Old Globe returns to Shakespeare with filmed version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Director Sam White, top left, and the cast of Old Globe/USD's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Director Sam White, top left, and the 14-member cast of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” featuring actors in the Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program.
(Courtesy photo)

The production, which streams Feb. 12-28, stars students in the Globe/USD graduate acting program


For the first time since the Old Globe shut down its three theaters last March, it’s bringing outdoor Shakespeare back to audiences next week — virtually, at least.

From Feb. 12 through 28, the Globe will stream a production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that was filmed, in part, in its empty Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in Balboa Park. It stars the 14 students in the Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program.

Directed by Sam White, the founding artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit, the production will reset the fairy-filled forest comedy in a Detroit auto factory during World War II. In this version, the play’s battle-of-the-sexes plot will be between women factory workers and the men who traditionally held those jobs before the war. The cast includes Henian Boone, Brett Cassidy, Christopher Cruz, Lily Davis, Jacqui Dupré, Savannah Faye, Komi Gbeblewou, Sarah Joyce, Christopher M. Ramirez, Jocelyn Renee, Klarissa Marie Robles, Claire Simba, Nathan VanAtta and Jonathan Aaron Wilson.

Bringing the play to life has been a tremendous challenge under strict COVID-19 safety measures that have prohibited the actors from rehearsing together in closed spaces and performing less than 6 feet apart. The film is a hybrid, edited together from a mix of self-filmed monologues by the actors in and around their homes, dialogue scenes filmed on Zoom and the final act of the play performed by all of the actors together on the Globe’s outdoor stage for one weekend last fall.

Jesse Perez, director of The Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program.
(Courtesy photo)

Jesse Perez, the director of the Shiley Graduate Theatre Program, said it has been a roller coaster 11 months for the grad students, who come from all over the country for the two-year program in classical acting, which usually culminates each summer with featured roles in the Globe’s outdoor Shakespeare productions. For second-year students in the program now, the pandemic has wiped out their opportunities to perform for audiences on the Festival stage in 2020 and 2021. So Perez said creating a high-quality virtual production for the students was a priority.

“When I watched the film, it was raw, and it made me cry, because all of a sudden you see them onstage,” he said. “They’re 6 feet apart, but there was this amazing moment that I can see where we’re headed.”

Sarah Joyce, a first-year student in The Old Globe/USD Shiley Graduate Theatre Program.
Sarah Joyce, a first-year student in The Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program.
(Courtesy photo)

First-year MFA student Sarah Joyce plays two regal characters in the production, fairy queen Titania and Athens queen Hippolyta. The New York native described the past seven months as both challenging and exciting because it has pushed the students to think outside the classroom box.

“I have been absolutely blown away by the creativity of my classmates,” she said. “Our creative muscles are definitely being strengthened.”

Trained at SUNY New Paltz college and the Stella Adler Studio, Joyce was accepted into the Globe/USD program last April, a month after the pandemic began. She moved to San Diego last August. Initially, faculty and students expected to have a hybrid semester on Zoom and in classrooms, but as the pandemic worsened, the students fell into a rhythm of working almost entirely virtually.

Perez took over the USD program in January 2019 after teaching for 12 years at The JuilliardSchool in New York City. Raised in Los Angeles by immigrant parents from Mexico, Perez overcame initial resistance from casting directors to build a significant and prolific stage career playing roles that may not have been offered to actors of color in the past, like his star turn as Richard III in “Seize the King” at La Jolla Playhouse in 2018.

Perez said his chief mission at USD is to make the graduate program more inclusive and equitable. The prestigious program accepts just seven students each year on full scholarship from a pool of several hundred hundreds of applicants. To build the current class, which is now about half BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) artists, Perez said the program has expanded its search nationally, including to the campuses of historically Black colleges and universities in the South.

Last spring, the students were days away from opening a student production of “The Visit” to audiences when the pandemic hit. The university shut down and the students left campus to finish their semester at home. Each student was issued a high-definition video camera, which they began using to film their own scenes at home.

Joyce said she and her fellow students have pushed hard to create authenticity with their home-filmed and Zoom scene work. Some shoot in different locations to fit the script. And many have perfected their Zoom scene-blocking so it appears they’re making eye contact in the same space. They also coordinate the use of duplicate props, so it can appear an object is being handed across to the other.

Through virtual means, the students performed in productions of Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “Measure for Measure” for their course work over the past year. But for “Midsummer,” the company’s first full streaming Shakespeare production since the pandemic began, the Globe raised the budget. Students were mailed props, costumes and other elements to create a cohesive look for the production. And White flew in for a weekend last fall to film the final scenes with the cast on the festival stage. Joyce called that weekend a “beautifully fantastic and hilariously bizarre experience.”

“It was such a pleasure to be on a stage and take up space again,” she said. “I got to project (my voice) instead of speak into the mike on my AirPods. I got to physically be near my fellow actors. I got to walk around in an absolutely beautiful wedding dress that the fantastic costume department tailored to my body perfectly after they walked me through how to measure myself via Zoom.”

As much as the pandemic has disrupted the program, Perez said it has had a few benefits. Hiring distinguished BIPOC teaching artists for the program had been a long-term goal, but the pandemic allowed him to move up the timeline. Many top actors and teachers have been idled since March, so they’re more accessible and affordable to recruit for online Zoom classes.

Among these new online recruits is the program’s new Shakespeare teacher Madeline Sayet, an American Indian woman who is executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program. And for the type of movement work that can’t be done online, Perez has hired Unkle Dave’s Fight House, a BIPOC stage combat company in New York, which will arrive in San Diego in the spring for socially distanced outdoor classes.

Another benefit of all the online camera work, Perez said, is that it has trained these theater-focused students in a new form of stage-to-screen acting that is likely to stick around, even after the pandemic ends. But Perez said he can’t wait for theaters to reopen so he can build a physical ensemble of actors. Neither can Joyce.

“Working in space with other actors is something I cannot wait to do again,” she said. “Being on stage and sharing space with my fellow actors is something I miss desperately. Mostly, I just really want to hug my classmates; this has truly been the hardest part for me.”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be available for free viewing Feb. 12 through 28 on the Old Globe’s YouTube channel, youtube.com/theoldglobe, and its website, theoldglobe.org.

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune