Quarantine Check IN: Delaware Shakespeare

David Stradley, Executive Director of Delaware Shakespeare

Jimmy Kimmel is streaming nightly monologues from home, Willie Nelson and John Legend are playing music online, and Broadway stars like Idina Menzel are singing and chatting from their homes.

Movie theaters, theatres on Broadway and London’s West End, and concert venues may have shuttered their doors because of the coronavirus pandemic, but actors, comedians, and musicians are giving life to the famous adage: The show must go on.

In Britain, a group of actors and directors said they will begin live-streamed readings of all of William Shakespeare’s plays on Thursday. “Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ while quarantined by the plague – if he carried on, we can too,” organizers said in a statement.

I caught up recently with Delaware Shakespeare’s Artistic Director David Stradley to see how he, and Delaware Shakespeare, are weathering The Tempest’s storm.  

Our call began with the too-often noticed joke now of “How are you?”.  How does one answer that nowadays? The typical answer seems to live somewhere between “same old same old”, or some reference to a tropical vacation they just returned from (i.e. their kitchen).  

David, and his small but nimble staff of four, have been doing well.  All are healthy and all are working diligently towards keeping the arts relevant and front of mind during these times of digital fatigue.  

Many of the arts groups in Wilmington have created digital content for their patrons, to help patrons connect to the art, and organizations, they love. Delaware Shakespeare turned theirs into a small fundraiser to help pay actors who each day recite one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

“We’ve been selling tickets for $30 that allow us to pay an actor to record one of Shakespeare’s sonnets,” said Stradley.  As of May 19, they had recorded 44.  With 154 sonnets in total, here’s to hoping that we don’t need all of them, am I right?

But Stradley has noticed something endearing about this venture. “What started as a series of recordings of myself and company member Cassie Alexander, has grown into audiences requesting specific artists that they’ve come to love with their ticket purchase”.

One of their key goals with this sonnet project? “To increase our diversity in front of the camera,” says Stradley.  “It is critically important to us that our patrons see and hear a multitude of different faces and voices speaking the Bard’s words”.

Aside from Delaware Shakespeare’s summer festival, one of their best-known activities is Shakespeare Day. 

This year’s was to be held on April 16 in Milford, DE. This celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday has typically been filled with local Delebrities, arts advocates, and community partners reading lines from all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays.

“It’s a whirlwind group activity – a fun, light-hearted event that honors the dizzying diversity and vitality of Shakespeare’s writing, and our community. It’s kid-friendly, too!” says Stradley.  

So what changed? “We took it all online.”  In what could only be described as a theatre buff’s favorite use of Zoom, more than 40 volunteers invested their time and WiFi towards celebrating how Shakespeare’s words bring the community together.

One of the best outcomes of the event? The sense of community that was felt through the audience. Specifically, a portion of the event where front-line essential workers from Janssen’s Market, Christiana Care, Kenny Family ShopRites, and the USPS contributed to Shakespeare Day.

The workers were:
Danielle, Alberto, and Megan from Janssen’s Market
Megan, Janice, and Dmitri from Christiana Care
Harry from USPS (David Amado’s mail carrier)
Mike, Victor, and Cassandra from Kenny Family ShopRite

What else are they doing to stay in front of their patrons? A new online salon entitled “Tales From Tour, Vol. 1” takes participants on the road with three actors from Delaware Shakespeare’s Community Tours as they share stories from the road and how they bring Shakespeare to all.

If you’ve ever wondered how Shakespeare performances are received in prisons, homeless shelters, or at the Delaware Psychiatric Center, you’ll want to tune in!

In this interactive discussion, actors Newton Buchanan, Danielle Leneé, and Bi Jean Ngo tell of their transformative experiences sharing Shakespeare with the full spectrum of humanity – up and down the First State.

This and many other salons will be held online (via Zoom) and can be accessed by purchasing a ticket through their website.  Tickets will start at $20 – a small investment in the future of the arts in Delaware. You can find more information about this upcoming salon on their website at https://delshakes.secure.force.com/ticket/#/events/a0S2S00000Ux2x7UAB

But the best-known activity of Delaware Shakespeare is their summer programming at Rockwood Park. 

This year’s performance was to be “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s magical tale of forgiveness and family, with a scheduled run of July 17-August 2, 2020.  

However, due to the guidelines in place to reopen Delaware’s economy, and to the overall public health climate surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Delaware Shakespeare recently made the decision to postpone THE TEMPEST until the summer of 2021.

“Rehearsals were to begin June 16,” says Stradley. “With physical distancing requirement in workplaces, we just couldn’t see any way to safely gather thirty artists in an indoor studio for an active rehearsal process while still following public health guidelines.”

Physical distancing requirements for large public gatherings are likely to still be in effect in July. Stradley and his team mapped out reasonable physical distancing at Rockwood Park and discovered it would reduce the audience size to 30% of its capacity.

“The math didn’t exist,” says Stradley. “We’re unable to create the planned production of “The Tempest” in a fiscally responsible manner with only one-third of budgeted ticket sales.”

Delaware Shakespeare is now brainstorming innovative, smaller-scale performance options that they may be able to offer for physically-distanced audiences at Rockwood Park if public health conditions continue to improve. 

“We have ideas for a cabaret featuring the great original music we’ve created for productions over the years, or a site-specific event where actors share soliloquies to very small groups of roving audience members,” says Stradley. “We’re also making sure that in-person programming would have a virtual option, to serve people who may not yet feel ready to venture out.”

What’s their vision forward? “We’ll strive to explore our shared humanity through these plays; and we continue to give serious thought to how we can continue to reach across social barriers through our programming,” says Stradley. “We’ve made great strides taking our Community Tour to people from every walk of life in Delaware – prisons, shelters, community centers, and more. We want to make sure our new digital programming just doesn’t get to ‘traditional’ theatre-goers – and that the programming can forge connections. ‘We’re all in this together’ is a lovely sentiment, but we’ve seen how this pandemic has impacted some people more severely and often in line with previously existing inequalities. If you get people from different social sectors to have a shared experience, barriers start to fall. No matter the medium, we’re going to try to bring people together with Shakespeare.”

To learn more about Delaware Shakespeare’s work including their summer Festival, to purchase a ticket to any of their digital programming, or to make a donation to their mission, visit DelShakes.org.