Blog Post

NAKED SHAKES 2020: Virtual Performance and Real Life, The Past and the Present

Eunwoo Yoo | May 20, 2021

NAKED SHAKES is a performance program at UCSB offered by the Department of Theater and Dance that has been presenting Shakespearean productions since 2006. Its mission is to present energetic, exciting, raw, vibrant theater by transforming the barren stage into a fascinating take of Shakespeare through the power of the actor and language. The program centers the multilayered experience of theater brought about by words and acts. NAKED SHAKES explores the imaginative world depicted by the Poet and the performers, and the real world in which the stage and audiences are situated. 

For the summer production of 2020, the artistic director of NAKED SHAKES, Irwin Appel, staged an original adaptation titled Immortal Longings. He brilliantly brought together Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra — along with George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra to fill out the story of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar’s romantic relationship to compose this new piece. The play follows the complete journeys of characters including Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Marcus Brutus, Octavius Caesar, and the great queen Cleopatra over the course of nearly four hours. 

Due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, NAKED SHAKES presented its first online production.As a dramaturg for this online production of Immortal Longings, my first job was to dissect Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, in order to assist the director/adapter with the process of adapting the play. We not only cut scenes and lines out, but rearranged sequences and even added what was not initially in Shakespeare to create an original script. Once the script work was done, we began the tablework — the process of “digesting” the play, with the director and dramaturgs explaining to performers what the play is about and what the production wants to do with it, and meticulously going through it line by line so that the performers have full understanding and control of their characters, the plot, the language, and the context. The whole process of editing and discussing, of course, was also done remotely over the internet, through shared Google documents and Zoom meetings. The setup was often challenging due to internet connection issues and intensified fatigue, but since it allowed crew members to multitask, it also felt quite efficient at times. As the cast read through their lines, I created an annotated version of the script, explaining the meanings of archaic vocabularies and proverbial expressions, historical references and allusions, often with suggestions on how to articulate them. The director or an actor would call out for assistance if they were caught up in a line that was difficult to understand due to its language or some contextual background behind it, then I could jump in and help them out. 

Aside from the basic explanation of the text, Peter Eckersall, a dramaturg and a Professor and Executive Officer in the PhD program in Theatre and Performance at City University of New York, proposes the concept of dramaturgy as a summation of composition and politics. Composition wise, Immortal Longings had to be innovative due to its setup as an online performance. The Zoom platform used for this production, clearly not designed for performance purposes, had its limitations, but also brought about some fascinating opportunities. First and foremost, it allowed the cast and crew to come together from all over the world. We had a cast and crew joining the virtual stage from  Isla Vista,  Chicago, New Jersey, and myself in South Korea. Immortal Longings premiered for audiences that were also situated all around the world. NAKED SHAKES tried to make the most out of this setup by making use of the spaces of the casts’ homes: moving around the rooms or even in the gardens alongside their cameras to create a dynamic effect as suited to the battle scenes, or employing some furniture at an actor’s as a theatrical property. 

The technology that facilitated the production to transcend physical distances further benefited the performance with some unique features of Zoom. While some scenes actively took advantage of the landscape, other scenes adopted virtual backgrounds to furnish the online stage with unity and aid the audiences in their suspension of disbelief. A backdrop of blue wooden planks decorated the scene on Pompey’s ship, whereas characters appearing in Cleopatra’s court embellished their backgrounds with glittery golden colors. In addition to the use of virtual backgrounds, the crew also created slideshows introducing each part, with images and background music. These clips were presented through screen share by the stage manager, setting the stage and the tone for each new part to be unfolded. Through these staging choices, NAKED SHAKES turned the individually separated spaces of each performer, which could have struck as a shortcoming for the lack of coherence, to serve the performance instead.

While the production benefited from Zoom, one limitation that our online performance encountered was the near impossibility of physical interplay between the players. In Immortal Longings, there are many instances where characters should be interacting with one another in a corporeal manner: the stabbing of Julius Caesar by the senators, the brawling scene between Roman men, the kissing of Antony and Cleopatra, the crowning of Cleopatra by her lady, to name a few. By means of approaching or distancing themselves from their cameras, the performance utilized the framing of the rectangular Zoom screens; and it also carefully arranged the order of appearance and disappearance of each performer to make use of the rectangular videos’ positioning alongside one another. This enabled the creation of reciprocal dynamics as if the players were actually being next to, or behind, or facing, or even surrounding others. 

As we find ourselves in this pandemic reality, questions inevitable arise when we face an online performance such as Immortal Longings: is it still theater if it is “staged” on the screen? If not, is it a cinematic piece even though it is performed live? This form of performance appears somewhat precarious and ambiguous at a glance. However, as the cast and crew came together to rehearse and perform our play, we quickly came to find that, rather than some alternative to in-person theatrical performances or a live form of a film, our production is something new and more. 

But why this play, and why in 2020? Prior to the hit of the pandemic, the U.S. was already entering a phase of political unrest in the face of the 59th presidential election. The chaotic circumstances were only exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and the unjust deaths of many black lives, which marked 2020 as one of the most fraught and discordant times politically and socially, at least in the United States if not globally. As aforementioned, dramaturgy is about composition, but it is also about politics and action. Although the compositional part of dramaturgical work for Immortal Longings faced numerous challenges and had to be versatile in order to work through the novel platform, the latter aspect of dramaturgy remained intact despite the format.

As a way of responding to what one must confront, Immortal Longings tells the narratives of the Ancient Roman (and Egyptian) characters to show the fall of the Roman Republic and the dawn of the Roman Empire with their trajectories. In this process, NAKED SHAKES addresses issues of power, tyranny, ideals, honor, trust, and love. The strife of the characters in the play are no different from the strife of individuals easily found around us in the present day: the endeavor to defend the values upheld and the struggle for power and dominance. Of course, one should not attempt to draw an anachronistic, neat parallel between Ancient Rome/Egypt and the United States. Nevertheless, in producing Immortal Longings, NAKED SHAKES acknowledges how the problems pivotal to Shakespeare’s own time are projected onto Ancient Rome and Egypt in the plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra have followed us to this day, through a lineage of their own. Thereby, those living the history of the twenty-first century stumble across the resonances of the ancient world and the early modern text, connected by the power of performance. 

As the individual, domestic struggles unfolded in Immortal Longings, they epitomized the toil of an entire civilization, audiences come to realize that quasi-mythic ancient figures such as Julius Caesar or Mark Antony are, in fact, just as flawed and frail as any other human beings around us. NAKED SHAKES — or more specifically, Janine Leano and I as co-dramaturgs to the production — aspires to bring this realization to the fore, to point to the immense power of human-made systems and socio-political unrest. Within an imperfect system during a turbulent period, one may rise to power so high as not only to influence but even dictate the fate of many with just a word or even a lift of one’s hand. Observing that power comes structurally and rather coincidentally, instead of from an individual’s extraordinary excellence, Immortal Longings strikes its spectators with the “what if” questions: what if you were to have such power? What would you do to keep it? What would you do to defeat it?