By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor
In seventh grade, I performed Shakespeare on stage for the first time. With a floppy green hat on my head and tights worn under bright green pants, my thirteen-year-old self was exposed to the centuries-old art of reciting William Shakespeare’s classic scripts and engaging in stage combat when necessary.
Almost nine years have passed since that experience. I wonder what my thirteen-year-old self would say if she saw my most recent Shakespearean performance.
On October 25, the Yeshiva University Shakespeare Club held its first event: an online reading of “The Tempest”, which took place over Zoom and was live-streamed on YouTube.
While I have seen plenty of reimagined Shakespeare performances on stage, not to mention reimagined novel and film adaptations (including the iconic “Taming of the Shrew” adaptation “10 Things I Hate About You”), producing a Shakespearean play over Zoom was an experience I never expected to have. While there were difficulties with adjusting classic theatre to the new format, Zoom brought some unexpected benefits as well.
One of the biggest issues we expected as the cast planned for the performance was losing the onstage movement and blocking. Theatre is such a physically demanding experience, especially in a show such as “The Tempest” which often relies on physical comedy. Director Sarit Perl and I worried about losing important aspects of the play along with losing the physical on-stage presence of comedic characters such as Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. However, the cast dealt with losing physical space and stage presence with grace. For example, Rivka Shapiro conveyed the role of Ariel using props (such as swimming goggles), makeup effects, and virtual backgrounds, whereas Kesser Frankiel stepped into the role of the drunken Stephano with a slurring accent.
Another problem that arose was one everyone has become intimately familiar with during the COVID-19 pandemic: technical difficulties. Less than an hour before the show, Perl, “stage manager” Elazar Krausz, and I experienced difficulties getting the show to live-stream on YouTube. As the cast members joined the Zoom call, they joined in our struggle to make sense of the buttons and logins. With about ten minutes to spare until “curtain,” we managed to get the live-stream operation up and running.
Despite the many difficulties, there were some features of the Zoom Shakespeare experience that I felt fortunate to have. For example, we no longer needed to worry about the locations of the actors. While many of the cast members were based in New York, that was not the case for every person involved. Some actors, such as Talya Stehley (who played the roles of Francisco, Boatswain, Ceres, and Spirit), auditioned in their home cities and, by the time of the performance, had moved to new locations such as the campus dorms. Meanwhile, others, such as Julia Polster (who played Ferdinand), performed their roles several states away from New York. In a typical, physically staged Shakespeare production, such actors would not have been able to be a part of the show due to location. However, virtual Shakespeare granted access to those living further away.
We also enjoyed being able to communicate with one another during the show. While scenes went on, our Zoom chat was highly active. We complimented each other on voices, motions, and makeup. We signaled that someone was too quiet or too loud. We shared new revelations about the text. Having a form of constant communication allowed us to feel connected, despite being far away from one another.
Overall, Shakespeare on Zoom was not the disaster I would have thought it would be pre-COVID. We had challenges and obstacles to face, but is that not true of any theatrical production? During the pandemic, we have all learned to accept that some things are imperfect. But producing “The Tempest” online has taught me that some things are perfect in their imperfections.
I would like to think that my green-clad thirteen-year-old self would be proud — and that The Bard would be as well.