The actor and director Irwin Appel was talking the other day about William Shakespeare.
“He wrote and performed in a health epidemic,” said Appel of the Bard’s work during the bubonic plague. “It devastated his society; it ruined businesses. He was going through a lot of what we’re going through now, and you can find the plague in his plays. In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers die because Friar John is quarantined and can’t get a letter to Romeo.”
Appel, who will direct a streaming production of Southwest Shakespeare Company’s The Merchant of Venice on Saturday, May 23, said he’d been thinking a lot about how Shakespeare maintained creativity during a pandemic. He’s a professor of theater at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and admitted that, when word of the coronavirus pandemic first reached him, he wasn’t sure how to proceed with his own work. How, he wondered, would he teach two Shakespearean acting courses when he couldn’t be in the same room with his students?
“We can’t concentrate much on staging the way we normally would,” he explained. “But we can focus on language, and on breaking down the verse and imagery and meaning of Shakespeare’s text. We are actually doing good work. In fact, I’m getting ready for a midterm presentation where 21 students are making streaming monologues. It’s an experiment.”
Acting and directing outside the classroom were something else again. At first, Appel acknowledged, he was depressed to have his craft taken away. “Then an interesting thing happened. I acted in the Southwest Shakespeare reading of Henry V. And I thought, ‘Okay, there’s something going on here. The technology is crude, and the circumstances that got us here aren’t good. But look at us. We’re artists, and we’re handling adversity well. And out of that we’re coming up with creative ideas, and isn’t that what art is about?’”
Appel did subsequent Southwest Shakespeare internet productions, acting in Richard III and directing Romeo and Juliet. There was, he decided, a new medium being born. “It’s some kind of hybrid,” he said. “It’s not theater, or TV, or film, and it’s not the televised theater we’ve seen before. It reminds me of what it must have been like in the early days of television, when everyone was figuring out the medium, how to combine traditional skills of acting and directing with cameras and closeups and all that.”
The learning curve was steep. When Appel directed that virtual Romeo and Juliet, he wanted to score it with contemporary music.
“We couldn’t get it to work,” he confessed. “The computer audio sounded terrible and trying to make it happen was cutting into rehearsal time. I finally gave up.”
He’s sorry it took a health crisis to open up new opportunities for students of the Bard. “But it’s caused teachers, students, actors, everyone to discover things we wouldn’t have. Like how we’ve shifted focus to amazing Shakespeare productions that are streaming online, things that wouldn’t normally be available, like the Binnen und Buten Theater in Berlin. We’re seeing Shakespeare as it’s performed in different countries, which you wouldn’t normally get to do. And I’ve been a virtual guest teacher in China and Poland, and in one class I just spontaneously did the ‘To be or not to be’ speech, totally unprepared, and these Chinese students were talking about how magic it was.”
The realization that students halfway across the globe were responding to his soliloquy-making was exciting to Appel. “This is hokey,” he said, chuckling. “But it felt like we had a moment of world peace. We wouldn’t have thought to make this happen, to connect Shakespeare students in China with grad students in Poland.”
Stateside, Appel was impressed with the size of the audiences Southwest Shakespeare pulled together for its virtual performances. But he couldn’t, he confessed, help wondering what viewers were doing while his actors played at rogues and peasant slaves. “Are they watching every moment?” he asked, laughing again. “Are they ironing? Are we like a podcast in the background while they’re working on something else?”
He imagined there wouldn’t be a lot of ironing going on during the upcoming Merchant of Venice, which will stream on Facebook Live and Zoom, and feature his friend of 35 years, Patrick Page. Most people who’ve heard of Page know him as the recently Tony-nominated Broadway star of Hadestown, but Appel knows Page as one of the world’s great Shakespearean actors. “I can’t believe we get to do this together,” he said. “And that people all over the world will get to see it.”
Recently, someone had asked Appel about Portia’s Merchant of Venice soliloquy, the one about “the quality of mercy.” It had, he agreed, some new meaning during the current world health crisis.
“It’s a speech about compassionate treatment and justice,” he pointed out. “And we’re not getting as much of that as we need right now. But that’s the thing about doing Shakespeare. It resonates no matter what time we’re in, or what’s going on around us.”