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Old Globe Looks To Shakespeare For Inspiration To Surviving Coronavirus

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Theaters rely on doing live performances but the coronavirus pandemic has forced them to close their doors and find new ways to deliver content and find audiences. The Old Globe Theatre quickly moved three strands of its programming online.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Back in the 16 hundreds. Shakespeare's globe theater had to close twice because of the bubonic plague. San Diego's old globe theater had to shutter its doors last month because of the coronavirus pandemic. KPBS arts reporter Beth Armando speaks with the old Globes artistic director, Barry Edelstein about how the Bard is inspiring the company as they move programming online.

Speaker 2: 00:26 Barry, like so many arts organizations, when the coronavirus pandemic hit and forced theaters to close, you guys had to pivot and find a new way to keep going and reach audiences. So what was that process like in trying to figure out what to do?

Speaker 3: 00:41 Um, scary and unsettling and strange, but also it gave us something to focus on amid all the upheaval. And that was really, really great. Our arts engagement department in particular, and I've got to tip my hat to freedom. Bradley Ballantine and his team, they saw this coming a good week before everybody else did and started drawing up plans. So they got a bit of a jump on everybody and were able to move the arts engagement programs of the old globe online really kind of instantaneously. It's been amazing to watch that happen.

Speaker 2: 01:16 Now one of these arts engagement programs is behind the curtain and explain what that's all about.

Speaker 3: 01:22 So the arts engagement department at the globe in normal times has about 16 different programs that they're taking around San Diego County, two hour now, vast network of nonprofit and government, municipal partners. So we're in homeless shelters and senior centers in refugee centers and in a very sophisticated way in prisons. So immediately we started saying, how are we going to serve these populations? They're core to our sense of ourselves. So the question became, what do we do? And, and, and a handful of the programs Rose to the top. Behind the curtain is a program that allows our audience to understand how a piece of theater gets made. So one of our teaching artists at the globe arranges a curriculum involving technicians from the theater designers, from the theater artisans, from the theater, who take us through, here's how props get made. Here's how sound gets designed. Then each program is an hour and you sort of go through and watch how a theater production is put together in ways that aren't the obvious ones of a director and a writer and an actor. And that's what behind the curtain is about.

Speaker 2: 02:27 And then another arts engagement program is community voices. And that involves some local artists.

Speaker 3: 02:33 So again, this is one that in normal times we're doing out in the field with multiple sessions going at the same time. And it's a play writing program. It's a way for community members who don't have any other writing experience or may not have any playwriting experience to try their hand at telling their stories in this magical art form of the theater. And so there's a curriculum that gets people understanding how stories get built, how characters made, how dialogue is created. And it leads over a period of weeks to the writing of a 10 minute play. So again, this has very, very smoothly moved over to a virtual world, thanks to zoom where you can have people interacting and it's been massively successful. So community voices and behind the curtain are our two flagship programs at the moment.

Speaker 2: 03:20 Now, not every arts organization in town has a Shakespeare scholar in their myths. So, uh, you have been able to put those particular skills you have to work sharing through thinking Shakespeare and sonnets. So explain the kind of things that you are offering to the community now.

Speaker 3: 03:38 So the globe is one of the great Shakespeare theaters in the country, as you know. And of course Shakespeare is my personal passion, but more than that, Shakespeare is my life wrapped in this thing. You know, after my wife and kids whose good cheer and optimism is carrying my family through, I've been turning the Shakespeare a lot and not just because the writing is so glorious and beautiful and uplifting and happy making sure, but also because he's a theater artist who knew what it was like to have his theater shutdown by disease. It happened multiple times during Shakespeare's career. And you know what? The theaters always reopened. They took some time to reopen, but they did. And when they did, people flocked and people came out. So I'm really pinning my hopes on Shakespeare's personal experience to be the inspiration for ours. So we do a program at the globe every year called thinking Shakespeare live where I get on stage with some actors and just demonstrate how Shakespeare's theater works in the mouths of professional actors and in the minds of professional directors.

Speaker 3: 04:34 Here's how we bring the language to life and we're going to try and figure out how to do a zoom based version of that a couple of weeks down the road. But in the meantime, there are these sonnets, 154 poems that Shakespeare wrote over the course of a number of years and they're all 14 lines long. So I thought there might be a way to take a short version and it's basically a half an hour where I zero in on one sonnet and just take people through it and help understand how the language works, what it's talking about, what the themes are, what's on Shakespeare's mind. And it culminates in people getting an opportunity to speak a Shakespearian sonnet of their own. I did one last night, I, I got emails today from Chicago, from Juneau, Alaska from all over the country where this thing is going out. And one of the real strange things about this moment is that in our first week of operation online, we had 12,000 views of our material. So if you add up the capacity of all three of our auditoria in Dubbo park at times eight performances a week, you don't get to 12,000. That is more, people have seen this online stuff in a week than see our physical work in Bilbo park. And I'm still scratching my head about the meaning of that.

Speaker 2: 05:46 Another program you have going is act breaks and how is this different from some of the other online programming you're offering?

Speaker 3: 05:53 So we basically have three strands of programmings going on. There's our arts programming that I told you about. Then we have our humanities programming and that's our online book club that, um, Danielle Amato is running a Shakespeare book, reading club, my Shakespeare thing. But then the third strand of our programming is our artistic output because we're a theater company and we have artists who make work and we want to get that out there. So that's where act breaks comes in. We basically reached out to our friends around the country and said, send us something.

Speaker 4: 06:24 Ebeneezer Scrooge. Yeah. Not used to seeing me at this time. If you got U I colleagues at the old globe today, say a few words on the subject, social distancing,

Speaker 3: 06:37 and we're just rolling those out a couple times a week. We've had Richard Thomas, Blair Underwood is about to roll out the great composer, Michael John LA Cuza. So many more who generously sat in their homes or apartments and just did something as a gesture of greeting and solidarity with the old globe community here in San Diego. And it's so touching and beautiful to watch all these talented people insist on self-expression and find a way to make art even in these very, very trying circumstances. So that's what act breaks is about.

Speaker 2: 07:11 Now. The programs we've been talking about are all ones that the globe is generating itself. You're also partnering on something called play at home. And what does this entail?

Speaker 3: 07:19 So a network of theaters on the East coast, the public theater and Baltimore center stage Willy mammoth in Chicago, the long Wharf in new Haven, st Louis rep, they got together and they said, well look, we, you know, we've got uh, playwrights in our orbit who are sitting at home stuck. And the existence of a playwright is, is tenuous at best. You know, you, you only are getting money when a performance of your show is on and royalties are coming in or your other source of income is a commission where you get a, a payment upfront to get a play going. And so our, our playwriting community is particularly vulnerable at this moment. And so this group of theater said, let's just commission some of our writers who are at home with a mini commission. It's not a lot of money to write a 10 minute play.

Speaker 3: 08:06 And the interesting idea about this play at home thing is the plays get uploaded to a website, which is [inaudible] play@home.org and people can just download, download them. At home and do performances in their living room. These are not plays that would ever be produced. And in fact, the instructions to the playwrights work, don't worry about having it produced. So if you want suddenly 15 unicorns to come running through, do it because there are no limits to what your imagination can create. And there've been thousands of downloads and people are sitting in their homes or wherever they're stuck and just putting on little readings of plays themselves in their, in their houses. And I just think it's so great. And uh, you know, almost all of our 15 commissions have come in. There's such a wide range of material, giant writers, wonderful playwrights, and it's just, it's just delightful and transporting to enter into their imaginations for a little while.

Speaker 2: 08:59 Live theaters could not really prepare for what has happened with the pandemic and having to close completely. How have you been kind of impressed by your own staff and by just the general response by the arts community to this pandemic?

Speaker 3: 09:17 The resilience has been breathtaking and frankly inspirational in, in a day. We went from working in our offices in Bellville park to working at home. The, the, the, the willingness of folks to roll up their sleeves, remain optimistic, do the work has been just stunning. And it's because, you know, all these nonprofit theater organizations, these arts organizations around the country are, are driven by values. We're nonprofits where we're not following some commercial impetus. We're actually following an ethos of public service and public good. And so if the circumstances change, we still have to hue to our missions and provide heart as a public good. And so that's what we're trying to figure out how to do. Now. You know, Beth, I don't want to paint too rosy a picture. I don't want to sound like some Pollyanna, you know, we have to furlough a massive number of our staff whose work is specifically geared, two productions being put on in Belvaux park.

Speaker 3: 10:16 That was horribly painful. The worst day in my 30 year career as an artist in the theater. So we have to take the inspiration of this extraordinary shift to the virtual world and weigh it alongside the pain that this upheaval has caused. And will cause down the road. And that's really the hard part is managing to contain both of those things in our minds at the same time. But as I said before, history tells us the theater will survive, will open again. We don't know when at the moment, but we'll open again and people will come and our artists we're create and our staffs will be thoughtful and smart and this art will continue.

Speaker 2: 10:59 And because Shakespeare is so central to your life, do you have a quote that you feel would be appropriate to end this interview on?

Speaker 3: 11:07 Okay, well you know last night I lie, yeah, this is sort of a great one. Last night in my sonnets program, I worked on sonnet 18 shall I compare the two a summer's day. And the way it ends talks about how art [inaudible] survive and will survive through anything. And I guess that's about the best quote I can think of. And it goes so long as men can breathe or eyes can see so long lives this and this gives life to the, and that this refers to Shakespeare's poetry in that case. But I'm going to use it to refer to theater so long as men can breathe. Our eyes can see so long lives this and this

Speaker 1: 11:53 gives life [inaudible]. That was old globe artistic director. Barry Edelstein speaking with Beth OCHA, Mondo. You can find all the old Globes online programming links on their website@theoldloeb.org.

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