in his home studio with three monitors and a Zoom screen showing all the actors. Using OSB, he arranges the actors in the space as the drama unfolds.
"It's incredibly technical -- and tiring," Ennals said, noting the actors must be presented in proportion to each other. "And the actors don't just get to relax and perform. They are standing on a mark they've made with masking tape on the floor, and there is another tape on the wall for them to speak to."
Every year the park productions include short zany shows before the play begins. This time three college-age performance interns, working with a writer and director, produced a 15-minute Green Show about "King Lear," which is available now.
During the "King Lear" live shows, YouTube members can join in a moderated community chat.
"You can watch the performance and chat along," Ennals said. "The chat is part of the community experience."
"Something actors miss is they can't hear people laugh or applaud," she observed. "When we get wonderful, supportive comments, we can send them to the actors. They crave that feedback."
The preview performance is this Saturday and Sunday; opening night is next Saturday (July 25). Performances will be at 7 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through September, plus a show at 4 p.m. on Labor Day.
Ennals pointed out that people can watch the show more than once or just parts of it on various days.
"It will be different every time, just like live theater," she said. "It is not a movie and not a film. This is what makes it a bit special."
And once it is over, no recording will remain, per the Equity contract.
The performances are sponsored by the cities of Cupertino, Redwood City and San Francisco, but Pleasanton opted out this year.
"Due to the impacts of COVID-19, the city is focused on providing essential services and ensuring the needs of the community are met," said Nick Binzoni, public relations coordinator for the city's recreation department. "We hope to bring back Free Shakespeare in the Park in the future."
Ennals hopes Pleasanton residents will view the virtual performances.
"The city of Pleasanton should still get their Shakespeare whether the city can afford it this year or not," she said. "We all have to support each other and get through these times."
Despite increased tech costs, the production will cost less than setting up at the usual five venues, Ennals noted, adding she was pleased the majority of the money is going to the individual artists.
"We never for a minute think this will replace live theater but it's a good way to uphold the tradition," she said.
To view Free Shakespeare at home, the Green Show or to check the schedule, which is subject to change, visit www.sfshakes.org.
About 'King Lear'
"The Tragedy of King Lear" is the story of a nation disrupted by a vain and aging leader who divides the kingdom among her daughters and renounces political responsibility without renouncing power. The result is family dysfunction, political strife, and a murky stage upon which few are who they purport to be.
Shakespeare composed the play in 1606 as he sheltered from a deadly plague ravaging London. A recently ascended King James struggled to unite England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and the nation was reeling from a failed terrorist attempt to blow up the king and Parliament.
This pervading state of distress in "King Lear" resonates with current crises, showing them curable by returning to the natural world and the core of our shared humanity.
Virtual Shakespeare Camps
San Francisco Shakespeare Festival has revised the format of its summer camps for online with hands-on, tactile production and design projects as well as scene work and one-on-one coaching.
Two sessions remain: July 20-31 and July 27 to Aug. 7. Campers are divided into Shakespeare Players (ages 7-13) and Upstart Crows (12-18), to study and perform "The Witches' Brew" (a collection of scenes from "Macbeth"), "Macbeth" and "King Lear." As with the traditional camps, a performance with family and friends is held on the final day.
"Storytelling in community is the kind of healing emotional release our children need right now, and as always, Shakespeare's language and themes provide us with the tools to express the big feelings that we're all experiencing," artistic director Rebecca J. Ennals said.
Robyn Grahn, who directed the spring's Saturday Upstart Crows classes, said, "When it comes to younger campers, what I've learned is that our tried-and-true theater games translate really well to the online environment; they help with listening, with confidence, and with creation."
The fee for two weeks of Virtual Shakespeare Camp is $695. Visit sfshakes.org or call 415-558-0888.